Customer Service Surveys and Nazis

I’ve just finished reading the book Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre. It is the true story of  Eddie Chapman, one of the most fascinating and effective double agents working for Britain during WWII. Chapman, a career criminal, was the only wartime agent pardoned for his crimes by the British. The Nazis so valued his efforts during the war that they awarded him the Iron Cross.

Eddie Chapman was clearly talented when it came to telling stories and charming friends, romantic interests, and his spymasters. Yet there were times when his deception should have been flagged and investigated more carefully by the Germans. One reason this wasn’t done lies in what the book calls “the central defining flaw of the German secret service.”

The Germans tied the fortunes of the spymaster to his spy. Dependent on each other and competing with other German spies and spymasters, there was great pressure to provide information about the Allies. Chapman’s Nazi controller needed to believe the misinformation Chapman was feeding him. Having a productive spy increased his monitory rewards and kept him away from the Eastern Front.

In contrast, within the British secret services, spy case officers shared responsibility for multiple spies. The British knew that if a spymaster’s self-interest was tied to his agent, he would not see that agent clearly and that might compromise the spymaster’s personal integrity.

This problem with tying individual rewards and punishments closely to the performance or satisfaction of a third-party is something we still see today in businesses, government agencies, the news media, and public schools. One of the most annoying manifestations of this type of warped reward dynamic are in the ubiquitous customer service satisfaction surveys. Too many companies have clumsily tied some aspect of compensation of front-line employees to the results of customer satisfaction surveys. This results in front-line sales and customer service employees coaching customers to always “give a 5-out-of-5.” From car dealerships to carpet cleaners they repeat the mantra that if the customer isn’t completely satisfied and isn’t able to give a 5-out-of-5 (or a 10-out-of-10), the customer should immediately tell them and they will fix the problem *before* the customer fills out the survey. This creates an environment where senior management is kept in the dark. Hidden are possible systematic issues that would be obvious if customers filled out surveys without influence. Any problems are either fixed with a series of one-of solutions by the front-line workers or are swept under the rug because the front-line workers have pressured customers to only give perfect scores in the surveys. A perfect score on a customer satisfaction survey is basically worthless to the company who is trying to improve.

Throughout business, when managers run their departments with little outside input or objective analysis, misinformation is bound to creep into reports. In schools, the pay-for-performance movement and the penalties imposed by No Child Left Behind created an environment that encouraged standardized-test cheating scandals.

Of course, as the Nazi’s found out, glowing reports that fail to mention the negative, will eventually catch up with you. If you are a business, perfect customer surveys will not stop your customers from finding other venders when they are truly unhappy. In the schools, kids who are below grade level will eventually feel the negative effects of that, regardless of their impressively doctored test scores. In order to get quality information, we must be much more careful about introducing self-interest variables into our search for the truth.

Twin Cities Startup Week — Let the ideas, coffee & beer flow

Twin Cities Startup Week (#TCSW) begins tomorrow, Tuesday, September 9th. From the Beta.MN kick-off party tomorrow evening through to the Startup Weekend demos presented Sunday evening, this is a week to learn about and celebrate entrepreneurship in Minnesota.

Google for Entrepreneurs sponsors Startup Weekends around the world. They are intense 54-hour weekends where developers, designers, marketers, business people, and people with non-technical backgrounds come together and create compelling startup business demos. Billed as “the world’s starting point for entrepreneurship” they give budding entrepreneurs opportunities to pitch and develop their ideas. After a day and a half of intense work, Sunday evening the teams present their demos hoping to win significant prizes that will take their idea to the next level.

Here in the Twin Cities, the startup community has expanded the idea of Startup Weekend to an entire week of networking and information events for companies and individuals interesting in what is happening in local tech. I few of the events I’m looking forward to include MinneDemo18, the Twin Cities Startup Crawl, and Women in Entrepreneurship.

Forget Potential, Nurture Passions

Today as Twitter goes public, it seems right to take a step back and reflect on how a company like Twitter reaches this level. Despite their lack of profits, they are the most anticipated IPO since Facebook began trading last year.

Many companies have great potential, yet only a few become common household names with worldwide recognition. While luck and timing undoubtably play a role, perhaps a more important factor is passion. Having a vision, believing in your ideas, and feeling strongly enough about your goal that you are willing to put in the time and effort to work through setbacks and adversity, is a necessary component for achieving great success.

Too often in business we focus on the bottom line and the day-to-day. While mission statements try to define a purpose, they cannot by themselves create a zealousness for putting in the extra effort needed to take a company to the next level. That type of energy bordering on fanaticism must come from within. People put time and energy into their passions in a way that is unsustainable in an ordinary job. Frequently this enthusiastic effort doesn’t even feel like work.

Our country and our economy needs passionate entrepreneurs, researchers, and innovators. We need our best and our brightest to discover what fascinates them and run with it. Too often though our educational system does just the opposite. In gifted education and literature we focus on making sure students are meeting their potential. We design gifted services to provide identified students a chance to work at a higher level in adult-defined academic subjects. We expect our gifted students to excel in math, reading, and science and we teach them and test them to ensure they are living up to their potential.

Yet, ability and potential does not automatically equate to success in the business world. Yes, being smart can help you pick up on new concepts, but gumption, knowledge, and experience are far more important over the long haul. Instead of merely worrying about whether students’ grades and test scores properly reflect their IQ tests, we should support their unique interests. Instead of just signing them up for yet another enrichment class, we should take the time to listen to what is important to them and find opportunities for them to pour energy and effort into what moves them.

If we want to create enthusiastic innovators, we need to stop worrying so much about whether gifted students are working to their potential and instead help them discover and nurture passions.

 

5 Rules for Asking Engineers Questions

The other day I was listening to an interview with a project management specialist on how to handle different personalities on project teams. While most of what she said seemed helpful, when it came to working with engineers and IT admin types, she went off on a huge tangent on how “those people” had ego issues. She seemed to think they purposely were difficult and slowed projects down because they needed to feel important. She expressed that when engineers are reluctant to commit to a timetable and/or are reticent about giving details on how far they are through a particular phase of a project, it is because they want to feel important.

She couldn’t be more wrong. Very few engineers are the ego maniacs she describes and even those that are can be very easy to work with. Non-engineers just need to understand projects from the perspective of the engineers.

Engineers know that computers and software are not 100% predictable and reliable. They plan for the unexpected and build redundancies into systems where possible, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been burned. The more experience an engineer has, the more likely it is that he or she has spent hours or days recovering data and/or rebuilding a system that never should have gone down. The more familiar an admin is with different hardware and operating systems, the more likely he or she is to have a strong opinion on what will work. Yet, because sometime it just doesn’t, the more reluctant that admin may be to give a direct answer on what should be chosen and how long it will take to deploy. They have all seen “simple” installs and upgrades that did not perform as advertised. The last thing they want is for someone who does not understand the subtleties of their craft to hold them to expectations and deadlines that may turn out to be unrealistic.

You can start to improve your ability to work with engineers just by following some simple rules for asking questions.

Rule 1: Whenever possible, ask questions in person. This will allow you to see if the engineer is deep in thought coding or troubleshooting. Don’t just start talking, wait a minute or two until they finish typing or reading and turn to you with their full attention. Some of the biggest misunderstandings happen when questions are not fully heard.

Rule 2: If you can’t ask your question in person, ask it through email, not in a phone call. For the reasons listed above, if you just call an engineer and start talking, there is a good chance he or she will miss the first chunk of the conversation. This is especially true if they are actively troubleshooting an urgent problem. You will only have half their attention and it is unlikely the answer they give you will include all the details you need.

Rule 3: Whether you ask the question in person or in email, summarize their answer in an email confirmation just to make sure you understood their answer and you are both on the same page.

Rule 4: Semantics matter. Engineers tend to approach things as black/white, on/off, zero/one. This helps them greatly when working with code and computers and is something you need to keep in mind when asking them questions. To a non-engineering mind, the following questions may appear the same, but to an engineer are very different.

Can you do X?
Can we (as a company) do X?
Can anyone we have on staff do X?
Is it easy to find someone who can do X?
Should we do X?
Does doing X follow best acceptable practices?
Will doing X take so much time that it isn’t worth it?
Have we done X before?  Were the circumstances the same?  What were the benefits and drawbacks of doing X?

Rule 5: Whenever possible, questions should initially be phrased in term of the functionality you would like to see instead of an exact method of achieving that functionality.

Ask: What is the best way to set this up with a CMS so the customer can directly update their site?

Instead of: Can you put the XYZ content management system on their server?

Generally, engineers, especially introverted engineers, will answer the exact question asked. They will not necessarily volunteer all the additional information you may need. By following the rules for asking engineers questions, you will improve your ability to work with the engineers on your team.

 

 

 

 

Confusing Technically Knowledgeable with Gifted

The fast-moving, mobile, cloud, social, gadget industry is now part of our everyday world, web and app technology is seamlessly integrated into our lives. Most readers of this blog get their daily news electronically, reading it on a desktop screen or tablet instead of from paper. Our gadgets, cars, and houses communicate with each other, outside companies, and us in ways lifted from science fiction. We are experiencing the first true wave of the Internet of things on a consumer level and it is an exciting adventure.

Students and employees who are knowledgeable about the latest apps and social media platforms, who can write code and deploy servers, who have experience on the development side of the digital world, are in high demand. In colleges across the country the numbers of classic liberal arts majors are declining while students flock to acquire the engineering and math degrees that employers value so highly. As the economy continues its long road to recovery, many employers are taking the safer bet and hiring specific skills instead of general abilities.

While technical skills are necessary in many businesses these days, the reality is that the basics of being able to evaluate and analyze data, understand the marketplace, build strong relationships with coworkers and customers, and think, are more important than ever. While it is tempting to hire the person who currently has all the correct boxes checked for skills today, it is more important to make sure they will continually learn and make the connections that will drive your business forward.

Too often we assume that folks with deep technical knowledge are smarter than those with deep knowledge in non-STEM subjects. Perhaps this is a holdover from our reverence for the engineers that sent spaceships to the moon and created the home computer and Internet revolution. Those people were and are, not typical, even within the technology industry. Engineering revolutionaries and pioneers, like most innovators, are gifted. Although anyone with strong technical knowledge is smart, and many jobs require technical knowledge, we need to refrain from assuming that one specific category of skill trumps all others. Technically knowledgeable people may or may not be gifted. Beyond mere technical skills, we need people who can see the big picture, find relationships, discover hidden needs, and anticipate paradigm shifts.