Canadian Pizza Magazine

Guest column: December 2012

By Jeff Mowatt   

Features Business and Operations Staffing

Making attitude adjustments

Not long ago, if a customer service employee fouled up, he or she was warned, then if improvements didn’t happen, shown the door.

Not long ago, if a customer service employee fouled up, he or she was
warned, then if improvements didn’t happen, shown the door.

today it’s so difficult just maintaining staffing levels that dismissal
doesn’t really fix the problem – it just changes the problem. It’s more
important than ever for managers to be able to confront unacceptable
employee behaviours without causing the person to simply quit. Next time
one of your frontline employees needs an attitude adjustment, consider
how this teacher handles a surly student.

Imagine you are a
12-year-old who hates school. It’s late one Friday afternoon and you’re
stuck in math class gazing out the window at the beautiful day, counting
the minutes until the bell rings and the weekend starts. Your reverie
is suddenly interrupted by the sound of your teacher’s voice. He’s in
the middle of issuing a three-page homework assignment due on Monday.
You and several other students start groaning. He looks directly at you
and says in a low, serious voice, “I’d like to speak to you in the
hallway – right now.”


Now, you’re embarrassed and you’re probably angry. Mostly you’re scared about what’s next. Then it happens.

you square in the eye in the deserted hallway, the teacher says, “I’ve
been watching you lately and I’ve noticed that you have real leadership
potential. When you act a certain way, other students watch you and
start doing the same thing. The problem is that when I give a homework
assignment, you start rolling your eyes and saying, ‘Oh, no! Do we have
to do this?’ Other students watch you and start doing the same thing.
That makes my job harder. I wonder if you could do me a favour? Next
time I give a homework assignment, could you just do nothing? It will
help me, and I also think it will help you because with your leadership
abilities you could go a long way in life. Thanks. Let’s go back inside
the class.”

Not a bad way of handling a problem student, in theory at
least. But as Paul Harvey would say, “That’s not the rest of the
story.” The rest of the story is that the 12-year-old was me.

I hated
school so much that I counted the days until I was old enough to drop
out. I remember the afternoon in Varsity Acres Elementary math class
when my teacher, Mr. McCullough, gave us that homework assignment. I was
trying to look cool as I was being marched into the hallway. But I was
scared. When Mr. McCullough gave me that two-minute talk, however, it
changed my life.

Here was a teacher telling me I could be a leader
and showing me a simple way I could make it happen. My parents had
always encouraged me and told me I had potential – but they were only my
parents. At 12 years old, your attitude is “what do my parents know?” I
took Mr. McCullough’s advice, and it changed everything. From that day
forward, I got along better with teachers and, not surprisingly,
received better grades. I ended up staying in school because Mr.
McCullough knew how to change a cynical kid’s attitude. I’ve thought
about that conversation many times since then and realized as I began
studying frontline employee motivation, that he did two things
particularly well.

Two keys to corrective feedback
First, he
focused on behaviour, not attitude. It doesn’t do much good for a
manager to tell employees that they are not friendly enough with
customers. Friendliness is an attitude. The employee thinks, “I am
friendly! You’re being unfair.” Instead, a supervisor would get better
results by focusing on observable behaviour. The supervisor might say,
“The customer walked in. You avoided making eye contact until she asked
you a question. Then you frowned as you responded.” That’s observable
behaviour. No one can argue the facts. That leads us to a second reason
Mr. McCullough’s approach worked.

He gave a positive direction. He
told me exactly the behaviour change that needed to be made (“Next time I
give a homework assignment, could you just do nothing?”). In the case
of an unfriendly employee, we might say, “The expectation here is that
within ten seconds of a customer walking in the door you are expected to
smile enough to show teeth and greet them.” In other words, rather than
saying you need to be more friendly, explain exactly what that looks
like. Add to that your underlying belief in the potential of the
employees and you could end up making a significant impact not only on
your company but also upon the lives of your employees. Maybe, like me,
they’ll not only improve their behaviour, they’ll also remember fondly
what you said decades later.

This article is based on the critically acclaimed book Becoming a Service Icon in 90 Minutes a Month, by customer service strategist and professional speaker Jeff Mowatt.  To obtain your own copy of his book or to inquire about engaging Jeff for your team, visit or call 1.800.JMowatt (566.9288).

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