Saks pays a lot of attention to the look of their stores and the merchandise they choose, but so do their competitors. My preference for Saks has to do with Susan Bregman, who works in designer clothing at the store in Atlanta. Nonetheless, when I had some free time, I headed to Saks to pick up a specific item. I found someone to help me, purchased one item and left. Back at my hotel, I discovered the box in my tiny Saks bag was empty.

What ensued would be humorous were it not so foolish. Text messages, phone calls, profuse apologies, explanations about needing ‘manager permission’ at every turn. In the end, Saks sent the item to my home in Atlanta, absorbing the cost of shipping. Do not be distracted by the veil of ‘customer service.’ This was bureaucracy run amok.

Bureaucracy is the result of bad decisions, usually in response to poor judgment on the part of one or a few people. This is like using a bazooka to kill a gnat. Once established, the rules are defended and promoted well beyond the point of reason. The purpose of the organization is soon obscured by rules and procedures that are meant to control behavior but end up becoming objectives in themselves.

What happens when decisions are made in service of the objectives? Click To Tweet
  1. People focus on outcomes. They don’t pat themselves on the back for adherence to foolish tactics. The video safety presentations on Delta Airlines are a terrific example of this. They are captivating, humorous and deliver the same ‘ole drill in a way that you can’t ignore. The focus is on getting passengers to pay attention to the information. Usually, the objective on airlines is to read a script.
  2. The perspective of customers and other stakeholders is understood and taken into account when making a decision about procedures, technology, and importantly…hiring. When I call AppleCare about one of my products, I get a human being who is unfailingly polite. They are reassuring and patient and almost always help me solve my problem in one call. The integration of human and website is very well done and is, indeed, reassuring.
  3. Employees are able to make decisions that are appropriate, efficacious and rational. In contrast to my experience at Saks in NYC, I get amazing service from Susan Bregman at the Saks in Atlanta. My contact at Wayfair, an on-line retailer, beautifully resolved an issue with one call. That’s what happens when people have appropriate authority and good judgment. Authority without good judgment leads to employees giving away the store. That doesn’t mean you remove authority, it means you have the wrong people or have failed to help them see the options at their disposal to make customers happy.
  4. Management is present as role models, not auditors. When employees see their leaders engage with people, employees and customers, with sincerity and genuine interest, it makes claims about service credible and real. Years ago, I worked closely with Dave Pickens who was, at the time, President of Olive Garden. Dave visited restaurants and walked around. He talked to the guests and the workers in the kitchen who did every job. His demeanor was consistent and focused on the experience of the guest. He knew that one group would not have a good experience if the other did not.
  5. Employees work in an environment where pride in delivering beautiful service is encouraged and celebrated. Every organization has people and departments that do well, deliver and do so with genuine enthusiasm. Yet, almost every company looks elsewhere for benchmarks and examples of quality and innovation. I encourage my clients to study their best internal examples of greatness and highlight them. Don’t let internal jealousy or the anticipation of it stop you.

My questions for you are:

  1. What decisions do you need to make to ensure that focus is on the right things?
  2. What habits do you, and your organization possess that are not serving your objectives? What is preventing you from changing them?
  3. Who is doing great work? What are they doing and who knows?

You cannot build an ethos of service without making the right decisions and reevaluating those decisions over time. Even pebbles become a barrier if enough of them are allowed to pile up.

Do the leaders in your company look for greatness within? Do you? Share your thoughts below.