Jeff Judy

Jeff's Thoughts - March 4, 2009

Your Customers Know How The Wind Blows

If I want to know about your employee morale, about how you are coping with trying times, I could just ask you (or your bank management). I'm sure I'll hear all about how your bank is dealing with the current stresses of our business. I'm confident that this is an issue your leadership is well aware of, that their official pronouncements would "give it to me straight," highlighting what is being done to maintain staff engagement so that everyone's best efforts are applied to the appropriate priorities.

Of course, one thing I might not be so confident about is whether this "official" picture is accurate. It could be a realistic account of what is happening in your institution or . . . it could be an optimistic picture, describing what management wants to believe about how things are working.

Where to find the truth? Well, sitting down with a few of your customers would probably be a pretty good reality check. Customers who interact with you regularly notice all sorts of signs that reveal how employees feel about their jobs, their managers, and their customers. They see the "telltales" that show how the wind blows.

In his book of essays Small Decencies, published more than 15 years ago, business consultant John Cowan applied lessons learned from his hobby of sailing to his dealings with his clients. On his sailboats, he would tie six-inch lengths of knitting yarn, which he called "telltales," about five feet above the deck. Keeping an eye on these colorful strands gave him instant information about what the wind was doing, helping him anticipate turbulent sailing conditions in time to respond.

He suggested that in his business, too, it was easy to read, from his first contacts with a client, how difficult a project he faced, how receptive management was likely to be to suggestions for change. Your own customers are constantly reading the "telltales" for clues about how important they are to you, how much you value their business.

When they initiate an inquiry about an account or a loan, either by phone or on-line, do they get more messages about "your business is very important to us" than they do about the actual problem? Is a good game of phone-tag the norm? Do the form letters (and e-mails) and recordings, as they hold the line, pile up while "the system" handles them?

And nobody knows more about how different functions work together than your customers. It doesn't take too many staff comments blaming other employees, too many statements like "that's not under my control," or "that's not in our department, you'll have to contact . . ., " or even "I don't know why they do that," for it to become obvious to your customers that morale is low, that your employees aren't working together, that they are just going through the motions of doing their jobs.

I know that your bank management believes that morale is as high as it can be in these times. I'm sure they've repeated the "we're all in this together" message, and that they are convinced that working together, implementing common strategies to reach shared goals, is the way through the current mess.

But if they really want to know whether they can believe their eyes and ears, whether what they think they are seeing is what is actually happening, they should examine their customers' experiences (perhaps with some objective outside help). What you learn from your customer "telltales" can help you find the smoothest path through choppy waters.