Study the Best; Become Better


Study the Best; Become Better

Dr. Amanda Trosten-Bloom is a principal with the Corporation for Positive Change, a consulting agency specializing in organizational change and transformative leadership. She shares the story of a mid-sized American automotive repair company that sought to improve customer satisfaction, and the lessons it learned about the power of an appreciative inquiry.

The story begins simply enough. Company managers examined data on customer satisfaction and agreed that customer satisfaction could be improved. Their goal was a modest increase in percentage points, enough to reach the high 80s. Like many companies, leadership worked with a small research firm to analyze consumer complaints and other feedback collected from customers regarding gaps and lapses in service.

Management distributed the results of the study to the organization’s center managers and employees, identifying and recommending corrective steps and improvements in service. Employees were shown where customers regularly scored their centers less than satisfactory and were given guidance and training in ways to improve in these areas.

Months passed, and a new collection of customer satisfaction survey data was analyzed. Surprisingly, senior management found that customer satisfaction levels had fallen rather than risen. Despite all their efforts to understand and improve their level of service, consumers were no more happy than before.

One manager recommended a different approach. Rather than study what we are doing wrong, the manager suggested, what if we studied what we do well? Senior management agreed to this new line of questioning. Their approach involved identifying their best, returning customers to learn what it was about their company that continually brought them and their automobiles to their centers rather than to one of their competitors.

Center managers and employees knew best who these customers were, so management asked each center to conduct its own interviews with those customers they knew and worked with regularly, using a new set of questions. This time, the questions were designed to collect key data on positive, “best of” experiences. Some were skeptical of such a Pollyanna approach to leadership, others feared an avoidance of serious lapses, but the new study proceeded.

The data was analyzed, and the results were distributed throughout the organization, highlighting those strengths and abilities each center offered and delivered to their respective customers.

Rather than recommend corrective actions, each center was allowed to focus on what they did best, to accentuate and further develop on their particular sets of talents, and to seek out guidance and support from other centers with complementary strengths they would like to see improved in their own centers.

Months passed, and customer satisfaction data was again collected. This time, the data showed remarkable improvements in overall customer satisfaction across all centers. Satisfaction entered the 90-percent range, exceeding senior management’s original goal.

The lesson learned is one many organizations practicing “appreciative inquiry” have begun to realize: focusing on what one does best and continually enhancing one’s strengths and unique contributions to their customers and clients is critical to an organization’s success. But, equally important (especially for the skeptics of the approach), a focus on strengths appears to indirectly help to address or at minimum mitigate perceived weaknesses in an organization.

The process of appreciative inquiry – an examination of “what brings life to an organization” and what “best of” experiences an organization offers its employees and customers – has in recent years become an increasingly preferred alternative method for initiating organizational change for improvement and success. If you are interested in transforming your organization to enhance consumer experiences and satisfaction with your services and products, perhaps an appreciative inquiry is in order.