Editor’s note: Donald B. Stephens is a 30-year senior customer service engineer with the Xerox Corporation. As he knows well, even the best-intentioned management strategies can have negative aspects. Here, Stephens explains why service managers can get more out of their techs by serving as a buffer to corporate programs that come down the pike — especially those created without the service department’s needs in mind.
Anyone who has been employed by a company that is larger than a mom-and-pop business has experienced a silly management program. They often add little or no value to the service-end of the business because they weren’t really designed with service in mind, but we get saddled with them anyway.
If you’re a service manager for a company of any significant size, chances are you’ve sat in a meeting when someone suggests a new idea — “teaching your employees how to prepare a PowerPoint presentation,” for example — to make your techs better workers. After the meeting you ask yourself: How in the world is this going to help my techs be more productive in the field, where they are 99.9 percent of the time?
You know the answer — but you’re going to present the program anyway because you’re a team player and, well, ignoring it might get you in trouble with your boss. So how do you go about introducing a program that will be unpopular with your service team?
Dropping the Hammer
As I wrote in my last post, technicians are serial complainers; it’s what we do best. It won’t take long for your techs to start throwing around phrases like: This is B.S.!, or Who thought up this brilliant idea — your 3-year-old son?, or I’m not wasting my time with that.
Many managers will get frustrated as soon as the negativity starts and tell their techs that they better get in line or face corrective actions that will be much worse than the program itself. And if the team continues to gripe, the manager will use a few choice words at a much higher decibel level to show that he or she is serious. Dropping the hammer usually works, but is it the only way to get your techs to engage with a new program? More importantly is it worth risking your techs’ respect over it?
Don’t give your techs a reason to disrespect you. When techs see a manager promoting, encouraging and maybe even threatening full compliance with a bad program or idea (which they know that you know is a waste of their time), they will question your sanity and your ability to accept the truth.
The Manager as a Buffer
Many years ago I worked for a man who was the best manager I’ve experienced in my 31 years as a service rep. There wasn’t a person on our team who would hesitate going to hell to service Satan’s machines if Gary asked them to go. I transferred to his team of about 20 techs two years before he retired, and I was shocked that, in a group as large as the one I found myself in, no one ever had anything negative to say about Gary. He had many qualities that earned our respect, but one of the things that surprised me the most was the way he handled service neutral programs.
Gary would call us in for a meeting, and right away we knew what we were in for by his tone of voice. Apologetically, he would say, “Hey, there’s this new program that we have to do — it’s total B.S., but we need to take it seriously enough to keep my boss off my back.” He would then tell us how we could get through it with as little effort as possible and still keep his boss happy. He was, in effect, a buffer between the worlds of service and corner-office management. There was rarely a gripe aired in those meetings, and we did what we had to do to make him look good.
[Gary] was, in effect, a buffer between the worlds of service and corner-office management.
As I’ve grown older (and maybe a little wiser), I’ve come to realize that some of the programs we deemed were bad did add value to the company. I imagine that there are programs that your techs have complained about being wastes of time that, when measured against the bigger picture, you can see are good ideas. But I still believe that my old manager, Gary, had it right. It’s easier to agree with your team and to ask for help keeping the boss happy, than it is to force your techs to comply.
Donald B. Stephens will be a featured speaker at Field Service Fall (Sept. 12-14, 2016, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) about how to keep technicians engaged through new technology advances.
When I have been presented with what I consider to be a really dumb idea, from boss or sweeper, no difference, my approach has been to start out with” I need to understand more fully how this works, and just what benefits it provides us, and how it provides them. Then I explain that I need to know all of this in order to provide adequate and correct support for the idea. Most of the time, getting the individual to think enough to create an adequate description will lead them to seeing the shortcomings. And the best part is that when it is done in this manner it does not put rational folks in a defensive mode. And most high-up bosses take it as an agreement to support, not as a challenge. But it still makes them think a bit.