What’s My Line

Those of you old enough to be invited to join AARP should recall the game show by the name of this article — one of the longest running game shows ever. The show had a panel of celebrities who would try to guess someone’s profession by asking yes or no questions. Imagine if one of your customer service employees were on the show. You might think that his or her profession would be easy to guess, but I’ll wager that the way many customer service people view their jobs would likely make their professions hard to guess.

Let me give you a couple of extreme examples.

As a holiday gift from a company that provides me professional services, I received a block of 2-year-old cheddar cheese from a small cheese maker in New Hampshire — and I just crave strong cheese! When I opened the box, my jaw dropped. Look at the accompanying photo and you’ll see why. From the label on the outside of the box, I was expecting some food item, so imagine what I thought for those first few seconds. Is this Nazi cheese? Then I smiled a bit amazed at the probability that such a mistake could happen.

Someone’s job at the cheese shop was to wrap the cheese in a few sheets of newspaper, place it in the box, seal the box, place the label on the box, and ship it. Very likely, the job was defined as a strict series of discrete tasks. Was part of the job defined as ensuring the presentation of the cheese in the box was proper? I doubt it. Imagine if instead the job had been defined more simply as ensuring the gift item arrived properly at the recipient’s home or office? That is, imagine if the worker was given a broader definition — proper packaging — rather than a set of narrow tasks?

bad-packagingNow, in that packer’s defense, the newspaper used was the New York Times, and it was an op-ed piece that included the photo with the swastika. (Knowing the Times, you can be certain they weren’t promoting fascism.) And it was the busy holiday season, but still… I was shocked that the packer didn’t notice the swastika glaring back at him or her before folding the box closed.

Contrast this with a recent experience my wife and I had at one of our favorite restaurants, Bullfinch’s in Sudbury, Mass. Close friends of ours took us there to celebrate my wife’s birthday — one of those round number ones I’d better not mention… After our meal, we were toying with what desert to order when our waitresses (we had two since one was in training) came out singing Happy Birthday carrying a lovely chocolate desert topped by a candle.

While we devoured the desert, we had an interesting conversation: “Did you tell them?” “No, I didn’t tell them. I thought you told them.” “No, are you sure you didn’t tell them when you made the reservations?”  “I don’t think so…”

Turns out the waitresses heard us talking about my wife’s birthday and decided to surprise us.

How do you think Bullfinch’s defines the job of the wait staff? Do you think they have narrow task definitions — take drink orders, take meal orders, try to upsell customers with appetizers —  or do you think they have a simple job definition that focuses on the desired outcome of a visit to the restaurant — make the guests’ visit as special as possible? I haven’t talked to the owner about her training philosophy, but I’ve dined there enough, especially on special occasions, to know the philosophy first-hand (or first-fork).

When you develop the job definitions within your organization and reinforce them through performance appraisals, how do you define those jobs? Are they narrowly defined on tasks the person needs to perform, prompting narrow thinking, or are they broadly defined to prompt the employee to take responsibility for the quality of the end product? Walk up to a front-line service agent and ask them what their job is — or play what’s my line and ask them if their job is <insert narrow phrasing of task execution>? If you find a narrow focus, ask them why.  Most likely you’ll find that the performance appraisal metrics are driving narrow thinking.

Now ask yourself, do you think your organization is better positioned to bond customers to your company with employees who perform narrowly defined tasks or who take broad responsibility for the customer’s satisfaction? To put it another way, do you want employees who can quickly package cheese even though offensive symbols might be showing or do you want employees who will surprise a customer on her birthday?

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not-my-jobThis photo epitomizes the notion of narrow job definitions. It was sent to me with the subject line, “Not my job.”

Think about it!