Monday, March 5, 2012

Heaven and Hell, A Cautionary Tale for Companies

Greetings reader and welcome to Working Fables, a collection of both truthful and fictional tales from the working world. In my twenty years of experience in the "business world", I've discovered a place where personal and professional philosophies meet. Sometimes they merge, and sometimes they clash. What I hope to offer here are some of key learnings that have been shared with me or that I've personally experienced and that I've had the opportunity to pass on in my role as a corporate trainer and relationship manager. Some tales are cautionary, of a dark place that some businesses dare to go when all common sense tells them otherwise. Some are encouraging, an illuminating path to success and good reputation. It is my goal that all are productive. Enjoy.


HEAVEN AND HELL, A Cautionary Tale

There is a children's fable that I have known for many years that has often charted the course of my personal and professional decisions. It is simply entitled Heaven and Hell. Because of its spiritual overtones I was reluctant to share this tale in a professional forum but at the request of a colleague I introduced it to a class of service professionals that I was training a few years ago. The response was so overwhelming that I was encouraged to share it at the beginning of every training session to follow. Even now, I still receive occasional encouragements from those that I've trained that the story has now become as important to their lives as it is to mine. Some of the details vary from one story teller to another, but the message is the same.

It is said that there was once a man who lived so holy a life that before the end of his days, God appeared to him and offered to fulfill any one request. The holy man answered, "For years man has puzzled over the nature of heaven and hell. I would like to know the truth about each."

Immediately God whisked him to the depths of Hell where the man was amazed to see a banquet table, miles long, and filled with every delicious food and dessert ever known. Around the outside of table were the residents of Hell, all normal looking people with one very odd exception. Every person had four foot arms with no elbows with a fork strapped into each hand. As a result, even though there was such an abundance of food, they were all starving since none of them could bend their own arms to feed themselves. The screaming and wailing of these miserable souls was overwhelming and so the holy man pleaded with God to take him away. In the blink of an eye, he found himself in Heaven where the man was amazed to see the exact same scene.... a banquet table, filled with food and all those surrounding the table with the same arms and forks as those in Hell. However in this place there was only laughing and cheering with much celebration, for the residents of Heaven had learned the secret of their situation. Each person simply fed another from across the table.

It's not the situation that creates a heaven or hell, but the attitude.

Now as wonderful a tale that this may be to consider how we treat a neighbour or friend, how does this play out in the business world?

I can share that I have been part of companies that have embraced each end of the spectrum. I have witnessed employees, managers, or even owners that encourage either the "look out for yourself" or the "feed one another" mentality. I have heard colleagues argue the merit of each but to be honest, I've never seen genuinely positive results from the "competition is good for the staff" approach. It becomes a very slippery slope to a work environment ripe with distrust and ill will.

To ignore the needs of the internal customer is to sacrifice the successful satisfaction of your primary customer.

One clear example was made evident to me years ago during my time working for a hardware wholesale distributor supplying to both large chains and small privately owned stores. We had a sales staff of about 6 men who were taught to get the sale by any aggressive means. We also had a large warehouse with only 4 overworked staff. Good men and women who were simply being pushed beyond their limits. Suddenly we received a new contract for a large company that increased our shipping output by approximately twenty percent but the company decided they didn't want to invest in any additional personnel for the already stretched warehouse. Meanwhile, the sales staff were offering increasingly difficult shipping promises to their smaller customers including one hour pickup and same day shipping. The warehouse staff, unable to keep up but with no active voice to the senior managers, became uncharacteristically irate, even yelling at customers in frustration and refusing shipments. Salesmen began yelling in sales meetings about the incompetent workers. Shippers took longer breaks while venting about what jerks the salesmen were. And all the while the customers paid the price. I stepped in with a proposal that would allow both sides to sit down at a table and reasonably hear each other's griefs and situations. It was completely within the means of each side to offer fair solutions to the other department. Unfortunately the proposal was refused and the in-fighting continued on for more than six months until it reached such a crisis point that finally new staff were hired. In the meanwhile, we lost one of our five most major accounts along with the business of a number of other small stores. The unproductive stance of management to simply offer these two sides to find a common ground and work together created its own hell, unnecessary and unfortunate. The company lost good people, excellent customers, and most certainly damaged its own revenue in the process.

Within every company there are departments that by their very nature seem to be at odds. Commonly these can be sales and accounts receivable, dispatchers and drivers for those in transportation, even managers and front-line staff. The companies that experience the best success and growth are those that don't shy away from introducing and developing liaisons for these essential departments, offering each one a reasonable voice and encouraging the "feed one another" approach. Morale is naturally higher and therefore so is employee retention. New employee training costs and errors are reduced. Productivity and attendance are improved. And through all this the primary customer benefits and business improves. And the company lives happily ever after.

Not The End.

1 comment:

YvonneB said...

Great tale Ian, thanks for sharing.

Internal sabotage; there is nothing quite like it. If you can't get the internal customers working together what hope is there for the customers they are suppose to serve?

Any company that cares about its people will provide a space where staff can be heard, where their views and ideas can be shared.

A company may have one, ten or twenty different departments but the bottom line is they should act and feel like one team.