Now’s the time for companies to look back on the good, bad, and ugly of this past year and determine what they can do better in the next year. But according to professional service strategist James “Alex” Alexander, most field service organizations aren’t conducting year-end assessments at all. The ones that are aren’t getting the most of them.

The SmartVan spoke to Alexander, who recently wrote on year-end reviews, to get some insight into the importance of year-end reviews. and what most companies are doing wrong.

What’s something most field service managers never ask during an assessment that they really should?

Alexander: To be honest with you, the majority of field service managers never do an assessment. They’re so bound up in the realities of the job. Most of these guys view their job as highly tactical; it’s driven by productivity numbers. They’re trying to maintain the business, yet respond when the ship goes south. In my experience, even with the bigger and more experienced companies, the only kind of assessments that occur are when a major change comes about, when a company is asking folks to do something different than they’ve done before. The smart ones say, “along with trying to change behavior, we need to take a look at the broader picture here.”

Why aren’t more field service organizations doing year-end assessments?

No. 1, I’d guess it’s not something they’re used to doing. I’d guess many of them have never done it before and have no experience doing it. They need some sort of motivation — a value-proposition — to try something new. The other thing is they likely have no idea what to do.

What kinds of year-end conversations are just a waste of time?

The classic example of that is the annual performance reviews. They’re usually just a crock. As far as driving behavior, they’re one of the worst things ever invented. If you talk to most people, it’s highly de-motivational. Management hates it; the person being appraised hates it. Seldom is there any behavior change out of it. I think people would get a lot more benefit in talking about moving ahead and forgetting about what happened in the past: using your headlights instead of taillights.

So what’s the most effective way managers can conduct assessments?

I’d take the top 10 percent of performers, sit down with them one-on-one, and pick their brains on everything they do and compare that with everyone else within the company. In most situations you’ll find a handful of things they’re doing differently than everyone else. Then I’d try and build that into the system to raise the ladder with the average performer. Why not tap into the brainpower they have out there, learn from the star people and turn it into a motivational exercise?

Service organizations should also be asking their customers, Do you mind sharing with me what your very best suppliers do that we can then learn from? Questions like that can be phenomenally insightful and really motivate people.

Do managers take these seriously enough?

I think it’s something that really doesn’t come to mind much. It’s the end of the year. The management team has just gotten its new orders and budget and focus, and now they’re scrambling to put it all into place. There really is no assessment. It’s not because these people are dumb; it just doesn’t come to mind because they’re all wrapped up running the business.

Is it hard to get real, candid and honest answers out of employees?

Employees are like everyone else. Most of the time their answers are going to be sugar-coated or sometimes they’re going to actually lie to you. The textbook way to avoid that is for managers to be totally transparent, upfront, and honest. And over time people will respect you enough to give you honest answers.

The other part of it is something I used to do: I’d go out and ride with people a few days at a time. The first day or two people can keep up a facade — call the customer ahead of time and make things go the way they want. But eventually you’ll wear them out and when they see you don’t have a hidden agenda and aren’t trying to pull the wool over their eyes, then you get to see what’s actually going on. Doing this you’ll get a heck of a lot of information you’re not going to get anywhere else. I’ll guarantee that there are very few service managers who spend 10 percent of their time in the field.