The following conversation took place recently between the Customer Service Manager of a mid-sized manufacturer and a consultant.

Customer Service Manager: I have 2 poor performers, Barry and Mary.

Consultant: How are you handling them?

CSM: Well, all of our big customers are assigned to our good people and we handle all their calls. We route the calls from the small customers to Barry and Mary.

Cons: What’s the reason for doing that? (My thought: They can’t do too much damage?)

CSM: Oh! So they’ll stay busy! I want them to stay busy.

Cons: Who are some of the small customers?

CSM: (She rattles off several global retailers.)

Cons: Those are ‘small’ customers?

CSM: They do very little business with us.

Cons: Let me understand this. Issues for ‘small’ customers such as (Global Giant) are all handled by two poor performers so they can keep busy.

CSM: (beaming) That’s right!

No, I did not invent this conversation. But it is not the first time that I have heard it. Busyness is NOT good business…or related to productivity or quality…or a way to deal with customers…or a way to improve poor performance!

It is not uncommon to find managers measuring activity instead of results. It follows from a pronounced tendency, especially in tough economic times, to focus on tactics rather than strategy. This tactical approach obscures results until it is too late and failure is upon you.

Busyness obscures the results from a poor performer in these situations. Barry and Mary have no idea that their performance is unacceptable since they are so busy they cannot imagine doing any more, much less anything different.

More importantly, ‘small’ customers do not get the attention they need. In this particular case, some have drifted away and others refuse to increase the size or diversity of their orders since customer service is so weak. Some of these ‘small’ customers are actually very large companies with a large need for what the manufacturer supplies. These customers decided to give the manufacturer a chance, and with this level of poor service, the manufacturer failed. Since the manufacturer is well-known in the region, these experiences challenge the good reputation it has with ‘big’ customers. Since everyone in this business community knows everyone else, the bad news spreads fast.

The prescription for curing this sick situation is simple. The Customer Service Manager (CSM) must:

  • Work with Barry and Mary to set clear expectations for their performance based on customers’ needs and satisfaction
  • Train them in the fundamentals of the job, especially solving customers’ problems in a proactive and pleasant way
  • Work with them to create an improved plan with clear measurements of results, not activity.
  • When the CSM is satisfied that all that can be done has been done to improve each individual’s performance, it is time for a decision. Has performance improved enough? Does a new plan need to be implemented? is this a situation where the person is not a good match for the job and needs to move on?

    Look at how you are managing both your good and poor performers. Are you tracking activity — busyness — or are you looking at employee performance and customer satisfaction strategically based on results? If you are caught in the busyness trap, extricate yourself by creating or expanding your strategic business plan. If you do not have a strategic business plan it is time to develop one. Employee performance should be measured based on your strategic business plan goals and objectives. Each employee has a role in fulfilling the plan.

    Follow the steps we suggested for the CSM above. All of this helps you as an executive, manager or business owner stay focused on managing your results and your employees strategically.

    Focus on business not busyness.