Face of the Firm

It's always been a paradox—and head-banging challenge—for business leaders that the key points of interface come at the outer levels of the organization. Think about it. It's not the polished executives or carefully written mission statements that your public encounters.  They encounter cashiers, security guards, customer service reps.  These encounters shape a firm’s reputation.  

People are the face of the firm —sometimes the most removed, and often the lowest paid employees in the mix.  

Look at it quantitatively.  Consider just the live “touch-points”—the face-to-face conversations, phone calls, and other encounters.  In most organizations the ratio is hundreds, perhaps thousands to one. When people interact with your firm—to include customers, would-be customers, employees, or other constituent groups—disproportionately they’re interacting with staff at the outer levels of the organization.  

Moments of Truth

So, for most businesses, these brief, recurring interactions are critically important. Jan Carlzon, the former CEO of SAS Airlines obsessed over them. And he did more than talk.  In steering the airline’s famous turnaround, he centered efforts on customer communication, upending SAS’s management approach, and investing heavily in developing the flagship training program, Putting People First. It worked.  Within two years, morale soared and profits spiked to $54 MM. 

 Carlzon’s very working philosophy and business strategy reflected the importance he put on the point of contact between his employees and their customers. The “Moments of Truth.”  He used this phrase because, according to Carlzon, it was these moments that shaped a customer’s view of the company and helped determine if they would purchase SAS services. Carlzon observed: 

"Last year each of our ten million customers came in contact with approximately five SAS employees, and this contact lasted an average of 15 seconds each time. The SAS is ‘created’ 50 million times a year, 15 seconds at a time. These 50 million ‘moments of truth’ are the moments that ultimately determine whether SAS will succeed or fail as a company. They are the moments when we must prove to our customers that SAS is their best alternative.” (1)    [Carlzon, Jan: Moments of Truth, 1987, p. 3]

Jan Carlzon had his critics.  Like all airline’s do, SAS went on to hit some nasty turbulence.  And, like all aggressive leaders, with strong personalities, Carlzon was a controversial figure. Perhaps Jan Carlzon’s specific solutions or even general management style is not for you.  But, personally, I think he was at least obsessing over the right things. “Moments of truth” indeed.  Battles are won on the front line.  Those outer level interactions drive organizational performance.  

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