Jun 192007

Staff loyalty in business?
I suggest it’s more likely to be staff gullibility, but who’s really to blame if the workplace becomes too hard to handle?

Last night’s Four Corners program didn’t present anything new about the relationships which all too often arise between employers and employees. In fact, I’d suggest the tale told – suicides of individuals aside – is typical of any business which has a product sales focus.
Sales are the lifeblood of just about any business. Sales make dollars and dollars lead to profits. To make sales a business must have people. That’s a simply an inescapable truth. Regardless of how technologically advanced a businesses sales process might be, it’s people dealing with people who generate the sales.
The trouble with business, and this is also an unavoidable truth, is the perception by management on just about every level, that people are the balance sheet equivalent of liabilities rather than the assets a business needs to operate effectively. I notice it was stated on last night’s program that it didn’t matter how much you did for the company, how well you performed, it was never enough. They always wanted more. I’ve had personal experience of this profit-driven, sales-target-oriented culture, in my case, within the finance industry.
In the mid to late `90’s I managed a branch of a major Queensland-based financial institution. That institution, when I joined it in 1995, was a building society, but that all changed when its major shareholder decided to sell it off in a merger it with another state-owned institution and a bank. The merger never really phased my staff, primarily because I didn’t make a big deal out of it, and simply encouraged them to carry on doing what they knew very well how to do, which was service our customer base, adhere to policies and procedures and promote the institutions’ products on a ‘no need-no sale’ basis.
By the time the merger really got into full swing, an American was employed by the board as CEO, with a brief to trim costs and boost profits. Said CEO set about his task in what I can only describe as a rather soulless manner of artificially created attrition from staff resources. Toe-cutting is the vernacular. Departmental amalgamations, positional and responsibility shifts made entirely to suit the oncoming corporate structure with no regard to the experiences or abilities of the people concerned. Many staff resigned out of a combination of boredom and frustration with being either sidelined in dead-end jobs or placed in positions for which they simply weren’t equipped. All part of the grand plan, without doubt.
In branch-land, we were given arbitrary sales targets for investments, lending, insurances, credit cards and so on, which no-one in management ever consulted the coal-face on as to whether they were achievable in any given demographic. These targets were then ‘stretched’ in the middle of a reporting period, as an incentive, so we were told, to strive for greater efforts. The pay-off being the warm, rosey glow we’d all get from knowing we’d made the grade, except that the grade always seemed just out of reach. Again, the vernacular was placing the goalposts in the back of a ute and driving them out of town at high speed.
Senior Management changed every second month with new edicts coming down from on high as to how we should serve our customers with a view to more and more sales of any product which happened to be the current flavour of the month. Again, no regard whatsoever to customer demographics. My branch was located in the centre of what we all called, octogenarian city. A well-established suburb with predominately aged, retiring population. Just the base to be marketing internet banking to. Not! We even had targets for reducing in-branch transactions. Effectively, we had to get our customers out of the branch, when all they really wanted to do was come into the branch, transact from their passbooks, have a chat, and shuffle out again.
This is the sales culture and it persists. In fact, if anything, in banking and finance it’s grown more intense over the past ten years. Sales targets which those charged with achieving them have no input into creating. Americanised sales techniques employed which simply aren’t suited to the Australian marketplace and sales training which originates from the same vein. All the while, it’s sell, sell, sell regardless of what the customer might want or whether the person charged with the selling has the ability to carry it off. McDonald’s banking, I call it, except in the finance game, asking someone if they want a credit card with their home loan, or worse, telling the customer they need a full financial advisory appointment with an external partner company before their margin loan will be approved, isn’t providing the service the customer really wants. It’s only providing an avenue for what the business wants to sell them.
What resonated with me most from last night’s Four Corners was the reaction of Susan Dousett to Quentin McDermott’s question on service.

QUENTIN MCDERMOTT (to Susan Dousset): If someone rang up with a a problem with their international roaming for example and they were standing in the middle of Trafalgar Square, did you feel that you had to sell them a plan?
SUSAN DOUSSET, FORMER CONSULTANT, TELSTRA COMO CALL CENTRE: Absolutely. It changed when the new training program came in. Even if they were in the middle of the night in any country in the world, we had to ask them could we look at your plan?
And all the people wanted to do was get their telephone working and personally I thought it was totally inappropriate. We’re an inbound call centre, we’re not an outbound call centre and that’s not what the people are on the phone for, they want customer service.

They want customer service. That’s all the customer ever wants. Service. Service engenders sales. Sales never engenders service. Anyone who believes otherwise has never worked in the frontline of a service oriented business. Give a customer what they really want, and they’ll remember you. They’ll come back to you because you treated as they wanted to be treated. Not as the business wants to use them. As a well to be dipped as often and as deeply as possible.
Business will never understand that ethos, because shareholders will always demand more profit. Combined with the greed of management for those performance bonuses measured in the thousands or hundreds of thousands will ensure that the taskmaster’s whip will always crack over the backs of the ‘savages’. No amount of industrial relations reform will ever change that. The responsibility for the well-being of employees falls fairly and squarely on the heads of the employees. Management doesn’t care if you jump off a bridge in the desperation of destroyed self-esteem. Sol Trujillo confirmed that much by stating:

“All of us to have to get in the game, all of us have to make things happen, and we can’t let policies or individuals stand in the way.”

As much as I sympathise with the families of those who departed this world because they felt they couldn’t stay, I simply can’t find it in me to lay the blame fairly and squarely at the feet of the employer. They don’t help, that much is certain, but in the final analysis if you don’t like the culture and can’t handle the environment, then get the hell out. No job is worth your life and if enough people walk, the company will pay the price in the end. The sad part of this saga are the elements of vulnerability we all carry around with us. We all like to be liked and we all need to feel we’ve succeeded in whatever we choose to undertake. It’s part of what makes us human. Certain management techniques prey on these vulnerabilities, but as independent self-aware individuals, we need to realise that no-one looks after us better than we do, ourselves.
I have a modicum I employ in relation to the workplace these days. If it ain’t fun, don’t do it. Good advice.

  2 Responses to “Nothing Ever Changes”

  1. It’s difficult to pinpoint if top management is at fault or if it’s a line manager covering their butt. I do work at Telstra and I have found that it’s often that a line manager or team leader, who will use personal language in a negative manner in the hope that this will motivate an employee. Then there are the Telstra cliques, those who maintain a cohesive group, who view new starters as outsiders in some cases. It can go on for quite a while. I have worked there for some time and I still don’t feel accepted. If a minor thing occurs, I’ll be pulled aside and the issue magnified beyond anything. I keep on telling myself that it isn’t cardiac surgery or similar, to keep my head up because I am in need of a regular income, and short of blowing my fuse, I remind myself that such corporations are structured to work in this way. All about hierarchies and approval, obeying a certain chain of command. If one deviates from this, one is pulled aside and given a subtle warning (not an official warning).
    In the wake of the suicides, many managers went to workshops to discuss these events, and I don’t think that many of them returned with any improvement to their communicative technique. It doesn’t matter. It’s about maintaining their foot in the ladder, maintaining their position, even if it means pulling an employee out of a task to complete something the manager has forgotten to complete.
    Of course it’s not a company’s fault, and it’s not the fault of some underqualified managers (underqualified in the sense of effective communication or even human communication on a real level), but there are many who begin a career wanting to make a go of it. Like the saying, there are a few bad apples everywhere, but there is room for progression, however if one is unfortunate to end up in one department managed by a mini Hitler, it makes such progression difficult, even if the rest of the company is positive and offers positive incentives (outside of sales, there are many other departments within Telstra that offer good career development).
    Like anything, it’s random. A person is fortunate to start in a team, managed by a personable team leader or is unfortunate to work for a sycophant without an ounce of integrity. It happens, and sometimes it is the principle. Unfortunately there are some people who try to tough it out, who find themselves in a dark place later on in time and it is unfortunate, but a company does need to constantly monitor its management.
    If management is poor, or a manager has poor communication skills (negative, ‘spare the rod spoil the child’ mentality) this has repercussions that are obvious: high staff turnover, high staff absency (sickies, etc) rates, lowered productivity. This is easy to spot, as companies such as Telstra keep records of their progress across each department and this is why I can understand the anger in the community. Senior management can monitor their line managers or team leaders and/or supervisors, but more often they don’t.
    It’s no fun having to approach a supervisor who nit picks over things that aren’t even part of an official Telstra process, to hand you back documents with red pen corrections for the hell of it, or for them to hardly provide ongoing training. I’ve seen many resignations. They stand out like a sore thumb, but other departments aren’t aware of them. I feel they are hushed, minimised and the peer groups (managers) guard this because a high turnover only leads to one thing poor managerial skills.

  2. Interesting observations, Anon. Your own reactions to this negative and sub-standard form of management speaks volumes of the impact it has on a person’s psyche. In my estimation, any business which doesn’t monitor it’s managers at all levels is ignoring its corporate responsibilities to all staff as both assets and human beings.

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