Why being proximate to your team is so important | Blue Sky

Why being proximate to your team is so important


First, a little bit of insight into why being proximate to your teams is so important

In a now-famous 1989 study, Sidney Yoshida concluded that executive-level managers were only aware of 4% of the day-to-day problems affecting the quality of products or services being delivered to customers, while their front-line employees knew about 100%. More recent research from Bain & Company shows that, while 80% of CEOs believe they deliver an excellent customer experience, a mere 8% of their customers agree.

This discrepancy between what leaders and managers think is going on, and what their customers and staff know is going on, shows just how easy is to lose touch with the real nature of what’s going on at the front-line.

But there’s more. A study by TLF research for technology firm eShare in April 2017 revealed that four in ten employees cannot name a single member of their Board. Out of 1,000 UK employees polled, 18% said their Board was barely visible, and more than half felt their Board are out of touch with day-to-day operations at their company. 31% of respondents said that they do not know or understand their company’s vision and values, and only 36% could name their own CEO. What’s more, the diversity of leaders did not match the diversity of the workforce. 37% said that there was not a single woman on the Board at their organisation, while 58% said there is no-one under the age of 40 and 55% cited no ethnic diversity.

So, there’s a deeper rift here, a profound lack of accord between the team at the top and the people on the front-line. When they are so demonstrably not like us – and barely even visible – any attempts to change a culture, customer experience or improve performance through the ranks end at the boardroom door.

The good news is that there is an incredibly simple concept that will help leaders and managers bridge these gaps. It’s called proximity and is all about physical presence. It’s not a memo or an email and it definitely can’t be outsourced.

Proximity is all about being close to the customer and to your people – literally. If you spend a lot of time in the same places as your employees and customers, listening and talking to them, you won’t just know what the real issues are, and the best ways to fix them – you’ll spread the story that you’re committed to people above all else, simply by being there.

Yes, it takes time. No, it isn’t about instant problem-solving and you can’t always measure the direct outcomes of an hour spent in the call centre kitchen or on the shop floor. But how close you are to your people will have a powerful impact in three crucial areas:

  • your ability to assess the extent of the gap between your vision of what good looks like and current customer experience
  • your ability to influence that experience and make the right changes happen
  • your people’s perception of how important both they and your customers are to you


Examples of businesses who are proximate to their teams

One week, a food retailer we worked with tested this out by putting a note up in their stores. The note told customers with service issues to call a hotline. Unbeknownst to them, the hotline went straight through to the Board, who took it in turns to answer their calls. As soon as the retail teams realised where the calls were going, service improved, and the Board learned more in that one week than they had for years.

Another great example of proximity comes from Sir Terry Leahy, former CEO of Tesco, who is widely credited with turning Tesco’s from Britain’s third biggest supermarket into the world’s fourth largest food retailer in just over a decade. Prior to stepping down in 2010, Sir Terry was a great fan of spending time talking to and observing customers. In fact, he reputedly spent up to 40% of his time in store and talking to customers. That’s almost half his working life! Proximity? That’s it!

Other companies such as Zappos, First Direct and Amazon make everyone, at every level in the business, regularly deliver customer service as part of their job. But however you chose to show up, the message it sends is this: making customers feel amazing is a priority for everyone, CEO or intern; and everyone in this organisation makes the effort to experience the (sometimes tough) reality of what that means.


4 simple things you can try to be more proximate

1)    Familiarity test

Before you even think about customers, a good place to start is to think about how close you are to your team, or those who you work most closely with. So:

  • Get a pen and paper
  • Write down the names of the people in your team
  • Now try and add the following information for each one:
    • Partner’s name;
    • children’s names;
    • date of birth; and
    • a hobby or outside interest.

How did you get on? Were you able to complete it for everyone in your team, or were there only a couple who you are friendlier with and know well? If you want your people to show up every day and give discretionary effort over and above their role, then you need to invest time in really getting to know them and understanding what makes them tick.

Now set this task for all managers to complete about their own teams.


2)    Just ask

How do you spend your time – are you close to customer conversations? How often do you talk with, and about, customers? Do you even use the company’s products and services? How well do you know your people and what motivates them? Be honest with yourself.

Ask your team to give you direct feedback on how proximate they think you are. Be prepared for some hard truths. Don’t ask the question if you are not prepared and committed to making the change. Encourage other leaders and managers to do the same.


3)    Up close and personal

Spend at least one hour every week with your team, listening and observing customer and team interactions (if you’re feeling brave, it’s even better to actually deal with customers yourself).

  • Set a diary reminder to ensure it happens
  • After each ‘proximity session’ reflect on what you’ve learned and what action you will take based on this learning
  • Ensure your team know you’re doing it to increase your understanding of what they do and the customer situations they encounter
  • Ensure you’re listening and observing the team, being curious, not criticising
  • Build trust with your team
  • After a few weeks of doing these proximity sessions, ask your team for feedback. How does it make them feel?
  • Now take action to remedy the ‘niggles’ you notice in the service experience – and feed back to the team what you have done about it


4)    Go walkabout #bemoreRichardBranson

Sir Richard Branson is a dedicated practitioner of the management technique called ‘The Walkabout’, MBWA (managing by walking around) or ‘The Long Walk’, and he credits it for helping create the renowned customer experience at the heart of the Virgin brand.

“I like to think I practiced it all my life,” he explains in an interview with business website Inc.  “But I think in this day and age, it is very easy to be out and about and not stuck behind a desk. And you’re going to learn so much more. I mean, if I’m on one of our airplanes, I will make a point of getting out and talking to a lot of staff, talking to as many of the customers as possible, having a notebook in my back pocket, listening. And I think, one of the key attributes of a good leader is listening, making sure that you write down the feedback that you get. And very importantly, make sure you act on that feedback when you get back to base. An exceptional company is the one that gets all the little details right. And the people out on the front-line, they know when things are not going right and they know when things need to be improved. And if you listen to them you can soon improve all those niggly things which turns an average company into an exceptional company.”

‘The Long Walk’ technique has been around a long time, but it really works. Small changes can make big differences; making coffee on a different floor every day of the week or taking a new route back from the meeting room to your desk every time can force you out of the hamster wheel of habit and lead to unexpected encounters.

Listen to people closest to the information. People out on the front-line know when things are not going right, and they know when things need to be improved. And if you listen to them you can soon improve all those niggly things which turns an average company into an exceptional company. Working towards this will build more effective relationships in your team, create a greater sense of shared purpose and a common understanding of what needs to be done to deliver more human experiences. So, go on a ‘long walk’ of your own.

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