Archive for December, 2010

Wishing you a Resourceful New Year!

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Do you want to take greater charge of your career?  The start of a New Year is a great time for thinking about changes you might want to make or opportunities you might want to pursue. Perhaps you are thinking of how you can take more control over your career? If so, with a little structure and focus, this can be achieved. Here are five tips to get you started.

Know exactly what you want to achieve

Know what you want – what you really, really want! Where do you want to be in 5 years’ time? What is your personal Vision for yourself? Martin Luther King had a very strong Vision – it was his ‘Dream’. You need to have your own. This is a critical part of your planning. It is critical because you are probably already leading a busy life. And having a vision or a goal may well require you to put additional time into gaining a qualification or gaining greater or different experience. This takes time, so you need to be sure that you will be able to give it the time it requires. You may need to consider what aspects of your current life you are going to stop doing or put on the back burner for a while. If you cannot identify such activities, you may well need to scale back your plans – it will clarify for you what aspects of your life and future are really important to you.

Small steps

If you acquire an old house that requires a complete renovation, you would probably break the job down into smaller jobs. Perhaps by looking at a room at a time, or one part of the renovation at a time (e.g. the roof, the flooring, the plastering). This is because it makes it easier and more manageable – and there is a sense of achievement as each part is ‘ticked’ as being completed. Your Vision should be no different. Break it down into smaller sequential steps so you can see how they will lead to the end result, but then you concentrate on one at a time.

Action plan

Create an action plan for the first of the steps. Write down exactly what it is you are going to achieve, how you will do it, when you will do it by and how you will know you have achieved it. Once you have completed this step, do the same for the next step. By doing this, if you have an overall 5-year goal it will not seem so daunting. And don’t forget to reward yourself for each action completed – promising yourself a small treat for each achievement is both fun and motivating! I have posted an example of how to create an Action Plan.

It’s easier with help

For two reasons. Firstly because having a coach or friend who can help you work out actions or how to achieve them can be so important. Sometimes we can’t see the wood for the trees when we are developing ourselves, and someone looking in from outside can be just what is needed. Secondly, if we say to someone that we will do something by a specific date, most of us are more likely to complete it than if we only make the agreement with ourselves. This is because we know someone is going to support us – and check up on us!

Believe in yourself

This is perhaps the most important step. I work with so many people who could achieve so much more if they believed in themselves – and many do suddenly blossom once they have the self-belief. We have so many skills that we often don’t realise we have, and sometimes a mental approach that stops us from be as effective as we could be. If you make yourself smile, it’s difficult not to feel positive. There are techniques that can enable you to be equally positive about yourself and what you can achieve.

Go on, have a go! You will be amazed at what you can achieve!


Customer Service – is it really that difficult?

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

I’m guessing that the time after Christmas is when more goods are returned as faulty or not wanted than at any other time of the year? Perhaps this is linked to a post I recently saw on a forum from a trainer asking about what they should train in relation to dealing with customers who complain – in short, should an apology be given or not.

My first thought was that this appears to highlight one of the key signs of an immature organisation when it comes to defining the training need. This question should be decided by the business – the operational management – not the trainer. It is a fundamental business decision as to how to respond to customer complaints. And it shouldn’t be too difficult.  But it appears that it is based on interactions I have had over the past couple of months.

My first experience related to going to buy – or trying to buy – a rail ticket at our local railway station. Knowing the ticket office closed at 7pm, I arrived at 6.45pm. As I walked towards the ticket office, I could see the person was serving another customer. As he saw me, he turned his sign around to read ‘Closed’. I wasn’t impressed. I went to see the Station Master to express my frustration. He said I must be wrong, and so went over to the ticket office. The man behind the counter said he was now closed, and the Station Master shrugged his shoulders at me and walked off.  Was he really the ‘Station Master’? Sir Topham Hat (aka The Fat Controller) wouldn’t have allowed such happenings on the island of Sodor.

I emailed Northern Rail with my concerns. The response explained that the Ticket Office, “ … is open until 1900 however because advance purchase tickets can be quite involved and can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes per transaction we try and ask customers to come in before 18.45 if you are purchasing advance purchase tickets”. The respondent added their, “… sincere apologies for the inconvenience caused”.

20 minutes to buy a rail ticket! I’ve bought a few in my time, but they have never taken that long. Red rag to a bull.

I responded asking (1) where they publicise how they ask customers to come in before 18.45 and (2) their evidence for suggesting the average length of a ticket purchasing transaction.

The response I received was from the Customer Service Duty Manager this time – it had been an Officer on the first occasion. They didn’t answer either question directly, but said that they had to open to their advertised times and that on the day I visited the Ticket Officer was dealing with a particularly complicated ticket purchase to Swansea (a wonderful level of detail – remember to allow extra time the next time you buy a rail ticket to Swansea – or perhaps it could be anywhere in Wales … perhaps I should have clarified further, but I didn’t). I was also offered £30 for my inconvenience. Was the £30 for the inconvenience of my initial attempted purchase or for the inconvenience of highlighting the blatantly false information in the initial email?

My second experience relates to my son’s electric under-blanket. He is rather fond of this piece of electrical equipment. Only his iphone rates more highly, I suspect. When the under-blanket’s switch broke in late November (when it was particularly cold) he wasn’t too happy. Particularly as it was less than two years old (and with a three year guarantee). I emailed Morphy Richards explaining the issue, the fact it was within the guarantee period and asking what I needed to do to get a replacement switch.

The automated reply explained, “Your enquiry has been forwarded to a member of our Consumer Care Team. We are currently experiencing an extremely high volume of email enquiries and therefore the time taken for us to respond to your enquiry will be longer than usual”.

I didn’t receive any further word from them, and so I emailed them again 21 days later (perhaps they could reduce by 50% the amount of emails they receive by responding to the first email?). The content of the email was the same as the first, with one addition – I explained I would start proceedings in the Small Claims Court if I didn’t hear from them within the next seven days.

Two days later I received an email and a phone call.  Within the five-paragraph email, three were devoted to explaining the robustness of their engineering processes and apologising for the malfunction.  There was no reference to having ignored my first email. The purpose of the phone call was to tell me that a new blanket was being put in the post that day.

During the phone call I explained to my Customer Engagement Officer (CEO) that I accepted things unexpectedly break and that I didn’t have an issue with that. I thought it would have been more relevant to offer an apology for not responding to my initial email.   

And my third encounter was yesterday in Asda. I did a ‘quick shop’ for a few bits and pieces, and as I was leaving the store did a quick check of my till receipt. When I was a youngster, when my mum got back from doing the weekly shop at Fine Fare, she would check every item against the receipt – I don’t go to those lengths, but I do undertake quick checks!  Anyway, I noticed that I had been charged for six bags of clementines rather than the two I actually bought. I went to Customer Services, the person did a quick check of what I was claiming, gave me a refund, apologised for the mistake and then gave me a gift card loaded with £2 “for the inconvenience caused”.  

Customer Service should be an organisation’s strongest link as opposed to its weakest link. This is where reputations are built or broken. And it’s not that difficult, is it?   

So, Northen Rail, Morphy Richards or Asda – who reacted most positively and who underperformed? Who would you vote off?  


Belief is Madness

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

As many other people do around this time of year, I have started reflecting on the past twelve months.  One of my areas of reflection has been around, “What has happened that has most surprised me?” Within a work perspective this has been, without doubt,  the evidence of the power of belief. I have worked with many people this year – both on a one to one basis and in groups – who have demonstrated what can be achieved through believing in themselves.

I have known this to be the case for a long time, but I haven’t previously witnessed so many powerful achievements that have quite obviously meant so much to the people concerned. And I have had so much joy in being able to share their huge senses of achievement.

What is sad, perhaps, is that for some of these people they have had to wait until their 40’s to have that belief – or should I say regain that belief?

When we are born we are surely positive. As we grow up, we constantly try out new things, learn what we can do and what we cannot (yet) do. And then we are influenced by people who we think know best – those people who impact on us in our childhoods. And that’s where children can go in different directions.

This is evident from the UK reality TV shows I was discussing in my last post.  Rebecca from the X Factor has a wonderful voice, but she didn’t believe that 6 months ago. Over the duration of the Programme as she has constantly been told how and why her voice is so good, viewers have witnessed her grow in belief and personal stature. As a consequence, her performances have improved. 

If we then turn our attention to The Apprentice, we have a group of contestants who generally have huge belief in their capabilities – so much so that when they are ‘Fired’ they often believe that Lord Sugar has made a significant mistake! There was a great moment a couple of weeks ago when one contestant – Stuart – thought that he was going to be fired, and so he made an impassioned plea. Within it, he said how great he was, what he could for Lord Sugar and how much money he would make for him – but there was no evidence. What made it particularly powerful was how easily a hardened business person like Sugar was ‘taken in’ – evidenced by his personal  anger the following week at having been ‘taken in’. But it was a great demonstration of what can be achieved through the power of belief in yourself.  

Finally, another TV programme in the listings caught my eye. This was, “Believe – the Eddie Izzard Story”. This turned out to be a very touching and intimate portrait of the comedian’s life so far. It detailed how he kept being told he wasn’t good enough by various people and the constant knocks he had received until his late 20’s, and the self-belief and determination he displayed.

At one point he reflected on his approach. “It’s what I call the madness. If you think you can perform and the whole world is saying that you can’t perform, then you’re obviously mad. If you hold on to that madness, and you hold on to it, and you hold on to it, and you hold on to it, for years and later it comes good and you can actually perform it proves that you weren’t mad. You just have to surround that little bit of belief and hold on to it for as long as it takes”. And later he added, “If fear gets in the way, you just push fear back”.

What do you want to achieve next year, and do you believe you can achieve it? And if you haven’t yet got the requisite self-belief, how are you going to re-discover it?


Nothing is real

Friday, December 10th, 2010

Reality. What is it? What is real? As the late John Lennon (and I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard of his death 30 years ago this week) once said, “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination”. So it does, because nothing is real – he also said that, too, but that was when he was taking us through his dream of Strawberry Fields, and I mean when we have all our faculties about us.

What I think of and describe as being ‘real’ will be my reality. The person at the same concert, walking down the road with me, or watching the same film will have their own experience or perception of what they see as being real – and it will be different to mine.

This then perhaps explains Walkers’ Crisps view of what is real. I was looking at a packet of their Thai Sweet Chilli flavoured Sensations crisps this week, and it proudly states on the front, “Made with real ingredients”. Isn’t everything made from real ingredients? I checked out the ingredients and they include Fructose, Hydrolysed Soya Protein and Colour. I suppose they are real, but I still think it’s a strange line to put on the packet. What do they think people will interpret as meaning ‘real’?

Which brings me to my third reality check – the one called Reality TV. I’m a Celebrity has just finished and The Apprentice is nearing its conclusion – as is the X Factor, although some people will not see this as Reality TV. I have to admit I enjoy these programmes. The reason I enjoy them is because we see ‘real’ people – or, more accurately, people in their ‘real’ states.

When we are young children, we are at our most real, I would suggest. Then, as we grow up we are told how to behave in different situations, and then we go to work and have rules, cultures and procedures to conform with. How real are we by this point?

With I’m a Celebrity, we have people who have been in the public eye to some degree (I would stop short of calling them celebrities) and who have experience of how they should appear or what they should say – but this has to slip ‘in the jungle’. We see more of their real sides – particularly with the increased pressures of tasks, lack of food and living so closely to other strangers.

And with The Apprentice, we have unknown people who are put in pressure situations – leading to them saying things they probably regret when they see them again. But these are closer to their real personalities interacting with each other than the facades they may wish to show.

And so these two shows give great examples for training sessions – they are a rich seem of television for using to help people understand management, dealing with conflict, presenting, listening, communicating, building rapport and so many more skills. So much better than the DVDs we can buy – because the TV examples are so close to reality. Watch them with that in mind – you will be surprised at how many good examples (good examples for learning, often bad examples of the skills!) you will find.


Sell your crunch, not your apples

Saturday, December 4th, 2010

Where does the L & D function fit within your organisation? The importance of this cultural fit cannot be underestimated when leading a L & D function. In my experience, too many L & D functions have existed to deliver training – that is what they have been seen to do, and that is what they have done – and this approach gives them little credence with operational managers.

I once had concerns about the impressions that my unit was giving to the remainder of the business. At a managers’ meeting I took the opportunity to ask a few (what I thought to be) fundamental questions to see whether they were espousing my stated aims for the unit. They all managed trainers, so firstly I asked what they saw to be the overall role of the trainer. The first answer was, “To deliver training”. This was closely followed by answers indicating that they needed to be able to write lesson plans and that they should be able to explain points clearly to delegates. Two more responses followed in a similar vein. The sixth response was, “They need to get the delegates to be more effective”. That’s what I was looking for – a link to improving performance.

After a few other responses, I then asked, “What are trainer shoes for?” The first response was, “to help people run faster”. Other verbal offerings built on this performance related theme.

I then asked what they thought was the overall role of a horse trainer. The first respondent indicated that her view was that they were there to enable horses to win races. A second added that perhaps it was to enable both horse and rider to win races.

“So”, I asked, in a John Humphreys sort of way, “Why is it that you view trainer shoes and horse trainers as being there to improve performance, yet you see that the primary purpose of our trainers is to deliver training?”. This was followed by a silence.

This short exchange had confirmed my concerns and highlighted a fundamental issue in leading a successful Learning and Development Unit. If its own staff see the focus as being delivering training, this will be apparent to others in everything they do – most of all to the already potentially sceptical operational managers.

I personally would consider changing the job title of “Trainer” to “Performance Improver”, however, – at least initially – I think this would cause problems for others to understand what the role is about. It is fundamental, however, that the trainer views their role in this way. They should not see themselves as people with training skills who use these skills to improve performance; they need to see themselves as performance improvers who achieve this by using sound training skills. This may appear to be a play on words, but I don’t believe this to be the case – it is a way of the person constantly being reminded of the primary purpose of their role.

When I used to train trainers, we engaged in some lengthy discussions which felt very important and fundamental to the role – in retrospect, I am now disappointed to admit that they were akin to navel gazing – they were all about the minutiae of training delivery which, on reflection, had little impact on delivering greater operational performance.

It is only be demonstrating this focus on improving performance that you will earn a credible and respect place around the table when the all important annual budget is being allocated – and then the more improvements you can show to have been involved in, the better your chance will be of improving your share of the budget.

All this can be achieved by a number of key activities. These include:

  • Engaging your internal customers in deciding learning priorities
  • Explicitly linking all learning to business objectives
  • Explicitly linking all learning to improving performance
  • Measuring your team’s performance in terms of operational performance improvements rather than / in addition to the quality of the training delivered
  • Clearly communicating your successes to the business
  • Where appropriate, measuring your impact by undertaking Return on Investment (ROI) evaluation activity to demonstrate the financial return for the business’s investment.

The overall culture of a unit is probably the most difficult aspect to change – but ultimately the most fundamental and rewarding. By implementing these processes, we can start to change the mindset of our team. We find out who wants to make the journey with us, and who perhaps does not.