When diagnosing problems with employee performance, don’t waste precious time and resources on solutions that don’t work. Instead, ask “why” at the outset and get to the heart of the matter.
To help you make fast decisions while getting to the heart of the problem, I suggest that you ask “why.” As a business leader, you don’t have time to let a committee study every performance problem you are faced with, but you don’t have time to make a mistake diagnosing the problem either. Misdiagnosis leaves you with the first mess to clean up and now possibly a second! If nothing else, you’ve just wasted time pursuing a solution that didn’t help you while your competition continues to improve.
The principles of total quality management suggest you ask “why” at least five times in a row to get to the root cause. You can then reverse the process with if/then statements to check your logic. Let me give an example of how you can use this technique to find the correct solution without costly diversions.
A medium-sized distribution company was bombarded with complaints that customers were being ignored, product wasn’t ready at Will Call, customers left on hold, and employees were being edgy in speech. The management was not happy with this situation and contacted me to do a series of customer relations seminars to eliminate their problem.
The first thing I wanted to do was get a feel for their current level of customer service to customize the training. So I shadowed employees at one of their main distribution centers including ride-alongs with their drivers. When there was a break in the action, I asked the employees probing questions to understand their job processes and thoughts while with the customer.
What I found were employees with very good individual customer relations. They had the desire to serve people and they had the relational skills to do so. Although they didn’t always use these skills, I still felt something else had to be at the heart of this performance problem. So I started asking “why”.
Why did the employees get edgy with the customers at times? Because of the stress that was caused from disappointing customers each and every day. Why were they disappointing customers? Because the interactions were consistently longer than the customer expected. Why were the interactions to long? Because the employees could not find the information they needed to process the customers request. Why couldn’t they find the information? Because they didn’t know were to look. Why didn’t they know where to look? Because they couldn’t remember from their new hire training. Why couldn’t they remember? Because procedures were not written down for reference and inexperience did not give them the ability to take proper notes during training.
This is leading me to believe that the initial assessment of poor customer service skills was incorrect. To check my logic, I went backwards. If the employees didn’t know what to take notes on and there wasn’t documentation, then they wouldn’t remember everything from training. If they don’t remember everything from training, then they won’t know where to find information in the database. If they can’t find information in the database, then it will take them a long time to search and find it. If they take to long, then the customers will get frustrated. If the customers get frustrated, then the employees may get edgy. The logic seems to work.
The root cause was not poor personal relation skills; it was a lack of retention from initial training. The solution was not customer relations training, but work process definition, creation of reference materials, and training to use the materials. I did write new job aids for this company and worked with a veteran employee to teach others to use them. This corrected the problem and avoided paying for customer service training that wouldn’t have worked. You could have the same results and avoid the same costs if you simply spend the time to ask “why”.
Steve Linley is a Corporate Training Consultant from the Chicagoland area and has been training since 1986. His main focus, which can be seen in detail at, is helping leaders improve business productivity by equipping them to create clear and precise on-the-job training and coaching programs.