Customer Closeness Mandate Meaningless without Empathy

By Peters, Tom | THE JOURNAL RECORD, June 21, 1989 | Go to article overview

Customer Closeness Mandate Meaningless without Empathy


Peters, Tom, THE JOURNAL RECORD


It's taken me four months to muster the nerve to respond to Inc. Magazine's February cover story, ``The Odyssey of an `Excellent' Man.'' The article featured Keith Dunn, boss of Asheville, N.C.'s, McGuffey's Restaurants, who not only read my books, but also put many of my ``action steps'' into practice. In the process, he made a god-awful mess of his company.

Most participants in my seminars are practical business persons. They don't want theory, they want action lists. As a believer in listening to customers, I have acceded to their demands. My second and third books, following ``In Search of Excellence,'' were loaded with TTDs - lists of Things To Do.

Keith Dunn followed nearly every TTD. In pursuit of ``people-oriented'' and ``customer-oriented'' management, he showered workers with benefits, established teams, set up contests with big prizes, gave out sweatshirts with catchy slogans and devised a philosophy (``10 ABCs of Excellence''). With every newly implemented step, morale and performance dropped anew.

Finally, Dunn asked employees and managers what was wrong. They gave him an earful, but it added up to one thing. Each of his efforts to improve ``participation'' was missing the same element: participation.

Subsequently, Dunn changed course and is quickly reversing lousy profit margins and awful turnover. The essence of the new Dunn and the new McGuffey's is listening. Each restaurant now has an ``associate board'' made up of cooks, bartenders and servers. Each employee (following up on an employee suggestion) meets with an owner at least once every six months. Employees run the restaurant for two days each year. And so on.

I could defend myself. Listening has long been a dominant theme of mine. But the true nature of listening - with empathy - is virtually impossible to reduce to an ``action item.'' So when I recommend managers call 10 customers, the act of dialing the phone doesn't guarantee success - it merely provides an opportunity to listen and to respond.

Keith Dunn wasn't the only one who brought me up short. The accountants Touche Ross International recently released a study titled ``Competitive Performance: A Global Perspective on Financial Services.'' To my surprise (after all this is financial services and the study is by accountants), they determined that the chief factor which distinguishes between winners and losers in financial services is empathy:

``The first principle common to all financial service winners is a sincere, amply demonstrated regard for other people. On the face of it, this is a simple notion, but it is probably the most complex and operationally the most difficult among the principles that all successful institutions observe. …

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