Tuesday, April 9, 2013

With so much technology, I cannot hear you!

Below is the first article that I had published.  It appeared in Cleaning and Restoration around 1999 or 2000. The thoughts in the article are as relevant or more than when it was first published.  Ever seen two people at the same table sending texts and looking at their phones rather than engaging each other? Do you ever wonder if they are texting each other?


I recently visited a friend at his new cabin in the Cascade Mountains.  It is a quaint cabin on an acre of land thirty miles from civilization and several generations away.  Upon my arrival at the cabin, it was nearly thirty degrees outside and just over twenty inside.  The warmth of the rare Oregon winter sunshine replaced the cold from the night before, but the frigid reminder of the low night temperature remained indoors.  A warm fire was started in the wood stove chasing out the cold.  As I sat on the sofa my experience in water restoration made me wonder what phenomenon kept the water pipes from freezing.  My friend Charlie told me to go to the kitchen to investigate this modern wonder that keeps pipes from freezing even when the temperatures drop so low.  Entering the kitchen, I am no longer amazed.  In the center of the counter, I find a normal kitchen sink, with no faucet and no running water!  As I look through the kitchen window I notice a small shed with a crescent moon on the door and realize that there is no bathroom in this rustic two room cabin.  I then retreat to the couch to assess my situation.  Growing up in the country and enjoying the outdoors, I am not disappointed with the conditions.  As a matter of fact in some ways I feel connected with past generations.

One week later I am flying across the country working on my laptop and talking on my  cellular phone.  E-mail, the Internet, palm-sized computers and other technological advances have changed the face of business forever.  Sitting in the lounge at the airport I am reminded of the solitude of my weekend at the cabin.  In many ways, only a decade ago we were in the rustic cabin of the business world.  I am proud to be the last of a generation that made it through college preparing my papers on an IBM typewriter.  I remember the day that our company purchased its first facsimile machine and a day when our entire operation was run with one 286 computer with a DOS operating system.  I am not that removed from a generation that ran businesses without computers. 

No doubt technology has had a very profound effect on our ability to run a successful organization.  Fax machines, networked computers, affordable laptops, and electronic communications have allowed companies to do more with less.  Organizations will be faced with certain failure if they do not embrace new technological advances in the business environment of the next millennium.

My thoughts now return to my visit to the cabin.  How different the lives of my great grandparents must have been.  In many ways life was very difficult and modern society enjoys many luxuries that were never even imagined in generations past.  At the same time my distant relatives surely enjoyed much stronger interpersonal relationships and an interdependence that we may never understand.  Values, the work ethic, and family have been replaced by a generation that is driven by immediate gratification.  Television, Facebook, Smart phones, the Sony Play Station and the Internet raise our children.  At the same time we are also alienating our employees and our customers in our businesses as we replace interpersonal relationships with digital communications.  The result is a group of disenfranchised employees, valueless children and customers that have little if any brand loyalty. 

We are on the brink of a dynamic shift in the business environment as large corporations and small businesses alike utilize the Internet for all facets of their operations from purchasing to hiring.  In a society where human contact and relationships are being minimized, you as a business owner need to walk the fine line between being efficient and productive, and failing to recognize the interpersonal aspects of creating a successful organization. 

Inadequate communications can lead to many grave consequences in your organization.  Without complete information, your employees are left to draw their own, usually faulty, conclusions to their concerns.  In many decentralized companies, there is a serious lack of training for new and existing employees.  Orientation and mentoring programs are being neglected or completely disbanded to the detriment of your entire organization.  This lack of investment and lack of personal contact with your employees leads to ambivalence and a lack of belonging to a winning team.  At the same time the lack of personal attention and a team environment are stifling creativity and risk taking.  This attitude of indifference can cause fundamental problems in all layers of your company.  Technology used in conjunction with sound leadership and quality personal relationships can become the foundation of a very successful company.
What can be done to foster this attitude of belonging to a winning team while at the same time embracing the dynamic changes of the digital age? 
·      Hold regular meetings in which essential company issues including full disclosure of the financial situation are discussed. 
·      Hold regular idea sessions in which you allow all employees to discuss what the company is doing right and obvious areas of needed improvement. 
·      Provide opportunities outside of the office for team members to spend time together. 
·      Have a formal orientation program in which all new employees are introduced to their job duties and to the company culture. 
·      Have a compelling challenge in which team members are excited about their role in achievement of company goals. 
·      Make your workplace fun. 
·      Allow for small victories and celebrate achievement. 
·      Involve all team members in essential management decisions. 
·      Invest in your team members through ongoing training. 
·      Finally, include input from all members of your organization on the goals, vision for the future and company mission.   

In an environment where communications make everyone of us more readily accessible, it is amazing that our customers are having a difficult time in getting a hold of us!  Voicemail systems, e-mail and texting frequently place barriers between our customers and us.  The Internet and other new advances in technology have changed the way that clients find out about our companies and make purchase decisions.  These new methods usually involve much less personal contact between the involved parties, making price the most important buying decision.  Brand awareness that has been developed over the past ten years can be dissolved in a matter of years. 

Given this changing relationship with our customers, how can we improve? 
·      Steve Toburen has taught us a valuable lesson as he reminds us to “put on our customer eyeglasses.”  We need to look at our company through our customer’s point of view.  Do the systems and procedures that we utilize exist for our own convenience, or for the benefit of the customer?  This question can best be answered by interviewing your customers. 
·      Hold focus group meetings in which you ask detailed questions on your service, and how you can improve. 
·      Ask your employees for suggestions in how you can dramatically exceed your customer’s expectations. 
·      Hold informal discussions with your clients on a daily basis.  In the 1980’s, Tom Peters taught us a management technique called Managing By Wandering Around.  MBWA is a technique that involves getting out from behind your desk and analyzing your company through observation and by asking questions.  Remember that you are in a relationship business. 
·      You are not selling a commodity product, rather a specialized service.  Take steps to build relationships with your clients and remember that trust is your clients main concern.  

Business will never again be the same.  Electronic communications has forever shifted the reality of the business world.  If you do not embrace change, your business will become extinct even if you have been around for twenty years.  Remember that the dinosaurs roamed the earth for possibly millions of years before they were wiped out, likely by single major event.  Watch out!  Technology can be a double-edged sword.  Make sure that you do not neglect the interpersonal relationships that exist in your company.  Follow the steps above to help create a high performance organization that your employees and customers are excited to be associated with.  Analyze the log cabin days of your organization to understand the relationship issues that made your company successful then put on your Google Glasses and get ready for the future!  

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