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In Customer Service, it’s not always sunshine and rainbows …when it’s time to be open and real

As the owner of a service company that performs thousands of complex, interior floor and surface care projects each year across North America, I’m immensely proud of the team we have, and the client’s we represent.  We are passionate about doing the right things, are resilient and resourceful and approach each project as a team.  We do our due diligence in communicating our flooring services in the most clear, professional way possible.

However, the reality is that in customer service, it’s not always sunshine and rainbows.   One of our company core values is “We practice open and real communication” and sometimes the message may be tough to deliver (or hear).  That’s when practicing open and real communication can be put to the test and here’s how that recently played out in real life.

APEX recently started a wood refinishing project with a notable client in an office where several key figures work. Wood refinishing is not something new for us; our Corporate Floors wood division has installed and refinished wood flooring over the last two decades in some of the most notable commercial buildings in the country.

Like any good business, we approach every project as if every person at the job site is a “key figure”, whether it’s a corporate office or a remote field office. And like we always do, we took what we thought were the appropriate steps necessary to insure a smooth, quality restoration job.  Being the job was in a fairly remote part of the country, we had the right sub (so we thought), sent leadership to oversee the job and really thought we had it all nailed down.

Have you ever had one of those jobs that no matter how hard you try, it just seems to get worse?  In my 25- year career I’ve had exactly three go this sideways, and now I count four.

When reflecting on what happened (and what still needs to happen), we stop and do a project re-assessment. It’s not a witch hunt to find who caused the problem. We get all the stakeholders in a room to start at the beginning; we discuss what was communicated, what happened and where the failure points happened. When a subcontractor is involved (as in this case) that can be difficult to do but it’s critical they are there.  On this recent incident, we are still in the middle of the resolution.  But regardless of what we uncover, as CEO, I bear the ultimate accountability.

Going through this situation has been a poignant reminder to me of how important the afore mentioned APEX core value really is.   Let’s break it down.

“We”  — That means all of us…including our vendors and our clients.  It’s not good enough that we are only open and real to ourselves, but we need to get all the stakeholders involved. Jim Burns, the President of our commercial flooring company, Corporate Floors, has been pushing the book, Radical Candor by Kim Scott, to the team. Radical Candor defines being open and real and how important it is to keep that front and center.

“Practice” — How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!  I’ve not yet met anyone who is a perfect communicator. The only way to get better is to practice. Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  We have this quote on our sales bell at our headquarters as a reminder not to get too comfortable with anything we do.

As a company, we close down twice a year for a 1-2 day meeting with all of our team members. For the last 10 years, we’ve had consultants spend much of that time training our team on communication and one would think we’d have it down by now. But the reality is, no one is raised to have open and real communication (radical candor).  We are taught not to speak up, not to show our emotions or to raise our voices.  Coupled with a generation of people who are being raised texting versus talking, our path to  open and real communication is getting harder.

“Open” – Being open means you are willing to let others inside.  That means lowering our own barriers and insecurities. That means keeping our internal thoughts from clouding our listening, challenging our own beliefs on what we are hearing and focusing on what the other person is saying.  Last year I taught a series of seminars on active listening, which is really just being “Open” and receptive to what others are saying.  In active listening, you look at the person in the eye, turn down your internal speaker and physically engage in listening. It’s amazing how much better the communication goes when one does this.

“And” well, how can one open but not real?  It’s “…open AND real…” for a reason.  If you were not, that would mean you are taking everything in but not being given a chance to communicate your position and that’s not going to result in a great outcome.

“Real” – Real means “REAL”, without any layers or subtext. In Radical Candor, the writer says that real communication is when you speak to someone in a method that cares personally but challenges directly. There are three other definitions of communication that are outlined in the chart below.

We can all look at this and likely remember instances where we were anything but “Real” with someone.  This is perhaps the most difficult part of this core value to accomplish.  Being real means you have to really think about what you are going to communicate BEFORE it’s said…and do it without any prior prejudices or impressions you may have otherwise.

“Communication” – Communication is both verbal and non-verbal. Most of what we retain actually comes from non-verbal communication.  The experts say that we are likely to retain less than 50% of any conversation we are part of.  Take out the non-verbal cues and it’s much less. That’s scary when you think about all those conversations you had with a client or boss about a project or raise.  Communication in person is ALWAYS  the best way to initiate relationships and resolve conflict. Too many people (myself included) get into email wars or telephone discussions that really don’t allow two people to simply work out an issue.  Today, we hold a lot of video conferences with our team and clients, and while those are much better than phone calls, we still are only getting about a third of the non-verbal communication than we would face to face. In the case of this project going sideways, I’d much rather hop on a plane to meet the customer in person than sit on a video call.  The cost of travel is MUCH less than the cost of a continued bad situation.

So, “We Practice Open and Real Communication” has a lot more meaning that one would imagine but it’s purposeful.

Back to the project off the rails.  I’ve already got a list of about 10 things we could have done better, and for a company with a great history of similar projects, and all the fancy marketing to talk about it, I know at this point the client certainly doesn’t care…they just want their floors fixed.  All we can do is be open and real with what we’ve done, make them know we will stand by them until they are satisfied, and then show them a plan of how we will make sure something like this will never happen again.  What do you do when one of the parties doesn’t exhibit the same core values? You get rid of them…no matter how painful the process. In this case, the sub over-committed as to their capabilities and we didn’t catch it soon enough because there was no “We”, no “open and real” and certainly not enough “communication”…we will miss Carnegie Hall this year.

They say real relationships are forged in fire and while we have a pretty hot kiln right now, I’m confident we will exit this crucible stronger than ever.

Got a project or similar situation?  Let’s share!  Most companies in the services industry spend a lot of time talking about all the jobs we do perfectly.  I think we can earn more credibility talking about some of the projects that go wrong…and how we fixed them.

Keeping it real…