When your best actually isn’t good enough: What could a supervisor do to help you if you were under-performing at work?
November 20, 2009 8:23 AM   Subscribe

When your best actually isn’t good enough: What could a supervisor do to help you if you were under-performing at work?

Hi everyone: Posting anonymously because a lot of my fellow staff love metafilter (and rightly so!). Also, sorry for the length - just want to be sure I get all of the details since I can't post followups anon-style.

I'm wondering how best to help a person I supervise. I work in a service industry, where there is a ‘high-touch’ approach to working with clients. I supervise a team who are expected to respond like concierges – to be discreetly responsive to all requests and client preferences, and to be tactful when the request is unreasonable. In short, to give the customer an excellent experience. My difficulty is that this approach doesn’t come naturally to one of the people I manage. And HR balks at firing staff.

Though this staff person and I have regularly discussed the ‘providing good client service’ issue, somehow something is often a bit off in their approach. For example, if a client is unhappy with our service, the next time my goal will be to be particularly responsive in the short and long term. Short term: to apologize, to offer to correct the problem, to tell them a date that the problem will be corrected and to meet that deadline. Long term: to note that the client was previously unhappy with our service, so the next time they use us to be extra responsive – no missed deadlines, no mistakes. In short, the client needs to feel taken care of and trust us.

My staff person has trouble doing that consistently. If they know they’re going to miss a deadline they may or may not let the client know. They don’t tend to commit to being extra responsive this time if they’ve ticked a client off in the past. (This could be something like: If we’ve missed getting them their product on time last time, that this time we’ll send them weekly updates until they tell us the product has arrived). Also, if they feel a client or team member has wrongly criticized them (and maybe they did), this person will say how angry they are, and that they don’t know how they’ll keep their cool in dealing with the client or team member in the future (which ends up making them look unprofessional, no matter how much of an ass the client/staff person was).

The thing is, while there can be guidelines and rules, I think it’s really hard to comprehensively teach professional interpersonal skills. I didn’t appreciate how lucky I’d been in hiring staff in the past. Everyone else already came to the job with these professional interpersonal skills, and our guidelines were just parameters - they weren’t lessons on what to do to make a client feel cared for. Also, it’s hard to model professional behavior in this case, because no one else on the team does the same tasks as this person. So the person may see another staff member behave professionally, but doesn’t always apply the principles they saw to their own work.

This situation is hard for this person – both because they need the job, say they like the work, and because they got consistent positive feedback at their previous client services position. We’ve talked about this regularly and I give consistent positive and constructive feedback. But it feels like it's backfiring and bashing their self esteem, as we just seem to be going over the same themes, even though I know they are trying hard. I can’t fire them because their mistakes aren’t egregious, and overall, when they try their hardest and do their best, they are doing solid “B” work. When they don’t, it’s a passible “C”. It’s just rarely an “A”.
I find myself taking a lot of time putting out small fires, and doing lots of small soothing when clients are not pleased with this person’s performance.

I realize part of the problem is the previous person in the job was amazing – customers loved her, she’d remember small details about their preferences, she was reliable, etc. She could handle the heavy, difficult workload with professional grace. I also think some clients and staff don’t see or appreciate the 100 things this person does well, and tend to notice the 15 ‘not good client service moments’. But I also appreciate that staff/clients are annoyed that when the current person messes up or doesn’t get that they should make the extra follow up phone call, etc., the person will often point to the huge workload as the reason why they couldn’t give the A+ service.

So the question: What could your supervisor do to help you if you were the person in that situation? What would help you do a better job or make you feel supported? Are concierge-like positions just something that some people sort of get in theory, but aren't really skilled at? And that's just the way it goes?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (5 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Formal training would probably help, where the exact steps were explained in detail. All the "how to win friends and influence people" details should be explained, that you should communicate clearly, and on time, remember details like names and childrens' names.

But ultimately, there need to be consequences. I myself am customer-focused in everything I do. I had to learn this, and I had a great mentor/supervisor like you. But I nearly lost a contract because I forgot details.

My mentor also always brought the hammer down by saying "You promised to do X, and you did not. WHY?"

Keeping promises (like deadlines) are important. When you make the promise, it means you have taken the time to determine if you can fulfill that promise, and if you can't, you have communicated and come up with a compromise.

But bring the hammer down. Explain expectations, document performance, and terminate if need be. To be nice, explain all the stuff you explained above.

Sometimes there needs to be consequences to remind people in a details-oriented job that the details are important.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:34 AM on November 20, 2009

I think it's possible for someone to learn the type of service you're talking about, but it's probably an unhelpful teaching method to give someone a list about what to do in each possible situation or to tell them afterwards what they did wrong. After all, a big part of excellent service is anticipating what each individual client would want (not something you're going to learn from a list) and what you can do to deliver that.

If your suspicion is correct that this person is getting ground-down due to the lack of recognition for the parts of the job she does do well, it makes me think that a better solution might be to have a post-mortem with her regularly about her performance with specific clients. This could either be after every client or scheduled at some regular interval like once a week (randomly picking one or two clients she served that week--and NOT necessarily the ones that she did the worst on).

The post-mortem would involve having her explain the basic things she did for the client, what she thought went really well or reflected really well on her, and what she thought went poorly or could have been improved on. You want to get her to think through her process and identify both her strong and weak spots, because ultimately the goal is to get her anticipating what the client wants/needs and how the client will react to what she does (or doesn't do). If, during the post-mortem, you end up having a really different view of what the strong or weak points were for a particular client, that might give you a clue about what she's missing that would make her great, rather than adequate, at her job, and you can have a talk about what she's not cluing in on.

The key things are

--regularly scheduled meetings where you two talk about recent performance with specific clients, and

--talking about what she did poorly AND recognizing what she did well or has improved on

That gives you a chance to give positive feedback pretty quickly after she improves her performance, which I think will be much more motivating than just talking to her whenever a client is unhappy. Hopefully after she starts to improve a lot you could scale these back to once a month, then once a year (e.g., her annual review).
posted by iminurmefi at 8:54 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

It sounds like the only argument why the person is not delivering class A service is their workload. Do take some work off of them and tell them explicitly that you're doing so to enable them to deliver better service. If you yourself take over this work the gesture becomes even more impressive (unless your relationship is difficult already, then it'll just create more pressure). Since you're already spending a lot of time with issues created by your staff person, your workload might not even increase much. Define and state an amount of time you will do this until you will both re-evaluate...

Ultimately you can still lay someone off for delivering class B service, if delivering class A service is the core of your business. It sounds like the latter is the case.
posted by oxit at 8:58 AM on November 20, 2009

While reading this, for a while there I thought you might be my boss. You might still be. If so, hi boss!

I went from a completely non-customer facing role to one that's almost exclusively so. And it turns out I'm pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. That's a result of good/lucky guessing on both my part and the people who hired me, but more of it is the example set by both my boss and the other people on my team.

Have you thought about restricting their customer load to the less difficult ones, at least temporarily? Not all your customers need class A service. Like any other kind of work, there are degrees of difficulty, and staff that are (or are not) appropriate for each degree.

You can also have people play good cop/bad cop. Sometimes customers just need a different contact, instead of a better contact.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 10:33 AM on November 20, 2009

I was previously laid off because I was in a bad situation where my boss claimed I was not performing up to par while at the same time drowning my in work, verbally abusing me in private and in front of coworkers (in person or via email with them CCed) when I had proof that I had merely acted as she had requested which I responded with in a polite professional manner to defend myself.

I ultimately had to take it to HR because the stress was causing health issues and they confronted her and surprise! I got laid off shortly thereafter. Gotta love the way those things work.

So here's the point I'll try to make...you need to make it clear that anything less than a certain level of performance is unsatisfactory and explain the long-term consequences (termination), but also let the person know that you are there to support and train them (which is your job as a supervisor). Put together a plan on how you two can work on things together with milestones, etc. This is also great documentation if you do eventually need to lay them off for not meeting said milestones. If you are capable of taking on more of a load in the short term while this training commences, do so--it could be the breathing room this person needs to find their sea legs and succeed.

Remember that you can be firm without being abusive (like my old boss) and that the latter does NOTHING to help the situation. It just brought down my self esteem which in turn lowered my performance even further--it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That said, there are a couple things that might be worth investigating further based on the following quote:

"This situation is hard for this person – both because they need the job, say they like the work, and because they got consistent positive feedback at their previous client services position."

First, the fact that they "need the job" is irrelevant. I hate to be cold but your job is to do what is best for the company and them needing a job is not a factor in that whatsoever. Second, every single person who is cited for performance issues is going to say they like the work as even hinting to the contrary would make it much easier for them to be let go. Third, you might want to double-check with HR on the "consistent positive feedback" they received. While most companies won't directly comment on a previous employees performance, the question they will answer is "is this employee eligible for rehire at your company." That can say a lot. Please note this is something HR should follow-up on, not you.

My final tidbit would be to look for other things that might be causing some of their issues. Are they disorganized with a messy desk? Do they not file emails in their inbox into folders by client/project/etc. and add reminders to themselves in their Outlook calendar for all those little details? These are all things they should be doing that can help them get a better handle on the little details.

Sorry for the long-winded post but this question touched a nerve with me based on my past experience and while you need to do what is best for the company, you also need to make sure this person is getting a fair chance to succeed.
posted by Elminster24 at 10:53 AM on November 20, 2009

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