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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Banning Phrases - Adoption by Corporations

I heard (on the radio this morning) about a mayor in a Russian city who banned various phrases for city employees. The mayor explains his rationale as:
  • City officials should help improve people's lives and solve their problems, not make excuses.
  • I am tired of civil servants telling me that problems were impossible to solve, rather than offering practical solutions.
  • the use of these expressions by city administration officials while speaking to the head of the city will speed their departure.
The phrases include:
  • What am I supposed to do?
  • I'm not dealing with this
  • We're having lunch
  • The working day is over
  • Somebody else has the documents
  • I think I was off sick at the time
  • It's lunch time
This got me to thinking that something similar maybe should be adopted by other organizations. Certainly there are a lot of phrases that become part of people's lexicon that help them avoid helping to solve problems. For me, it's one of the most frustrating things to deal with. Non-answers. Avoidance.



Anonymous said...

Wow! Having lived in Russia a couple years I can tell you these phrases are all too common. It's sad, but Soviet mentality really squashed the notion of 'customer service' as Americans understand it. Customer service in Russia means, "You're a customer, here's the service, if you don't like it--tough. You don't have any other options but me, so jump through my hoops."

I think this really shows that management is responsible for empower the customer (much like this Russian Mayor has done). Could it even be as simple as making sure that the decisions made give the customer more power than the employee (not the company, the employee)? I don't know... I'm new here myself.

Stephen Downes said...

Just your usual 'blame the employee' response. What are they suppose to do, skip lunch or work unpaid overtime in the evening? Or make documents that they don't have magically appear?

Anonymous said...

In South Africa, we were always taught that people are never "at lunch" or "on leave" and especially not "late for work", but simply "not available at present, can I help you?".

I found it difficult to get used to the openness in the UK about people being on a break or on leave or simply not where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there.

I have to say that I agree with Stephen that it is better to acknowledge the humanity of the staff. However, there is a limit. One habit I have retained is never to say "I don't know" to a customer, unless you follow it up with "but I'll find out and get back to you." It goes without saying that you then make good on that commitment.

That said, I find Chris's description of Russian customer service not a million miles from my experience of British service, and I haven't seen anything much better in the (admittedly few) European countries I have visited. That burns my butt, since in South Africa we were always being forcefed a diet of how poor our level of service was compared to Europe. My personal experience is unequivocally the converse of this.

Without a doubt, the service I received everywhere I went in the US - with the very notable exception of Newark Airport staff - to be unsurpassed. Nothing was ever too much trouble.

Tony Karrer said...

I can tell I should have been a bit more clear in my post.

What I'm talking about are the use of phrases that dodge providing help or possibly even hurt. Things like "We'll have to look into that" or "That's not my responsibility" ... How about helping to define a positive direction forward instead?

I did not want to suggest that people (employees) shouldn't have lives, should take lunch, vacation, etc. However, a response of "I'm not available then" is not nearly as good as "I'm not available then and here's an alternative we can figure out."

Karyn's point on "I don't know, BUT I'll help you figure it out" is exactly right.

Anonymous said...

Here's a variation on this theme....

Manager: "I don't have time to do this"

Manager: "Right, I'll delegate all this"

Manager: "....but I hardly know some of my staff"

Context: The introduction of a manager-led development programme which requires managers to talk face to face with their staff about their performance, their career goals, their hopes and dreams etc.
Their job descriptions are almost 2/3 about leading and growing people, but till now they've all got away with not doing it.

Today, I'd like instant decapitation for managers who utter phrases like this.

Anonymous said...

I think there is some other aspects at play here - corporate culture and employee "empowerment" (hate the word but it is appropriate in this case.)

For many (and I dare say most) large organizations (including government entities) active problem solving by employees is discouraged. They may say they want an “entreprenural, problem-solving workforce, but the reality is if they have their employees “running amok” doing things outside of corporate processes and standards they are afraid of law suits, extra costs, etc.

I remember hearing Tom Peters talk about excellent service 20 years ago and he used a case by Fedex as an example. The employees needed to pick up the FedEx envelopes from the drop boxes. one of the drop boxes was jammed so they could not get the packages out. their choices were leave the packages (its not my job to fix the box, it is past my work time if I stay any longer, etc – pick your excuse) or find a way to get the packages. their solution was to unbolt the metal drop box (the thing that looks like R2D2) and take the whole metal box – including packages back to the main terminal where it was cut open.

FedEx (at that time) had a culture that rewarded this type of problem solving… other companies would dock or even fire employees for damaging company property, working overtime, extra costs to repair/replace the box, etc.

If the resources, training, and rewards are not evident and they are not clearly stated and supported by the executives it is not going to happen. the fact that the Mayor said “this is no longer the culture” is encouraging. I just hope he supports the employees through rewarding the new behaviors and giving them the resources to act.

Tracy Parish said...

The lunch one is a hard one. A key method to reduce stress on the job is to be able to get up from the desk, stretch, take a break and go for lunch. I know far too many people in my organization that are chained to the desk (or bedside/nurses) and never get even 15 minutes of detox time. Sometimes that one is just warranted.

Teresa Tayag: Trainer, Speaker, Public Speaking Coach said...

Annoying, definitely frustrating for us the customers. May I add another phrase, "I am sorry you feel that way" has been overused to shift the responsibility from the worker to the way I feel. If I have been on the phone ten times and the problem is still unresolved, I am going to feel that way! What about "I am sorry we goofed!!! and acted stuppid!"