Being available for customers

One of the biggest challenges in many organizations is that the work arrives randomly from moment to moment. That’s true in a restaurant, a retail store, a contact center, a hospital’s emergency department, and many other environments. Those delivering services don’t control customer arrival rate, or the issues they need help with.

I once worked with a healthcare system that set up a resource center that patients could access 24/7 without the need to go to a physical facility. They incorporated the latest thinking and tools in telemedicine, and staffed the center with doctors, nurses and physicians’ assistants (PAs). All very cool and very advanced—other than the workflow and schedules, which were a mess. Few felt the need to adhere to what they saw as overly rigid schedules. The result was workload mismatches, missed appointments, and frustrated patients.

I was brought in with the unenviable task of making a case for better “schedule adherence” with the employees. I remember the first few minutes of the first workshop—looking out on a sea of faces, many with their arms folded. (Those are times, I’ve learned, that it’s far better to listen than to talk.)

“Why are we here?” I asked. “What’s going on?”

“So, you’ve seen our schedules, right?” one person asked. “They [referring to company leadership] seem to think we’re some kind of assembly line. ‘Start here, stop there. Take a break at 10:15.’”

It was a fair question, and I understood why he felt that way. “Let’s kick that around a bit,” I suggested. “What approach would make more sense?” We wrote a lot of comments and ideas on a white board. All the while, a central idea began to emerge—the importance of being available when needed.

The real turning point in the discussion came when a nurse near the back of the room stood up. She asked some questions of the group: How many have worked ER (the emergency room)? Every hand went up. How many know how to triage? Laughter with every hand up. “Look, every day, we’re all making time-driven decisions in operating rooms and on hospital floors,” she reasoned, “Not for our own comfort or convenience, but because that’s when our patients and these situations need us, and when we need each other.”

I saw heads nodding. She was right of course. Many of today’s responsibilities are time driven. It doesn’t matter if someone has the most incredible knowledge and expertise if they’re not there when customers or colleagues need help. Her point helped to change the mindset. While schedules should not be overly rigid, they matter. Today, that organization is exemplary in their focus on customers, including a strong respect for workflow and schedules. Does your team understand the importance of timing?

Excerpt from Leading the Customer Experience: How to Chart a Course and Deliver Outstanding Results by Brad Cleveland.