Thursday, January 21, 2016

Whining or Winning?

There is a oft-cited quote about customer service that says, "Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning." (Bill Gates) Most of us believe that. We dissect customer complaints; we do customer surveys. We try to figure out what our customers want, and we change processes, products and services to meet their expectations.

Given that, why do we have a totally different view toward employee complaints? When employees complain, we say they "have a bad attitude," they're "whiners,"  or "crybabies." I understand the sentiment. I even find myself falling prey to that same thought process. Then I slap myself and remember, these people can help me...if I listen. No complaints? Then you have a problem. A serious problem. This is the waving red flag that your employees either do not care enough about your organization to tell you when something seems wrong to them, or they do not trust you to do anything about it. Or worse, they may feel a complaint is a sure-fire way to get a pink slip.

Complaining employees can indeed be Debbie (or Donnie) Downers--complaining about every little thing, real or imagined. That small percentage should be encouraged to go somewhere else. But most employee complaints have some merit. Employee complaints can help me discover why my turnover is so high. Why the company can't seem to meet deadlines. Which customers are costing me more to service than they are actually adding to my revenue. Who might be doing things they shouldn't. Where there might be hidden risks and liabilities. But I have to listen. More importantly, employees have to know I listened.

Listening is not the same as hearing. I can hear the words and ignore the meaning. I can also focus on the wrong things because of the filter I am listening through. Let's say an employee complains about a company policy. I am assuming you had a decent reason for implementing the policy in the first place, although that isn't always the case (the soapbox for another day.) So why the complaint? Is the employee complaining because they feel they lost something they had before the policy? Is it because the process created by the policy is cumbersome? Is there a message they are taking from the policy that is really the cause for their concern (you don't trust me)? Or was the policy and the reason for it poorly communicated?

I can give many examples, but I am sure you can think of many on your own. I want to talk more about how to listen. Most employees want to and will generally try to, complain inside a company first. And believe me, I want to know about a possible problem before anyone outside of the company knows. Usually that complaint is going to be to the supervisor. That means I need to ensure my supervisors know how to accept complaints and take care of them. If the supervisor is the source of the complaint, there needs to be another way to complain. Some ideas are a hotline, anonymous email, suggestion boxes, town hall meetings, and other opportunities to meet and talk to someone who can take the complaint (and know what to do with it.) Your HR Department is often such a place. Many people resist setting up complaints methods (especially anonymous ones) because they don't want people jumping the chain of command or being malicious in their complaints. I get it. The first usually doesn't happen if an employee trusts their chain of command and the last one happens very rarely. The vast majority of the complaints received will have some validity.

Listening is not enough. Once you have been told something--even if you think there is little or no truth to it--you have to look into it. Too many times I have seen companies blow off a complaint about a worker or supervisor because she's a nice person or he is a good family man. They may even ignore multiple complaints. Then there's a major incident and no one told them--until the EEOC calls. You don't want to be that company. So look into every complaint. If you can't be objective, find someone who can. Get the facts. Act. Tell the employee(s) what you have done to fix the issue (or why it's really not an issue.)

Treat your employee complaints like customer complaints and you'll have a better workplace and more profitable company.

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