Recently I heard a story that made me shake my head. It involves three people: a cashier, a delivery driver, and a sales rep. Refill your coffee: this is a good one.
The story begins back at the office of a company that sells and delivers materials to retail locations. Even if you’re not in a business which sells directly to the consumer, you’ve seen these trucks all over the place. They are bringing flowers to florists, they are bringing produce to markets, they are bringing lightbulbs to hardware stores.
One day, just before the truck driver goes out on her run, the boss comes in to say something.
“You’ve got a pickup today instead of a delivery. XYZ is behind on their payments, so you need to get everything you left there last week and bring it back to the warehouse.”
Because she knows from experience that asking questions is not a good idea, she nods and grumbles to herself. When the driver arrives at the shop and heads to the retail counter, she relays this same information, but with a little bit of attitude.
“No delivery today. I’m here to pick up everything and take it back. Of course if you were caught up on your bills, we wouldn’t have this issue…”
The clerk shrugs and lets her in.
A few hours later, a well-dressed individual arrives at the shop. He walks up to the clerk with a business card. “I was wondering if I could talk to you for a few minutes about our delivery service. Would you be interested in hearing more, or getting a quote from us?”
This is a typical experience for the cashier. People come up all the time, and he has the same thing to say: “I’m not in charge of these decisions, but I can pass your contact info along to my manager.”
It’s at that moment the cashier notices the business card. It’s from the same company that sent the delivery driver earlier that day. They complained about being behind on payments, and now, they are trying to get a new sale.
This crazy story is completely true, and sadly, not all that uncommon. It’s about three problems that plague the common workplace.
Lack of Authority
Doing work requires authority. You must be authorized to take actions. You must have the power to use tools, to speak to customers, to make decisions. Not everyone has total authority, of course. But at the very least, everyone should have the authority to ask questions and the authority to present their opinion.
In the first part of the story, the delivery driver didn’t feel she had the authority to learn more about what it meant for the customer to be behind on making payments. She took out her frustration on the cashier, who in turn, had no authority to make a payment or discuss the details.
In part two, the salesperson arrives with their standard pitch. The clerk again has no authority, and gives a scripted response. Even when he realizes that the situation warrants some discussion, he doesn’t feel like he’s supposed to say anything.
We often think a job as an exchange of labor for payment. But it turns out that incentives are complicated. In the opening of the story, the delivery driver is supposed to make deliveries. They have no reason to be kind to the customer. And likewise, the cashier is supposed to help his customers. He has no reason to be kind to a vendor, especially someone who is making rude comments about something over which he has no control.
In the second part of the story, the salesperson is likely meeting a quota. They have to go on a certain number of appointments per week, and a certain number of those must be cold calls. Just like the story about the salesperson at the end of the month, it’s easy for incentives to backfire.
The end result of this story is a bad experience for everyone. The cashier is likely to roll their eyes at the attitude and incompetence of the vendor. The salesperson is wasting their time trying to make a sale to a company that already has a delinquent account. The delivery driver is becoming more annoyed. And the manager at the vendor isn’t getting the information they need to make better decisions.
Why does this happen? Can it be prevented?
The answer is complex, but the idea is simple: if people aren’t truly engaged in their work and don’t truly feel valued, they will suffer from a lack of authority, they will be plagued by broken incentives, and they will have bad experiences.
And eventually, your competitors will win. Start the conversation, and make a difference.