Sunday, April 11, 2010

Here's a tip

Today, I got a tip from a waiter, rather than the other way around.

It wasn't monetary; It wasn't even a fun experience. But it sure was a tip.

The tip? In a service relationship, simply making my problem your problem is the beginning of the end. The key part of Problem Management is the Management, not the Problem.

It was Sunday, and, I wanted breakfast anywhere that didn't include me cooking. Now, for where we ended up, Sunday morning is probably always a busy place at this establishment - it's a touristy place, and it was raining out - so a large number of wet, hungry, people were looking for breakfast and staying at their table longer than normal - it was a recipe for a stressful day at the breakfast stop for the staff.

Getting seated and ordering went as one might expect - busy, but not horribly long. However, after ordering, everything went down hill. This is only important to mention because it was clear the waiter, in the end, was not the source of the problem - we were seated and ordered fairly quickly. However, as business people we face this problem ever day - the problem in front of us is rarely one solely of our creation, but we are often responsible for the solution.

After waiting for a considerable amount of time, we had not heard anything from the waiter, staff, or anyone even semi-official looking. Heck, Flo or Alice from Mel's would have been a welcome sight.  More importantly, the coffee cups had sat empty long enough that my clear-as-day caffeine addition was starting to kick in. With a five-year-old in tow, time was not on our side, and we inquired on the status of our order.

 The response to the question was not exactly out of Miss Manners:

"I've got this table of six and that table of five and you'll just have to wait"

As you can probably imagine, this was not exactly delivered with a Coke and Smile. In fact, his complete disbelief that we'd even ask him might have been the most troubling aspect - as if we were not actually there, to, you know, eat.

Contrast this to the situtation a few weeks ago at a different establishment. My waitress probably took more time in delivering the meal, but was constantly at the table checking in - Did we have enough water? Did we need more bread? She updated, apologized, and just made us felt like she understood the situation. In return, I felt involved, connected, and understanding of her situation. In both situations we had a hungry five year old along for the ride. In only one case, did the server seem to notice and even acknowledge the elements of the environment.

I will return to only one of these establishments. As the consumer in this service relationship, that is my role - to choose where to consume (In this case, quite literally!)

So what can we (Re)Learn from this? We easily forget our role in a relationship. Most business transactions are not symbiotic - one side is the consumer, and the other is the producer. As the producer, you've got a role to consistently provide your best. Let me be very clear - I said "consistently provide your best", not "always be perfect."

How we handle stressful events, failure, and mistakes is part of how we provide our best. Here are some of my steps to trying to provide my best, even when I'm the cause of the original problem.

Sharing your problem is a start - but not the finish! Update, Update, Update

Both waiters should be applauded for being honest - although one had to be prompted.  Acknowledging the problem quickly and head on is a great start. But, don't stop there. Understand what parts of the problem can be addressed quickly, which cannot, and provide constant updates with a clear message on what can be expected from you, the provider, in the solution process. It is critical to demonstrate that you understand the issue from the point of view of the other party, and understand your role in both the problem and the solution.

Be transparent in the solution, and invite people into the process. Agree to a communication plan and strategy with your consumers so they know when to expect an update from you, and, more importantly, they already have an idea of what you will be telling them. Focus on direct, personal communication mediums - avoid email and instant messaging like the plague, and focus on phone, video conferencing, and even face to face meetings if possible. Let them know you honestly and sincerely understand you have an effect on their business.

Having the waiter, or any member of the team, come to the table and simply acknowledge the problem and set some expectations on the solution, face to face, would have disarmed the situation. I'm just not that scary. I even brushed my teeth.

Validate the problem, and confirm it. Provide a solution, even if it's a horrible hack

This next step is a big one, and sets you apart from a company that listens and one that understands. Sometimes, we clearly rush to a solution without really understanding the problem from the point of view of the consumer and involving them in the process. This morning, I simply would have loved a refill of the coffee. Keep the coffee coming, and you're half way home.

Let's take a hypothetical, but all too familiar, software story.  You've got a massive bug in a new release that makes all monthly reports crash. You just can't run them. The consumer, is, understandably, pretty upset.

Realistically, do you know what the bug is? Probably not, or you wouldn't have gotten here. You've tested, tried, unit tested (you better have!), simulated, and did everything in your  release process.  So what makes you believe you have the fix right in front of you? You never saw this problem coming.

At this point, you can deploy every resource you have on the bug. You can chase it up for endless nights. You know what the customer cares about? Where are my monthly reports! They don't care about your unit testing, your process, your bugs, Tomcat memory issues, or problems with the JDK. Yes, they want transparency on the process, but only in the context of their specific issues - the reports!

You must really understand the problem in their terms. Can you run those reports for them? Can you pull the data from the database directly? Yes, it's a horrible hack, but it's just for today.

You don't have to live with this solution, just don't die by the problem.

Coffee aside, I needed to keep a five year old from tearing apart the table. Do you realize how I would have killed for a crayon? That's a solution that had nothing at all do to with the number of tables, customers, or how busy the chef was. Solutions exist - if you understand the problem in the eyes of the consumer.

Work at the right pace - make sure you get it right!

Once the problem has been established, breathe.

Do it again - breathe.

You're going to need to focus your energy on the solution, so it's time to let go of the problem.  Put away the feeling of anxiety and focus solely on the solutions you've communicated to the consumer. This is why the sharing and validation are so important - not only are you bringing the consumer piece of mind, but you are giving it to yourself, too. You need to put the problem behind you. There will be time to reflect later.

Don't get caught up in all-nighters, panic, yelling, and the general behavior that sets in during crisis. Focus on the solution, and take the time to do it right. Crank out the horrible hacks, work arounds, and manual processes you've promised to your consumers. Do this as fast as you can,  but only at the pace that makes sense for the solution. Rushing to a solution that is untested, unproven, or fails only causes more problems just reduces confidence. Communication with the consumer - establishing a clear risk profile and clarity on why you are working at the pace you are - will buy you the time to get it right.

Focus on the solution only, and nothing else. Wallowing in the problem helps nothing at this point. Anyone on  who starts in with "I can't believe we got here" and "I told you so" - they are off the solution team. I don't care if they created the problem, or are the smartest person you know. They are simply not in the consumer/producer solution frame of mind. Replace "I can't believe we got here" with "How did we get here? Did we miss something?"  When they are ready to contribute positively, looking forward, invite them back in. Not before. Don't let a toxic thought into the solution team.

Enough Theory - Any Reality? 

These are all wonderful concepts. There are people who have gone through much bigger crisis and much bigger issues than you, me, or anyone we know. But the reality is that each day threats to our business, our investments, and our livelihood is as big as Apollo 11 - to each of us.

In a follow-up post, I'll be discussing public and private JIRA instances and other tools you can use to be transparent, prove to your customer base you trust them, and treat the world around you like adults.  Transparency, honestly, and trust is the key to any successful personal relationship. I believe it's the same for businesses.

Until then, I'll be looking for a crayon and some coffee.