In my work as a sales presentation coach for federal contractors, I have the opportunity to visit a broad variety of client locations. I get to see many different cultures and management styles. Sometimes insights on delivering quality come from unexpected sources.
My favorite locations are the ones where I don’t have to go far to get a bite to eat. Often this means hitting the downstairs café that you might find in a typical office complex. As you can guess, many of these places are dicey. Too often, the quality of the food is barely fit for human consumption. When the healthiest option is a bag of Doritos, you know you’re in trouble.
Recently a client hired me for a project in Centreville, Virginia at an office park called Trinity Place. I didn’t know it at first, but I had landed in office café Shangri-La. Having had too many bad experiences in such places, I started with a basic tuna sandwich. Tuna is hard to screw up. Though the service was always good, day in and day out, I clinged to my safe and simple tuna sandwich.
Sunny takes the sandwich and grill orders with a sparkling smile that fits her name, “Hi sir, what would you like today?” Then the ballet begins. A choreographed dance up and down the food line that she’s performed more than a thousand times. It’s a one-person assembly line that would make Henry Ford envious. Fast and efficient, but never rushed.
Sometimes the dance is accentuated with a pirouette and a perfectly tossing a tortilla onto the grill from six feet away. Her hands wrap your sandwich with precise movement and offer up your daily fare like it’s a gift. The presentation is always accompanied with another Sunny smile and a hearty, “Have a nice day, sir!”
After seeing me eat enough tuna to feed a pod of whales, Michael started urging me to broaden my dietary horizons, “You should try something else. We have lots of good food.” He would then proceed to give me a sample, “Try it; you’re really gonna like it.” This was Michael’s M.O.—a sample and his emphatic endorsement, the essence of the offer you can’t refuse.
So, I started exploring the menu, chicken soup, jerk chicken, wonton soup, General TSO’s chicken, gyros, and Michael’s pride and joy—Korean beef bulgogi. Every time I’d try something new, Michael would share his excitement, “You’re really gonna like it!” He was right. It was all delicious. Of course, this led to more sales. If I wasn’t in a sandwich mood, there was Michael working the register and ready to serve up the special of the day. If lunch was good, why not breakfast? I started purchasing coffee and a scrumptious brownie. The Uptown Café at Trinity Place was clearly different—not your typical office park café. Why was it different?
One day, Michael and Sunny had to fill a massive catering order in addition to servicing their daily breakfast and lunch crowd. So, they brought in their son to work the register. Their son was one of the most polite young men I’ve met. It was then that I realized the difference that makes the Uptown Café such a refreshing surprise.
The difference was Michael and Sunny—the proud proprietors. Quality and courtesy are in their blood, and they’ve even passed those qualities onto their boy. Everyone knows that quality and courtesy are business essentials for customer satisfaction, but Michael and Sunny take it to a new level. They make their customers feel special, and they deliver consistently delicious food with a healthy dose of genuine gratitude because of their character.
When I help my clients prepare presentations to win multi-million-dollar bids, quality management is often a topic that we must explain in our proposal. Customers usually want to know how a company will achieve and sustain quality results. The quality loop is simple: set a standard, check if the standard was met, correct the deficiency. The catch is that simple doesn’t automatically equate to easy. Setting a standard and checking if the standard was met are the easy parts. Correcting the deficiency can be tricky.
If the required correction is streamlining a process, replacing a faulty piece of machinery, or adding an extra piece of missing data, then those types of corrections are fairly straightforward. But what if the people performing the process are the problem? What if the problem is one of attitude, pride, and commitment?
Well, in those cases, a manager has tough choices to make. One can blame the people and fire them. Sadly, cutting ties is sometimes the only recourse. However, before rushing to judgement, as a leader, ask yourself one question, “What have I done to instill a culture of quality?” Do your people take pride in their work? Do you respect your workforce, and do they return that respect? Do they approach their work like they are on a mission, or do they view their job as an excruciating grind that they tolerate for the money?
People are remarkably adept at meeting expectations. When the expectations are low, they live up to those meager standards. When expectations are high, they often rise to the challenge. This applies to product standards, but more fundamentally, also to standards of character. That’s where virtues come in. If we focus on the essence of character and as leaders work to help others develop their character, delivering quality becomes a much easier outcome. Pride and commitment replace management scrutiny as the drivers of our results.
Some already have the character it takes for a commitment to quality. Others need to grow. That makes quality a leadership challenge. If an employee is open to building their character, then they will experience great personal growth. If that doesn’t work, then you just have to get enough of the right people who can commit to the culture you need. Either way sound character makes quality a built-in function.
You can attend Wharton or Harvard where I’m sure quality is a topic of their MBA programs, or you can visit the Uptown Café in Centreville, Virginia and see a culture of quality firsthand. Be sure to try the bulgogi—you’re really gonna like it.