In Customer Service, Genuine Interactions Matter

Our family recently travelled to Bali for a holiday break. It was a week of relaxation at the tail end of a year that has been pretty crazy, and a 2019 that we expect will be even more hectic.

When you travel with kids, conversations can move in varied and interesting directions. Our 7-year old boy took a particular interest in the toilets that were installed throughout the hotel we were staying. The brand — TOTO — is one seen all over the world, but less so in Australia. He was enthralled by the features: from automatic flushing with infrared sensors, to in-built bidets. Even the design of the loos was novel to him. He was fascinated. Next he realised that TOTO had also been responsible for the all of the tapware as well. Incredible!

As a responsible Dad, I kept the toilet banter going, egging him on to explain to me further what he loved about them. I tried to add some interesting educational angles as well. I suggested that as a Japanese company, TOTO probably took great care in their manufacturing processes. I explained how Japan was the cradle of modern manufacturing methods, and how the Toyota Production System changed the world. I’m not sure he bought into my lesson on lean thinking, though. I will have to try again in the future.

Over the length of our stay, our conversations escalated to the point where I suggested we contact TOTO directly to let them know what great work they were doing with their toilet design. He took to that idea! So we did it. My son wrote an email to TOTO Customer Service, noting how impressed he was with their toilets, and expressing his desire to have them installed in our house as well.

I figured that would be the end of it. I didn’t expect to hear back, or if we did, I assumed it would be a boilerplate response. After a few days, we did in fact receive a reply, and it was a wonderful, personal email from TOTO’s Senior Manager of Customer Service. In the email, she expressed gratitude for my son’s kind words, and also offered to send him some tokens of appreciation if we could provide our mailing details.

We replied, and for fun, included a photo of David and I enjoying ourselves in Bali.

A few more conversational emails bounced back and forth between TOTO and ourselves, and they asked if we could send a photo of David with his items once they arrived.

Within the next few week, we received an express mailed package from TOTO in Atlanta, to us in Perth, Australia. Just this concept alone was enough to blow my son’s mind. As promised, we sent another photo back with David holding onto the gifts he had been sent, and this was acknowledged by TOTO with thanks.

I see two key lessons in all of this:

  1. Always embrace crazy conversations with your kids. They’re fun, and you never know where they might end up.
    Genuine customer service — not selling — is the key to building great brand equity. I might never buy a TOTO toilet. My son might never buy a TOTO toilet. But I think both of us will be TOTO brand ambassadors from this point forward. Not because we were sent some trinkets, but because we had a genuine human interaction. We connected with a person who was obviously engaged enough in their own job to engage positively with us. If that employee is happy, then the company must have something going for it, and that’s the kind of company I want to see succeed.
  2. From a business perspective, customer service shouldn’t be about hitting sales targets or avoiding bad press. It should be about working to have people care about your brand.

So thanks TOTO, for bringing fun and joy to me and my son’s lives, and for making sure this particular Bali holiday will have a very strange and unique anchor memory.

A Place for Everything

Over the past five years I’ve spent a lot of time learning the fundamental philosophies of a production system known as lean. I’ve read books and articles, I’ve taken a study tour to see lean in action in Japan. I’ve developed lean guides for business, and coached companies in the theory and implementation. Yet despite all of this, I still consider myself a beginner1.

Most of my lean work has been in relation to the manufacturing sector but the principles can also be applied to healthcare, food preparation, administration, and software development, to name a few. IT has even created further derivations such as kanban and agile.

Lean origins

Toyota is the company that can be credited for originally demonstrating the value of lean through their own Toyota Production System. Implemented with the help of Edward Deming after World War II, the company has embraced the lean philosophy of continuous improvement ever since. The company is now the gold standard with respect to lean implementation.

The theory of lean is much like an onion: there are many layers to it (and implementing it might sometimes make you cry!) Trying to emulate the Toyota Production System at the outset is an effort not worth taking, but any company can do implement some simple elements without too much trouble if they commit.

The best way to start

To get started I recommend following the exact same advice my Grandma used to give:

“a place for everything and everything in its place”

Yes, it’s as easy as that.

This concept represents one of the basic tenets of 5S. 5S is all about keeping things neat and orderly within the context of a lean workplace. Make sure if you take something, use something, or move something, that it gets put back once it has served its purpose. This approach will make it easier for your future self or somebody else to find a thing in the future. It will prevent the need to buy another thing because you couldn’t find the original thing. It will reduce stress and anger when you can’t find the thing you need at the time you need it.

Simply make sure everything has a home and that it always lives at home when not in use. Good tip, Grandma.


  1. In lean of course, maintaining a ‘beginner’s mind’ is a good thing as it keeps you open to new ideas and opportunities for improvement. 

Part 3: My Business Philosophy

This is the final of a three-part series focused on explaining my business philosophy. Parts One and Two are also available.

On my home page I call out my personal business philosophy:

Andrew’s business philosophy is built upon the value of mutual respect, the skill to leverage process for continuous improvement, and the ability to ultimately achieve self-actualisation.

Self-Actualisation

My philosophical statement finishes with the rather grand sounding ambition of achieving self-actualisation. I will elucidate what self-actualisation is and why I consider it so important that I place it as the anchoring element of my philosophy.

Etymology

The concept of self-actualisation was brought into broad awareness when it was presented as the pinnacle of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s rationale was based upon the understanding that only after the more immediate human needs are taken care of, is there capacity to focus effort on what brings us satisfaction and joy.

Maslow explicitly defines self-actualisation to be “the desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for the individual to become actualised in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”1

Fortunately, in my country and its society there is a reasonable (but not guaranteed) chance to achieve the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy. This unlocks the potential to aim for and potentially achieve that final goal of self-actualisation.

Building a framework

I don’t see self-actualisation as an end-point; as the win achieved at the conclusion of a life-long progression up the hierarchy of needs. I believe we can reach the point of self-actualisation early and often, but what it is represented by will change over time. As we move through the stages of our life, commencing with childhood, then into the teens, marriage, career building, parenting, middle age and senior citizenship, different experiences will facilitate the goal.

The degree to which we are realising self-actualisation is likely to ebb and flow over time. Building a framework for our life that supports personal growth and improvement will help ensure a reasonable chance of reaching periods of self-actualisation even as we deal with the trials and tribulations thrown at as by life.

Without a structure and a consistent philosophical and ethical approach to life to fall back upon in challenging times it is less likely that consistent self-actualisation will be achievable.

Measuring success

Society has a tendency to measure success by outward facing and tangible measures such as wealth, fame and status. I prefer to think about success as the achievement of one’s potential and the personal joy imbued from doing what makes us happy. Precisely what the activity is that delivers said joy will vary as we grow and change. Exactly what it is matters less than the feeling it provides.

At one point of my life, playing basketball delivered a feeling of self-actualisation. Then later it was finding flow in a work assignment. Now it is linked to experiences of successful parenting. I am sure it will be other things later. None of these achievements are important to others2 but that doesn’t mean I am not being successful in my own right. If we are seeking external validation it will a frustrating and largely unrewarding experience, because that’s not delivered with any regularity.

The journey is the reward

There is no prize for ‘winning life’. External plaudits cannot be the arbiter of a life well-lived. We have been gifted a single life which even at the most optimistic is probably going to span less than 100 years. Against the timeline of humanity we are but granted a short window of opportunity. To bring meaning and purpose to our time on the planet we may as well participate with an aim of achieving joy and self-satisfaction.

It doesn’t matter how many symbols of success we collect along life’s journey. The true measure should be our own happiness and fulfilment. Recognising each day as a gift to be enjoyed and maximised is a path towards self-actualisation. Find your joy, wherever it may be.

Bringing the philosophy together

So, ultimately, I like to think that in respect of my business philosophy:

  1. Mutual respect will help avoid many worries, anger and pettiness that can derail us as we build a career and/or a business.
  2. Establishing a process for continuous improvement will free our mind to focus on truly meaningful work, rather than busy work.
  3. By adopting a respectful approach to others and having a focus on always getting better, a person can grow self-confidence, self-satisfaction and their enjoyment of life in its entirety, which will form a pathway towards achieving self-actualisation.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-actualization 
  2. Apart from my kids, who at this point assign no value to this. I hope the payoff will come much later. 

Part 2: My Business Philosophy

This is the second of a three-part series focused on explaining my business philosophy. Part One is also available.

On my home page I call out my personal business philosophy:

Andrew’s business philosophy is built upon the value of mutual respect, the skill to leverage process for continuous improvement, and the ability to ultimately achieve self-actualisation.

Leverage Process for Continuous Improvement

I am a big believer in the value of process. This can be the big, organisational processes that dictate how companies do things, like build a component, or undertake customer service, or issue a refund. Or process can be an individual’s personal to-do list that helps them to get things done on a daily basis. Ideally the latter should represent a subset of the former but I think we are probably some way from that ideal being standard practice.

When processes are documented they provide an anchor point as to the way things are done now. That’s not to say that it is the way things will always be done. In fact, changes to processes should be welcomed. However, a documented process enables everybody involved to have a shared understanding of how things should be done. If something goes wrong it should be evident where the process broke down. That can enable improvements to improve efficiency and simplify things for those involved.

Embrace change

A process should never be considered a finalised product. Stagnation is the enemy of improvement. No way of work should be considered beyond reproach. No process should be sacrosanct.

A current process is merely the way in which one group of people at one point in time thought would be the best way to achieve an outcome. With new information, new technology, changed inputs, or changes in customer demand, there might be a need to change the process to achieve a better — or just different — outcome. Go ahead, make the change. The only way to drive improvement is to change stuff. Otherwise, you already know what you’re going to get before even starting. Repeating this approach of making and trialling small changes, over and over again, is how to achieve better outcomes.

Trial and error and small incremental improvements are the crux of continuous improvement.

Once a process of documenting processes and updating this documentation upon each change is established a traceable (and reversible) process history is created. In software development, this is standard practice – managing versions and being able to compare code differences is a key element of development and debugging.

More generalised process management can benefit from a similar approach. Make a change and see if it works. If things get better after the change, stick with it. If things get worse, revert the changes and try something different.

Process at a personal level

At a personal level I implement process management for my own work. I rely primarily on OmniFocus to manage standard operating procedures for projects that are repetitive in nature. I use project templates that enable a framework to guide work that is similar in nature. As I learn and discover better ways of doing things I refine and improve my templates.

This makes my work more effective in the short-term because I don’t have to think about the how/when/where’s of the repetitive work elements. Instead I can focus my energy on doing great work on the value-adding elements of the project that matter to my clients.

Facilitating creativity

At first blush, the concept of defined processes can seem staid and boring. In actuality it is freeing. Defined and documented processes allows people to forget about thinking about the steps to achieve a goal and instead allows them to focus on using their skills and expertise to add value to create a better end product.

Process doesn’t restrain creativity; it unleashes it. For this reason it forms the key middle component of my personal business philosophy.

Part 1: My Business Philosophy

This is the first of a three-part series focused on explaining my business philosophy.

On my home page I call out my personal business philosophy:

Andrew’s business philosophy is built upon the value of mutual respect, the skill to leverage process for continuous improvement, and the ability to ultimately achieve self-actualisation.

Mutual Respect

To make progress in this world we need teamwork and co-operation. High performing teams are built around trust and respect for one another.

Even in a competitive environment there can be mutual respect. If you are beaten by a better performer, there is value in recognising their success and then using that as motivation to improve your own performance. Winners should stay humble and respect the competition that may not have succeeded this time, but might get the better of them next time around. Staying humble helps build respect.

Managerial respect

If a manager wants to get the most out of their employees, I believe they need to demonstrate respect and understanding for those they are asking to undertake the work. Acting with respect will build trust in leadership. Without trust it is difficult to achieve anything great. Time and and focus will be lost to people questioning what ulterior motives are in play, what forces might be working against them, and how to move into a position to win. More time is spent focused on self-preservation than on achieving team success. In such an environment it is unlikely that the team will be high-performing.

A manager who respects their employees is likely to create a team with better camaraderie, better stability and a desire to deliver great outcomes.

Employee respect

Employees need to understand that their managers may be seeing the situation from a different vantage point. After climbing the organisational tree, the view from that altitude often looks very different. Much like a general might take to an elevated vantage point to survey the field, a manager may have a perspective on things that can’t be perceived at ground level.

An employee needs to appreciate and understand that the manager is likely to be balancing multiple competing pressures, and have respect for that challenge confronting their manager. This respect through understanding will help both parties.

Respectful reciprocity

A manager and an employee; co-workers and colleagues; buyers and sellers; all of these relationships rely on mutual respect to operate effectively. Each is a participant in a process chain. Mutual respect is about working to make the life of others a little easier, and a little better. This establishes a positive reciprocal relationship. If somebody is respectful towards me it is likely I will treat them with respect in return. Everybody enjoys a better experience.

I believe that demonstrating respect for colleagues is the foundation for all other elements of business. If you don’t treat others with respect, it’s unlikely you will go far. Others aren’t likely to be willing to go out of the way to provide help and support if you haven’t been respectful on the way through. Nobody gets to wherever they are alone. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Acting with respect offers a chance for others to stand on ours.