Yesterday my supervisor reminded me to finish a task she's been gently asking me to finish for months now. It involved designing a web page in Sharepoint, an internal catalogue of outreach publications that our field offices can use to find what's available and get copies. When it's live, it will save them and us a lot of time. They'll be able to see what's available and order it quickly rather than making phone calls back and forth till they get the answer they need.
On the surface I had valid reasons for the delay. It's true that I had been pulled onto other projects and the system wouldn't easily do what she wanted.
But on reflection there were other things going on too. Things that were blocking me from moving forward, but that I wasn't addressing directly. Instead I chose to avoid the task. They were:
- Fear of looking incompetent by trying and failing - after all, "I have a rep to protect" as the technical expert in the office.
- Ego about the possibility that I might have to do less-than-perfect work - I didn't want to leave a legacy of a home-made looking page behind me
- A fixed idea that my approach was "right" - I had decided that we "had to" have a database with a clean interface, so that we could enter the publication data once and once only. The customer "would just have to deal with" the fact that it might not be pretty. Her vision, in contrast, was that the interface be right for the customer, and that we would have to create a separate database if necessary.
Of course all of the above left me unable to move forward, and every time I tried to work something up I ended up scrapping it because it just wasn't right.
So yesterday she asked me to just hunker down and do it. She was getting a request from higher up and it was time to finish this thing.
Along the way, in the email, she offered a simple sketch of what it should look like.
We met in my cube to go over next steps. I am a bit hardheaded but after a few minutes I got the message. Make it look the way it's supposed to look even if you have to bend Sharepoint to do it. Even if it's not the best practice, the elegant solution, or the prettiest thing on earth. Get it done, 80% is good enough, and let's finish this already.
So I made up my mind to attack it. It didn't hurt that I had gone to the gym and for the first time in probably 25 years, actually run on the treadmill instead of walked. Even though it was only for maybe 30 seconds before I had to go back to walking. I ran until I couldn't breathe.
There I was in front of the screen. What the heck was I going to do? The system is so locked down you can't change much of anything.
Eventually I saw something on my right. "Edit source code" or something like that. Voila! Magic! I could actually go in and use HTML coding!
So I Googled HTML code for "insert horizontal bar" and "align image" and 6 hours later, we had something. My boss was smiling! She was happy! She said, "This is perfect! This is just what I wanted!"
I wasn't so sure. I mean, don't get me wrong, I liked the page too. But it wasn't aesthetically perfect. On a scale of 1 to 10, somewhere between 6-7.
But it didn't really matter. My boss was happy. My boss was the customer. And she wasn't being homemade about it. She works with designers and our customers all the time. And her filter is not - "What do I like?" but rather "What will THEY like?" She has an uncanny ability to get out of her own head, and think like the user.
So yesterday my boss helped me break through a wall. It was a spiritual experience. She helped me to break through the things in my mind that were inhibiting me from serving the customer.
The resulting lessons for me -
- Take a sword to your fear, ego, and preconceived ideas - focus on the problem not your ability to fix it
- Let somebody else guide you sometimes - there is more than 1 way to skin a cat!
- Discard assumptions or preconceived ideas that you may be treating as "rules"
- Remember that you always have 2 customers at least - your internal leadership, and the actual user - you have to please both
- Visualize the result - have an image, literally - and do this together so that you don't go far down a path and end up spinning your wheels because it's not what's wanted
At the end of the day, here's what I came away with:
All of us are really in the business of serving the customer. This isn't just a FACET of our jobs anymore - it literally is the entirety of the job. You can be the most brilliant person in the world, you can invent the greatest widget the world has ever seen, whatever. None of that will get you anywhere if you don't know how to please your customer. And unless you are living off of family weath or just gifted at buying and selling investments all day, it's a skill you must learn in order to be successful.
A quick and true story that illustrates:
I've been raving about Aldi lately because as a grocery store concept they are truly knocking it out of the park. Good, cheap food and a quick and hassle-free shopping experience. But I saw something there the other day that you don't usually see in stores that advertise themselves as the low-cost alternative. I was waiting on line at the checkout and there was an elderly gentleman ahead of me. He was impatient, shuffling from side to side and grimacing. The line wasn't long, but I could see that he just didn't want to be on it.
Finally, he yelled out to the cashier. "I'm an old man, I'm tired of waiting here on line, and I just don't want to be here anymore!"
I couldn't help but laugh because most of the time that's how I feel about grocery shopping too.
The manager walked over to him, murmured something respectfully, and I didn't stare but do you know that about two minutes later he was out the door?
That's what customer service is. You can't always give them exactly what they want - but if you put people first you will make them happy.