Culture is everything. Everything is culture.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed tragic events take place on both sides of the Atlantic, under the shadow of separate political campaigns – the US presidency and the UK referendum. A brilliant piece of writing in The Spectator caught my eye, particularly the following line:

“When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged…..When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks.”

In other words, those of us in power – whether political or economic – create an environment and people live within that environment. We therefore can’t and shouldn’t be surprised when the environment we create has an impact on the actions of people. On one hand it doesn’t create a direct line of culpability, but on the other nor does it allow immunity of action.

When I’m asked by leaders how you make a change in organisational culture, my first question is “how much do you want it?” Simply, are you willing to change your behaviour, your language, your interactions in order to help the organisation to change? Because it doesn’t start with posters, fliers and conversation makers – it starts with you. It starts with everything you do.

It is also the reason why I call bullshit on the arguments that corporate failures – such as phone hacking, financial irregularities and mismanagement are somehow down to a lone wolf or small groups of people acting without the knowledge of others. There is always someone who knows something that knows someone. And there is always, ALWAYS organisational failure and complicity.

When you work in a toxic environment – you know it. It just becomes the norm. You either get trapped or you sustain your efforts, hoping to be one of the winners. You lose your sense of compass and direction, but you know that it isn’t right. You just make arguments that help you to believe it might be justifiable and surround yourself with those that are trying to believe the same.

I know, I’ve been there.

And our organisations are part of the environment that people exist within. We form part of the air that they breathe, the emotions that they fell, the existence that they have. We have choices every day about the culture that we create and the implications of that culture. A million small choices that could make a massive difference.

I’m not drawing any specific parallels, I’m not trying to make any political points. But what I am saying is this; we can’t change the world, we can’t change the political rhetoric, we can’t solve the problems that have been created over decades, overnight. But we can influence the environment of our organisations, we can influence the culture, we can be more inclusive, more tolerant, more aware.

We can operate more successfully within our communities, we can reward the things that matter and we can be singularly unafraid to care. Every action influences our environment, every decision has implications and every person that we interact with will respond to that interaction.

In times of tragedy it is easy to sit in despair. It is tempting to retreat into the safety of the familiar to assume helplessness. But we’re not helpless; none of us are.  Each of us has the ability to act and influence those around us. And for those of us running organisations those actions can be felt far and wide.

Are you ready for the end?

I’m not the sharpest tool in the box. I’m ok with that. The reality finally struck me that in a matter of weeks our world might be on the verge of substantial change. There is a very real chance that we could be collectively making the decision to leave the european union.

It doesn’t matter what I think, or what you think, the implications will be ours to deal with – both good and bad. In many ways, it is hard to think of a profession or an industry that will be more directly involved in unpicking the implications of that decision than the HR profession.

Nothing will happen too quickly, we won’t wake up and be faced with a series of challenges – other than uncertainty – but we would need to start thinking through the type of employment framework that we believe is right for the country and how we want our world of work to be designed.

Those for an exit will tell you that it will give unrivalled freedom to do what we want. Those against will tell you that nothing much will actually change. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle, away from the rhetoric and fear mongering.

But we do need to think through the type of economy we want and how we would go about building the arguments for creating it. The arguments of freedom come with the significant risks of exploitation and loose practice. Yet what is clear is that the “one size fits all” approach of central legislation does not fit the difference in the economic models of the UK and other countries.

What would you keep, what would you change? Have you thought it through?

Our entire landscape would be subject to debate and consideration. From immigration and skills, through discrimination, compensation and employment protection and litigation. We would be at the centre of some of the most contentious discussions and debates and we need to understand and find our voice.

Many think it will happen, I’m clear it could happen. In the event that it does, the HR profession will have a responsibility to lead business, to make its collective voice heard and to stand for something. We will have an opportunity to shape. And if we fail to take it, rest assured someone else sure as hell will.

8 steps to customer service, the ASOS way

If you’re the parent of teenage children, you’ll recognise the last-minute “but I don’t have anything to wear” moment. You’ll also know that kids grow exponentially and therefore, sometimes this isn’t a fashion crisis, but a genuine statement of fact. Such was the case a couple of days before we went on a short family vacation.

Fortunately, today the joys of home delivery mean that you can get pretty much anything from anywhere if you have the time and the money. When it comes to clothes, like many families with teenagers in the UK, we use ASOS. We use it so much, that we also have a premium delivery service which provides, “unlimited next-day delivery or nominated day delivery with no minimum order value.”

Job done.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that it certainly wasn’t job done. The events that followed have almost represented a “101” on how not to handle customer relationships. Deliveries not taking place, then products being thrown over a back gate, in the rain. Questions not being answered, failure to respond to communications and no resolution being offered.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with internal or external customers, the principles are the same, here are the things that stand out as things we can learn:

1. The incorrect statement
The problems all started with a failed delivery. A simple statement on a website that delivery had been attempted but that there was no-one in. We’ve all seen that right? However, I was in. In fact there were three adults in the house and a dog who barks when a butterfly flaps their wings in the next county. There was a doorbell that worked and a porch that was open where the goods could have been left. When I first questioned this I was told there was in fact an “address query”. Then later on that I hadn’t been in. And then again that there was an address query and then that the delivery had been “misrouted at the depot”. So which one was it? I’m still confused.

Lesson one: An important one to start. Know your facts and make sure you’re stating only fact. If you state something incorrectly, apologise and confirm that you were wrong. It is often tempting to state things to try to close and issue, but people will find you out. When you make incorrect statements and then change them, it damages trust.

2. The failure to follow through
On every single occasion I’ve been told that people would get back to me, but I’ve had to repeatedly chase. ASOS like to do things on Twitter (how very social of them). I’ve worked out that the way to get a response to a DM is to tweet something publicly, this then gets followed up in a DM. When I originally raised the issue on the Sunday I was told they’d get back to me. Nothing until I chased on Tuesday. It was a bank holiday, I get that. But did they stop taking customer orders over the bank holiday? Or just customer service?

Lesson two: If you say you are going to get back to people, get back to them. Set a timeline, provide a commitment and stick to it. Failure to follow through leaves people wondering whether you’re taking them seriously. Even telling people you’re still looking or have no new news is better than silence.

3. The insincere apology
We all know that mistakes happen, that is one of the facts of life. Having the honesty and openness to admit to mistakes and accept your responsibility sets you apart as an individual, as a team as an organisation. ASOS haven’t apologised once and the only statements that come near have had a caveat attached to them to try to explain away the problem.

Lesson three: Any apology that has or could have a “but” after it, isn’t an apology it’s an insincere apology. If you know that you’ve done everything you can and the problems are genuinely a freak of nature, you should have absolutely no issue in holding your hands up and making an unequivocal apology. There is a powerful effect to owning a problem through apology that we should never overlook.

4. The lack of differentiation
There were a number of data sets available to ASOS that they didn’t take in to account. They have all of my customer records. So a quick look would have shown them that I’d been a customer since 2013, I’d been purchasing regularly from them, spent nearly £2,500 during that time and  beyond a normal return, I’ve not had any specific issues with them. It would also have shown that I was a subscriber to their premium delivery service. All in all that means that whilst I might not be the biggest customer they’ve ever had, I’m a regular customer and one that has invested in a longer term relationship.

Lesson four: You should always be aiming to delight every customer, that goes without saying. But the reason that you develop CRM tools and building data centres is so that you can differentiate between customers. Using that information and knowledge to help you differentiate service is also a sensible way to approach business – think about how people get hotel or airplane upgrades – and build brand loyalty.

5. The inconsistent personnel
I said ASOS liked to use Twitter, but they don’t actually tell you who is handling your query in the way that many other companies do. It’s a silent faceless machine that is only discernible  as being multiple people through the change in language that is used. That means that each time you raise a query, you feel like you are going back to the beginning.

Lesson five: When things go wrong customers want ownership as well as a timeline. They want to know that “Dave” is in charge of sorting out your query and will be back in contact with you by 12 noon tomorrow. Getting pushed around between customer representatives or multiple team members never feels like a good experience – but especially when things are going badly.

6. The “no win-no win”
As I’ve said, things go wrong. I could give countless examples over the past year where I’ve had to raise issues with companies. How those issues are resolved really shows you how the company views customers. ASOS failed to fulfil their delivery promise to me. They damaged the goods they were delivering to me by leaving them unattended in the rain. They failed to admit that they had done either things and they didn’t answer my questions. The resolution? I could return them for a refund or a replacement if they were damaged. Wait? But that’s pretty much my right anyway as a consumer. So what’s the recompense?

Lesson six: Whether it is a psychological contract or a transaction, there is a perception of return for value that is established. When that real or psychological contract is broken, you need to offer some way of giving recompense. It doesn’t have to be financial, it could be additional service, additional support, some how going that extra mile. But when you haven’t fulfilled your side, you can expect the expectation on you to increase beyond the normal offer to a customer.

7. The “no names” approach
When I’m getting nowhere, I will always ask, “is there someone else that I can speak to, to help me with this?’ I get that often customer service representatives are tasked with a playbook and have to follow the rules. I understand that often they get stuck between company policies and the customer – although the best companies empower representatives to come to a conclusion. Of all the responses from ASOS, this was the most incredible one, “We are the customer care team, and you will receive the same answer on our other customer care platforms. We are sorry that you are not satisfied with the only outcome that is possible, and we look forward to hearing from you when you return from your holiday. Have a lovely time.”

Lesson seven: Whether it changes things or not, allowing the customer to raise the issue with someone else, helps diffuse a situation. And of course, if you’re comfortable about your approach and how you’ve handled a situation – you shouldn’t have any concerns. Putting up resistance and walls can lead to thinking that you’re not being taken seriously – and damages trust. If you’re not going to empower people to come to solutions, you need to have a path for escalation.

8. The inconclusive end
ASOS promised me that, “Speedy hassle-free shopping just got real easy” but that wasn’t true. It wasn’t speedy, it certainly wasn’t hassle free and whilst it was easy for me to make the purchase, everything after that point was far from so. They also promise, “occasionally something goes wrong with our service and when it does, we promise to fix it as fast as we possibly can”. That wasn’t the case. In fact to date, the situation hasn’t been fixed. I’ve had non-delivery, damaged goods, unreturned messages and slow customer service. There is no closure.

Lesson eight: If you truly believe in customer service, then the situation ends when the customer accepts that it has – not when you exhaust your process manual. There will be the odd individual who will be unreasonable and demand more than acceptable – but most people are fair and reasonable.

I ask myself, have I been that exceptional, unreasonable person? I don’t think so.At the end of the day, this isn’t about the money or time, I kept asking the questions because I was amazed at the approach that was being taken. There were numerous opportunities to grab hold of the issue and resolve it, but they were ignored.

Will I continue to shop at ASOS? Probably. I have two teenage kids that like their products – maybe this is what they rely on. Has it damaged my faith in a brand? Completely. And longer term brand reputation is always more damaging and more costly for an organisation than anything relating to “in year” financial performance.

So the lesson for all of us, is that sometimes the actions that we take today may not seem to cause an impact, but when a build up of evidence starts to point to a failure, that’s where you’re going to have trouble. If want our reputation and brand to be maintained, we need to act it out in every interaction that we have. And that doesn’t matter whether you’re a retailer, any other company or a service department –  you’ll be judged in the same way, because when it comes to customer service, the same rules apply to us all.

Beware your confirmation bias

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I love data.

I love data, I love data analysis and I love evidence. Maybe not as much as Rob Briner, but that’s a tall order – we can’t all be that weird.

I hate assumption.

I worry that in the HR profession we’re increasingly happy to throw relevant information to one side and follow arguments that we personally value, even when the data suggests to the contrary. I’m especially worried that the whole “Human focussed HR” is being used as a cover all for sloppy, stupid thinking.

Two conversation happened last week that made me reflect on this in more detail. Now, the conversations in themselves weren’t stupid and the proponents were well meaning, but the arguments being made exemplified this risk.

I tweeted this:

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I’m increasingly interested in the psychology of technology and the way in which our behaviour is manipulated by technology companies. It isn’t new, retailers have been using behavioural manipulation for years, but it is naive of us to assume that technology is purely about liberation. We are given the sense of being super connected, when in fact we are depriving ourselves of many other types of social contact and integration. You can look at the research on this and there is an increasing body that shows the potential dangers.

A number of people responded to me that this wasn’t the case, that I was talking rubbish and that in fact we were all more connected than ever. I asked for evidence, I got none. I asked for data, I got none. We are more connected, we just can’t prove it.

Then I saw this,

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Both of these were being used to argue that compensation was really unimportant when compared to culture. It’s an argument that I hear a lot, it isn’t the money, it’s the culture. Ok.

But let’s reposition that data.

“Work life balance is unimportant compared to the senior leadership of an organisation”

Because, the data also suggests that. I’m not sure I hear many proponents of this argument in the world of HR. I don’t hear people arguing that no-one cares about work life balance as long as you’ve got top quality (well paid?) senior management.

The point is this. We need to be careful of our confirmation bias, we need to be careful of seeing the information we believe in and not the information as a whole. The arguments are rarely simple, they’re complex. They’re rarely linear, they’re multi faceted. And we need to be able to explore complexity and make appropriate conclusions based on evidence.

I believe in a more human workplace, I believe in making things better for employees and employers, for society. We will only do that by approaching this in a scientific, detailed and thought through way. Not by making bland assertions based on our gut instinct and personal beliefs.

If we want this, the evidence is there, we just need to be thoughtful enough to discuss all of it – even the bits we don’t agree with.