Teachable Moments: Learning to Win Well the Hard Way

When I told “John” what I did for a living, he chuckled. “Oh, I learned how to be a good leader the hard way.” 

Don’t we all. 

It’s often our most klutsy moves that teach us how to Win Well.

John’s Story

Here is “John’s” story. I hope you’ll share yours with our LGL community in the comments below.

I was the VP of well-known hotel chain. We’d been preparing for a month for Bob, our COO’s,  annual visit to our region.  This was our moment to shine. 

I’d staffed that day with our top-notch managers who were all on point to be sure every guest was getting white glove treatment. I’d personally done the rounds to ensure we were prepared. I checked everything from the lightbulbs to the kitchen inventory.  I even had the staff practicing their elevator pitches for any skip level meetings, to ensure they could discuss their results in just the right way.

 I’d left nothing to chance. Or so I thought.

The day of the visit, he asked to walk around unescorted. I wasn’t worried, my staff was ready to show him all our best practices.

You can imagine how shocked I was when he pulled out his Moleskin on the way back to the airport with a long list of problems he’d uncovered. The brakes were squeaking in one of the shuttle vans.  One hotel was consistently running out of shampoo. One manager was having terrible trouble recruiting maid staff. The list went on and on.

Embarrassed, I looked at Bob and asked how he’d possibly uncovered so many issues in such a short period of time.

Bob said matter of factly, “I just asked every employee I met if there was anything they needed to create a better customer experience.  And they told me. Simple as that.”

“When’s the last time YOU asked?”

That was a critical turning point in my leadership journey. 

I’d been so busy working to tell people what needed to be done, I’d completely overlooked the obvious point. They were the ones with the answers. I needed to ask, not tell.

I’ve found that’s the answer to almost every real management challenge. Ask more questions. Listen. And respond. 

customer experience

What To Do When The Customer is Wrong

The only problem with the concept, “The customer is always right,” is that sometimes they’re wrong.

If you’ve been in any kind of customer-facing position, I know you’re with me.

Sure, there are many, many circumstances where the only choice is to bite your tongue and concede, for the good of the customer experience.

But some wrong is just, well…wrong.

It takes confident humility to stand up to a customer when they’re doing something unethical, immoral, or discriminatory. Winning Well managers know that the MIT (most important thing) at a time like that is to stand clearly on the side of right.

Rick, the retired Amtrak conductor I met on my Southwest flight did just that.

When Employees are More Important Than Customers

My assistant conductor, Loretta came to me and said matter-of-factly, “There’s a guy in the second car, who refuses to give me his ticket.”

“Does he have a ticket?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he does.”

“Why won’t he give it to you?” I continued, now sensing an undercurrent of hurt beneath her frustration, as the color drained from her dark skin.

“Well, I have a theory.”

“I’ll be right back.”

I approached the old, balding man, “Hi Sir, the other conductor said you refused to give her your ticket.”

He laughed, “Oh, I’m happy to give it YOU. I just won’t give it HER.”

“Well then, you have a problem. You see Loretta is the only one who takes the tickets. But since yours is the next stop. I’ll take it this time.”

“Oh no, I’m getting off in Albany.”

“No sir, you are getting off at the next stop. And if you refuse, I’ll be happy to make a phone call to get you some help getting off.”

I then held the train at the next stop and explained the situation to the agent at the ticket window. He could feel free to refund his money, but under no circumstances was he to sell the meanie a ticket.

Winning Well Karin Hurt and David DyeRick sent a clear message to Loretta, her peers and all the customers watching the spectacle. Loretta’s dignity is what mattered most. Bigotry, even from a paying customer, was completely unacceptable.

Rick was Winning Well.

When the customer is wrong. Say so.

Everyone is watching your next move.

When to Break the Rules

I’m sitting next to Rick, a retired railroad engineer, on a delayed Southwest flight from Tampa to Baltimore. It’s been a LONG week of serial cancelled flights, and other travel frustrations. I’m wearing the same suit I wore in Detroit on Tuesday because I never did make it home between gigs.

Rick doesn’t seem to notice the wrinkles, as we begin swapping travel nightmare stories.

It was the middle of winter and the train was headed through a really rural section of upstate New York. The snow was coming down so hard you couldn’t see the sky, when the train stopped dead on the tracks—serious engine trouble. After several hours of waiting for help, it was clear we had a very long night ahead of us.

The café car ran out of food. The passengers were one Snickers bar short of a riot.

Jeff (whom Rick proudly pointed out he had trained), went to the café car attendant and said, we’ve got to solve this problem—people need to eat. Please give me some cash, I’m going to find food.

Jeff then trudged through the snow to the Kentucky Fried Chicken and said he needed 159 chicken dinners.

The kid behind the counter looked panicked, “Look, man, I want to help and I’ve got the chicken, but I don’t have enough staff to cook all that!”

Jeff smiled, “No worries, I used to work at a KFC. Let me just wash my hands and come back and help you.”

I can only imagine the eruption of applause as Jeff returned smelling of grease and salt, and began handing out free chicken.

It’s hard to be cranky with a drumstick in your hand.

Many customers took the time to write Amtrak with commendations. Amtrak fully supported his out of the box thinking.

Two weeks later his boss wrote him up for having his hat on crooked.

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