While sitting at a restaurant in London Heathrow airport yesterday, I found myself between the unfortunate cross hairs of a helpless server and his useless manager. At noon, while the restaurant was full of customers from around the globe, the credit card machine stopped working. Many patrons, myself included, did not have enough British pounds to pay for our meals as we were on our way out of the country.
The waiter explained that I would need to pay my tab in cash. I opened my wallet to find scattered pounds, euros and dollars, and I knew it wouldn't be enough. The waiter suggested that I wait the 30 minutes it would take for their system to come back online, but I of course told him that this wouldn't be an option as I had a flight to catch. The waiter then left me to "talk with his manager."
Now the fun started. The waiter walked the six feet away from me to where his manager was standing. I watched as the 40 year-old manager told his barely-20 year-old waiter what to tell me. The waiter returned to my table to reiterate his manager's suggestion and I pushed back again. The poor waiter went back and forth as we tried to get close to the price of my bill counting the few pounds, euros and dollars that I had with me. I could not make the whole amount, which also meant no tip. During this entire exchange, the manager remained where he was, six feet away, and would not look at me or help the waiter by talking directly with me, the disgruntled customer.
As my gate was across from the restaurant, I continued to watch as the same encounter unfolded with other customers and the manager was still immovable to intervene. The young waiter was trying hard and I remained appalled by the lack of support and leadership from the restaurant manager to appease his customers or find solutions given the situation.
The encounter was a prime example of one of the many ways managers can fail at their jobs, which should, at their centers, be to claim any and all responsibility.
When something goes wrong with a customer do you automatically step in front of the bullet for your team? Should you? I think so... and here's why:
1. You need to take responsibility.
You're the leader, which means you should be out front and center, leading your team. When something goes wrong, you need to make sure the customer looks to you for the fault and not to your employee. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is so that the customer respects you when you take ownership and will be more likely to work with you to find a solution than if you hide behind your employees. Second, this helps your employee become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. A rare exception to this rule is when your customer thinks an employee of yours is the problem. If this is the case, you need to listen carefully and help your employee with a get-well plan, if at all possible, but you may have to separate the employee from the customer. Either way, this is still your responsibility.
2. It's a teaching opportunity.
Part of our responsibility as leaders is to cultivate and prepare the next generation of leaders. What better way to prepare the future of your company than to show them how to deal with a difficult situation? Lead with purpose and communicate your process when showing them how you step in front of an issue. If you lead by example and explain to them why you took the approach that you did, then they will learn how to do it for their own teams.
3. It's a learning opportunity.
Most of us never learn true humility, especially in the superman-driven world of high tech. As leaders, we often struggle to hear and see the truth. Employees won't tell us things we might need to hear, so we must keep charging on, regardless of our performance. So when a customer gives us tough feedback--"Your product is too slow, too expensive, low quality," or "You missed your committed deadline"--it's a moment in time for personal learning, humbleness and to be reminded that the customer is always right.
4. Don't blame your employee.
This can be hard, especially if you are frustrated with a situation where your employee executed a task poorly. Yes, maybe give them tough feedback. Yes, maybe use it as a teaching moment. But never place blame or point fingers. 99 percent of the time, your employees are trying to do the right thing. When you blame them, you are probably missing the real issue.
5. Don't project weakness.
Maybe you don't care if your customer or your employees think that you are a weak person, but if you are an ambitious leader, you probably do. And when you hide behind an employee rather than taking charge, you are acting weak.