As a leader most days you will witness an employee delivering service to a customer that has room to be much better.  If you witness an employee behaving in a less than satisfactory way towards a customer, you have a split second to decide:

1.  Am I going to tell this employee what I observed and what I expect to see in the future when they interact with customers?


2.  Am I going to ask this employee how they think they showed up in that interaction and what the impact of that was on the customer?

Those are two different approaches; however, if you want to enact real change in the long term, option two will be far more effective in lifting the performance of your employee’s service interactions. Option one is a work-around, a shortcut; it’s simply telling, instructing and directing.

Our brains are powerful. They give us the capacity (within that split second of making a decision) to justify our decision, judge our decision and even predict the response of the employee based on our decision. The real work begins when leading with questions and to grow this we need to allow for conscious thoughts, time and commitment to develop.

1. Conscious thought
Taking a few seconds to pause and consciously lead is intimately connected to asking questions. For us to stop and think about what is the best, we are required to think consciously not automatically.

Peter Bregman author of Four Seconds reminds us that four seconds is the time it takes to take a single breath. The goal is to use the time it takes to inhale and exhale a single breath, to check your thoughts and consciously act from that place.

When you stop and take a breath, you give yourself the chance to be more mindful in that moment, and to dial into what will be your most effective next move.

It is our default thinking that kills curiosity in business. Our need for more efficiency and better results feeds unhelpful habits and old patterns in our leadership styles, which means we forget to stop for a moment; we forget to be curious about what we notice and this affects how effectively we develop that individual.

When one of the companies I work with introduced side-by-side coaching with its contact centre employees, it highlighted the importance of dealing with matters as they occurred and addressing mediocre performance at the time it was witnessed—not a month later in a scheduled team meeting. Plus, it resulted in immediate improvements for the customer’s experience.

This new company process of developing its people requires daily conscious thought from front-line leaders to be able to provide real time meaningful feedback to their teams.

2. Time
Just like the tortoise and the hare fable: slow and steady wins the race.

If you believe you don’t have time to address a situation through questions, and that it is more time effective to tell, you have been struck with the mindset that faster is better. In fact, faster is not always better.

Viewing time as an obstacle is an example of a fixed mindset that leads to your team also becoming stuck. There’s no doubt that questions take time, mainly because we want our employees to process information and think about the topic raised. Not everyone processes information at the same pace; you must be patient, and hold the space for your team to process and learn. Time is definitely a hurdle for busy front-line leaders.

What if we looked at time differently? Not necessarily in that one moment, but by addressing issues the first time we see an opportunity.

If I tell my five-year-old niece to put her shoes on when she goes walking in the garden, it will be a momentary comment, and she will comply. However, I guarantee that I will need to repeat myself when I see her again. But if I were to ask her what she needs to be mindful of when walking through the garden barefoot, we can have a conversation where she may offer up ideas like being stung by a bee, pricked by bindies or injured by nails left out from the workman.

This conversation allows her to think for herself; it makes her realise the relationship between her safety and putting her shoes on. I guarantee that next time she will not only wear her shoes in the garden but she will proudly tell me why she is wearing them.

The question is how much time do you have now to help develop your employee in the moment, versus how happy are you to repeat yourself over time?

3. Commit to develop
For years, I thought that if my team liked me they would do as I say. Yeah right!

Over time, I have learned that when we step into the role of serving our teams and helping them to be better than yesterday, they actually start helping us whether they like us or not. Committing to develop your team members results in them committing to developing the company, they will assist in any way they can.

Your intention is to help your team grow, but you need to prepare for this. When we truly commit to something, we give it great thought; we prepare for the task. Preparing (committing) to develop our teams requires preparing for the conversations and, therefore, knowing roughly what questions to ask.

Saying we will do something and actually doing it are two different things. We can all say we are committed to developing our staff; we can all say we are good leaders who like to help people learn and grow, but the reality is that a leader must do more work in the prep stages. This is why asking questions is hard, particularly when it is not your natural starting point as a leader.

Questions require thought, preparation, and time. What will matter most, if you truly want to commit to developing your staff, are your actions, how you plan your days, what you prioritise in your walkarounds and staff visits, and making time for conversations.

You can always prepare for a conversation, even if it’s a short one. A simple starting place in preparing for a conversation is what question will I ask?

Questions on the Fly
Due to the nature of the service sector, it’s not always possible to prepare for these conversations thoroughly. So we also need to be able to ask questions on the fly. If I am under prepared when entering a conversation with someone, or have been taken by surprise and want to develop the employee in the moment, I have three simple prompts to help me:

1.  Golden rule: no closed questions
Erase from your brain questions that start with Do, Are, Can, Could, Will or Is—they will get you nowhere. All questions that start with these words lead to a dead end.

2.  Ask WHY five times
The best default for developing people is keep asking Why. You will go deeper into the conversations, and it will buy you time to think more consciously about a specific question to help you get well on your way to co-creating a light bulb moment.

3.  Keep Quiet
After the initial approach to address a performance observation, be silent. This tool is grossly underutilised in conversations between leaders and employees. Often the silence is enough to allow the employee to dig deeper, talk more about what they believe is going on and decide on the best solution. Try it.

By asking questions, you are encouraging your staff to think for themselves and you are teaching them the cause-and-effect relationship of their decisions.

Jaquie Scammell
‘Love Being in Service’

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