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Check In, Don’t Check Up

Doesn’t it make you nauseated when you call up a business and before you even reach a live person—and you’ve plowed through eight mystifying menus—you get these shrill recordings that say, “To better serve you and to help us with customer service, we’re going to record this conversation!” And you know darn well that it’s to check up on you and the operators. They might as well just blurt out, “We don’t trust our people and we don’t trust you, so we have to record this conversation to see that everyone behaves!”

Technology has radically changed the workplace, in both good and bad ways. The bad part is that a lot of people feel Big Brother is always watching. They know their phone calls can be monitored, that security cameras can record them, that their e-mails can be read by supervisors. Some companies even equip their associates with geotracking cell phones so bosses know where people are at all times—are they working on that corporate strategy paper or buying a parakeet at the pet store? None of this makes people feel trusted.

But it’s more than just technology. It’s the managers who constantly come around, call, e-mail—use whatever means available—to see if you’re doing your job. They’ll ask you ten or twenty times a day: “Did you make that sale?” “Did you finish that report?” “Did you place that call?” Did you, did you, did you?

Here’s a story I heard from someone in the computer software world. Jordan was a software salesman, and a top-notch one. He hit his numbers, and usually exceeded them. Yet he had a boss who was an overbearing micromanager. He always wanted to know what Jordan was doing and how he was doing. When Jordan was in the office, his boss would drop by his cubicle a dozen times a day to inquire about accounts. Jordan began to keep a log in his drawer of these visits. One record-breaking day his boss appeared thirty-seven times. On the road, he’d get phone calls, voice mails, e mails—where was he, how were things going? One time he stopped for gas and while he was filling up the tank, he got a text message alert: “You finish the Appleby visit yet?” He ducked into the bathroom for a moment. Before Jordan could wash his hands, another text message arrived: “Haven’t heard back from you on the Appleby account.”

This, of course, was extreme. But tamer versions go on all the time. And when they do, associates feel as if they are constantly being checked up on, and that’s not a good feeling, nor does it instill trust.

We very much detest the notion of checking up. Naturally we keep on top of things. What we try to do, however, is check in, a much friendlier, more trustworthy, and far less intrusive means of staying in the loop.

Checking in, we feel, is absolutely necessary. Remember, delegation is not abdication. If you don’t check in with people, you might as well check out! And if you do that your business is sure to wind up being checkmated!

There’s an important distinction between checking in and checking up. Checking in involves restraint and a positive attitude that comes draped in the trust instilled within a personal relationship. If you go to someone as a mentor or coach to assist and suggest, rather than to beat up and demand, you earn respect and trust, and you end up motivating them.

I think Bob Mitchell, one of our copresidents, does a terrific job of checking in on the buying side. He’ll say, “How’s it going, Dan, on that collection from Loro Piana?” Or “Ellen, wow, it’s great to see those new Manolo Blahnik and Prada shoes flying out the door. What are the demographics of the customers buying them?” Or “Dan, have you talked to the team leaders about the new custom-made-to-measure program? What did they think?”

Bob does it in a direct yet soft and probing way, with open-ended questions that allow the associate to respond in an equally genuine open and direct way.

If you have a strong personal and professional relationship, you can then check in with an associate and say, “How are you doing on that contract?” or “How are you doing on the sales forecast for June?” That way, the question should be viewed as a positive by both parties.

If you barge into someone’s office and bark, “Haven’t you gotten that benefits report done yet?” or “When are you going to make that sales call, already?”—well, that’s not checking in. You might as well handcuff the person to a chair and shine floodlights on him.

When someone says, “Hey, I feel like you are checking up on me,” you need a means of communication to give feedback to prevent that feeling from continuing. A good way to accomplish this is to suggest a proactive strategy—like arranging to meet once a week with someone to go over loose ends, or to recommend that people copy you on an e-mail when they send it out. It’s setting a standard that you want to have positive and anticipated communication.

To come across as checking in rather than checking up, you can say something like, “How’s it going?” or “What’s happening?” If you have a trusting relationship, they person will tell you.

We recognize that technology makes things awfully tricky. Candidly, I look at sales reports every day. It’s part of my get-up-in-the-morning-and-get-going routine. I look at sales associate numbers for the day and client sales for the day. In the morning, out pops an automatic report that shows every sale over $2,000 from the previous day. What do I get out of this routine? The whole process of getting this data helps to create a sense of urgency, which is essential to driving sales. In addition, 90 percent of the time the results enable me to quickly congratulate and celebrate a great sale with the appropriate sales associate and team leader, and the other times they reveal a need to do some coaching.

Of course, I’m totally aboveboard and very transparent with this, and the sales associates know I’m “looking” at their sales. But I think most of them realize that I am doing this to applaud their work or to coach them and not to check up on them. I’m checking in!

When it comes to checking up on associates using technology, well, that belongs in a totalitarian culture and not a free and open culture where you trust your associates to act responsibly. Regularly looking at someone’s e-mail or listening to their voice-mail messages is not for us, that’s for sure.

Our philosophy is that we do have the right and are entitled to look at any e mail that goes over our system, but it would take exceptional circumstances for us to ever do that—like suspicion of illegal behavior. Just like we have cameras that are strategically set up throughout the store; clearly, their purpose is not to check up but to deter and catch shoplifters.

Years ago, for education purposes, I wanted to record how a great seller interacted with a customer using overhead cameras and then having other sellers watch it. And I was shot down immediately by everyone in the room, because they protested that it would feel too much like Big Brother. I hadn’t thought about it that way but after our discussion I totally agreed.

The use of mystery shoppers has become very popular at stores, restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters. These are undercover professionals hired by management to pose as real shoppers to check up on customer service. For me, they would feel like spies. So we don’t use them. We think that they’re one more sign of a lack of trust in your people. I’d rather hear feedback directly from our associates and customers! And vendors! We get input in person or through personalized customer surveys that ask how people feel about the associates who assist them.

Many companies require a doctor’s note if someone is out sick for more than a day, or some such schoolmarmish rule. Again, that doesn’t sit well with us. We do have a procedure set up where we can ask for a doctor’s note, but it rarely happens. I know we did ask one individual, because he claimed he couldn’t do some of his work due to his condition. And yet from our perspective he seemed fine. Therefore, we wanted to make sure we had a professional doctor’s opinion. He provided it and we respected it.

But as a routine matter, why treat people like kids? If someone says he or she is sick, that’s good enough. End of story.

Naturally people take leaves of absences, due to personal matters such as a separation, divorce, or serious illness, including substance abuse. Of course, it’s really nice when good things happen to great people, like having a baby or getting married or some other happy and joyful event. When the leave results from illness, we ask for some type of medical documentation. This falls to our human resources people, whom we have confidence in to do the right and legal thing. It’s a very delicate area these days owing to all the discrimination laws, and thus we make sure to get HR involved so we don’t break any laws by trying to be nice guys.

Again, we’re checking in, not checking up.

From Hug Your People by Jack Mitchell. Copyright (c) 2008. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.