By Doug Andrew

Here’s a question: How would a frontline employee at your company handle a misstep with a client? Or, to be self-reflective, how did you last resolve an issue with someone on your staff? It’s easy to hope that we’ll always manage those interactions and relationships in an optimal way, but sometimes we simply don’t. How can we do it right — and make things right — every time? It often comes down to taking ownership. 

Case in point: We have a family cabin, where every summer, my wife, Sharee, and I host the grandkids for a multi-day “Grandpa’s Camp.” We reinforce family values and create memories on the ATVs, zip line and more. Well, a few years ago, we spotted something we wanted to add to the grandkids’ experience: deluxe swing sets.

I knew the president of a recreation equipment company, who told me he’d be happy to give me a discount during the winter off-season — charging me just $,1899 for a $3,000 set (the same discount he gives customers at the home show in the spring).

So, one snowy day, Sharee and I stopped by one of their retail stores. We explained what the president had offered and the clerk said, “That’ll be $2,200 each, so $4,400.” I tried again, articulating that the president had told me he wanted to give me the home show price. The clerk said, “You ought to wait 'til the home show then.” 

I tried to appeal to common sense, asking, “Are things slow right now?” 

She replied, “Yes, we haven’t sold anything for a while. But why don’t you come back to the home show in two months and you’ll get the best deal?” 

I said, “I’m ready to take them today.”  

She said, “Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” 

I was flabbergasted.

While the $600 difference wasn’t the end of the world, she was so inflexible, I ended up waiting until the Home and Garden Show to purchase the swing sets. Clearly, she didn’t feel she could take ownership in this situation — she was more worried about sticking to protocol. Contrast that with companies like Nordstrom, whose employees are famously encouraged to do whatever it takes for the customer.

I had a “Nordstrom” experience at our local Florsheim shoes retailer several years ago. I had just purchased a pair of shoes — well-appointed leather, with a beautiful sheen. I was wearing them on a Sunday drive up the canyon, when Sharee noticed an autumn bush, ablaze with fall’s winter colors. She asked me to stop so she could gather branches for an arrangement. 

I looked at my clothes, my shoes, the rocky ledge where that fiery bush was perched — and then at my wife’s hopeful gaze. I headed out on the rocks, slipped and luckily caught myself. I was fine, but my brand-new shoes were not. The finish came right off the top.

I was in the mall not long after that and I saw Bruce, my Florsheim salesman. He asked how the shoes were treating me and as I happened to be wearing them, I admitted to my mishap. He immediately said, “Oh, we’ll replace them. Come right down here.”

I hesitated, but he insisted. I was blown away — he didn’t wait to get approval from a boss. He didn’t chide me for traipsing around the canyon in dress shoes. He took ownership, made my day and, of course, I went back time and again for more Florsheim shoes.

When it comes to our own interactions with our employees, we should ask, “How can I take ownership for my part and encourage them to do the same?” I had an assistant once who was habitually 15 minutes late. I finally had a heart-to-heart talk, explaining she was doing well with many aspects of her job, but she needed to improve her timeliness.

She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I’ve just never been on time in my life. I’m always late. I’ve worked here a long time. Isn’t that enough for a raise?” I wanted to stand firm on our core company values of accountability and taking ownership, but I also wanted this to be a win-win. So, I offered, “I’ll tell you what. Instead of a raise, let’s try looking at it as a bonus. If you can be here 10 minutes early next month — how about just 18 of the 22 work days — I’ll give you a $300 bonus.” Sure enough, she was early every day.

I am often asked to speak about improving employee performance and curbing entitlement in the workplace. As I’ve shared in presentations and my latest book, Entitlement Abolition, much of it comes down to teaching employees to do the basics:

• Take ownership for your own actions.

• Deal “above the line,” as Marshall Thurber puts it, by avoiding blame, shame and justification.

• Learn from mistakes and setbacks.

• Do what’s right for the customer, your co-workers and the company.

Whether you’re focused on improving customer care or bolstering employee relations, remember it can require a balance among setting clear expectations for accountability, offering flexibility and exemplifying the “make things right” approach.

Doug Andrew is a best-selling author, radio talk show host and abundant living coach.

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