Excuse me, where’s the ketchup?

August 28, 2013

This article was originally published in Estonian, August 2013 in the annual salary review by Palgainfo Agentuur.

The customer is king, they say. As a rule, however, the customer only interacts with the lowest paid employee of the company. Rarely is it the company’s president or chairman of the board – the only worthy representative to greet the king.

“Where’s the ketchup?” is a common question to the guy stalking the store aisles, dressed in the company uniform. The multiple choice answers are, “I don’t know, all you see is all there is!” or “I just work here!” or “Can’t you see that I have a customer!?”. None of the above helps solve the customer’s problem.

The Cleveland Clinic in the United States researched how satisfied patients were with its service. As it became apparent, not at all. Although their professionalism and health care service are the best rated in the US, it isn’t only the doctor that the patient meets. In fact, the patient interacts with up to 100 people in some cases, all of whom wear similar clothes and each one represents the hospital in the eyes of the patient. When the patient asks, “How am I doing?” she would be very happy to receive a comprehensible answer. Often, however, hospital staff responds with medical jargon or simply don’t know the answer, or in some cases, don’t even know the name of the attending physician, while doctor’s treat the disease rather than the patient. All of this led to patients not knowing how they were doing, leading to mistrust and misunderstandings. Dissatisfaction.

Who builds the image of the company in the eyes of the customer? The marketing department or the actual service representative? Clearly the image is built in interactions between the customer and the product or service at every point of contact. This is true also for partners and suppliers. What the boss does affects the attitude of employees towards the company. What does it say about the product, if the boss doesn’t use it? How should the employee sell it convincingly, if he doesn’t believe it himself?


We’ve entered the information age. The social information age. 90% of transactions are motivated by word-of-mouth recommendations. WOM is trustworthy. It’s based on somebody’s experience. Somebody’s actually tried a product and came away satisfied. The companies that sell their products at full price, that don’t have image problems, that have loyal employees are as a rule, also the companies where it’s fun to work, where you grow professionally and where employees have the authority to make decisions, not just responsibilities.

Imagine the company as a pyramid with the boss on top and employees on the bottom. If decision making is delegated, then the bottom of the pyramid can make decisions and solve problems quickly, at the point-of-contact with the customer. If the right to make decisions is only at the top of the pyramid then a bottle-neck is guaranteed. Management will quickly become disillusioned with employees (because they don’t take responsibility). On the other hand, employees will be completely dissatisfied with management, because nothing happens, nobody makes any decisions and its impossible to serve customers. Only responsibility and process are communicated from above, to ensure service quality, which can’t be delivered because every little decision requires process, which guarantees customer dissatisfaction. At the end of the day, employees are stupid, churn is high, salaries stay low since no one sticks around and even more procedures are required, to make anything at all happen.

To visit the bike shop, where you are served by an enthusiastic biker, is fun. He knows what he’s talking about, knows what he’s selling and is morally responsible, not just legally. In the sport’s store in the big huge mall it’s often not possible to buy, for example, running shoes because the staff doesn’t know anything about it. Why is that? Same job. Same product, basically. The difference is in the organization. And in the attitude and values of the management towards staff, customers and people in general. This attitude is what creates the image of the store, how the staff acts and behaves and in the end, how satisfied customers are.

What should you do, so that your staff loves working in your company? (Yes, loves.) The Harvard Business Review just researched this question and found out the following:

No stupid rules
Illogical rules are incomprehensible. We don’t imagine that the world is really safer because the drink that we buy before the safety check at the airport is confiscated while the drink we buy after being x-rayd is allowed on board. Nobody has explained it. If you ask the security guard, he’ll say that its the rule.

Everyone in the company must understand the rules and why they are necessary. There should be as few rules as possible. The rest is regulated by culture.

Information about the company reaches everyone
Everyone should know how it is really going. Managers want to know what is not going well. Nobody should be punished for delivering bad news. People must feel confident to sign off on their opinions. It’s a lot more fun to work when management appreciates what you do instead of being treated as a resource to be used or discarded.

People are themselves
At work you should be able to be the same person you are at home. No one should be forced to think and act alike. Political correctness and the need to be similar takes away the motivation to be extraordinary. The grey mass does what the grey mass does – becomes unnoticable. Personality is what sticks out and draws attention to oneself. To do that, the people in the company, while sticking to the rules, can still be themselves. Personalities. Team’s work efficiently when everyone has a defined role and understand the goal.

In this context work must be meaningful and tasks justified. 
Working towards a common goal. 
Being proud of where they work.

Inside out

Brands are built from the inside out. The first step is moulding a business plan into a company. From there on in, if every person joining the company is indoctrinated into what the idea is, how it is expressed then every staff member can translate this idea into actions through the product or service. Presuming that the business idea is also important to customers, then the company grows. Often, however, people forget the initial business idea. Compromises are made to be faster or cheaper or bigger. Decisions are made in board meetings and delegated through orders to be brought to life. Why decisions were made isn’t communicated in-house. Instead an ad campaign proclaims it to the world, where also staff finds out.

Research clearly demonstrates, that while 80% of companies believe that they have a unique product or service, only 8% of customers agree. Similar research shows that although 90% of managers understand the company’s strategy, then according to Robert Kaplan and David Norton only 5% of employees do. But if the customer asks, “why are you doing this”, then he’ll ask the front line employee! Instead of having effective and consistent internal communication, which ensures that staff understands and believes in the company’s product or service, massmedia ads are published, which promise qualities which the employee may have a hard time believing.

The company brand is in reality created by the company’s culture. With what logo is of little importance. People appreciate authenticity. This doesn’t mean expensive or cheap or fast or slow. Just authentic. That the offer isn’t made just to earn greater profit, but that the company has a sincere desire to do something better than the competition. If this is true and it works, then profit will come anyway. If the product or service is memorable, either virtual or real, and the price and quality is in balance then a real brand will grow out of it.

This isn’t rocket science. Building a company is like raising children. The basics need to be repeated every day not just on the first day and nevermore. A newborn won’t remember everything.
Neither will a new employee.