The power of anecdotes | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing Writer 

We love numbers, percentages, anything that lets us seemingly quantify features of life, especially in our businesses that make us feel better about ourselves.

We survey our employees, seeking information on overall satisfaction and levels of engagement. We survey our customers searching for the same feedback.

Who hasn’t been asked for the “A,” or had it made known that anything less than a “5” is not considered acceptable by a waitress or sales associate as they handed us the customer survey along with our receipt?

Often the primary purpose for this obsession we have with measurement is to provide some “hope” that we are really a better place to work, better at serving our customers than our own experience tells us we are. Is it really better customer service we want, and higher levels of employee engagement and satisfaction? Or, is it better numbers?

Honestly, is it a commitment to service, engagement, satisfaction or maybe fear that drives our obsession? No way do we want to be as bad as we are afraid we might be.

We all have one or two singular experiences working in our own organization that has let us know that anything is possible, and the “anything” we have in mind is not something great, in fact it is something we’d hope would never happen to one of our family members or someone we care about deeply.

Somehow knowing that our customer satisfaction level is 99.5 percent great doesn’t seem that comforting when a friend tells us the story of one of our employees being rude and failing to step up and take responsibility when they really needed that kind of support. You can’t tell the person standing in front of you just before midnight in a strange airport wondering where their bag is that your bag handling success is 99.5 percent and expect that to raise their spirits.

No, you have to be 100 percent fabulous at handling the situations when the bag does get lost, because those are the only numbers that really matter to the customer. How good are you when they need you?

I hope this sinks in, because the only people that care about the 99.5 percent are the ones who want to think we are getting the job done, and they really don’t count.

Last week, I made a trip to one of the local outlets for a national home improvement chain (not named Home Depot). I don’t want to be too specific, but I can tell you they “Never Stop Improving!”

A woman in front of me at the checkout station was attempting to buy a piece of floor tiling she had found in the store. She was particularly interested in this piece because she thought it was a perfect sample to see whether she might want to purchase a larger quantity for her family room.

The cashier was missing from the station when I walked up, but it was the only one lit so I assumed he or she was off doing a price check. The cashier on duty arrived shortly thereafter and informed the woman in line that she could not purchase a single sheet of the tile; it was sold in a larger quantity and the piece she had located was from a carton that must have either been returned or broken open. (I especially love these stories because they are better than what you can make up.)

The woman stood for a moment, then asked, “Well, if it is from a carton that is broken open, could you just give me this piece so I can take it home and see if I would want to purchase a larger amount?”

I thought this was pretty quick thinking, and it sounded like a win for everyone concerned. The cashier saw it another way.

Keep in mind that this floor tile is a sort of vinyl with a peel off back that sells for somewhere between 70 cents to $2 per square foot and the woman wanted
a one-square-foot sample for free rather than buying an entire $45 case that she might then end up returning.

“I am sorry Ma’am, I am not authorized to do that.”

Do I get it? Yes, unfortunately I do.

In truth, I had no way of knowing whether this was an employee ducking responsibility or an employee whose own experience was clouded by a previous painful incident involving an unauthorized decision. It really doesn’t matter.

What does matter was the woman turning to me, rolling her eyes and offering up, “Isn’t it nice feeling like your dealing with a hometown store?” And how many people did she talk to that evening?

Employees don’t want to know how good they have it, and customers don’t want to know how good we usually are. These people want to know how good we are when we are bad, when we fail to meet their expectations or when we don’t get it done. That’s when they want us to be at our very best.

We can keep that 99.5 percent to ourselves. They are not interested.

Management developer Mike Cook lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at

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