Decision-making as if people mattered


“Our contract of carriage, that you agreed to when buying your ticket, allows us to remove, cancel, or change a seat assignment at any time for any reason.” 

Those were the first words I heard from United’s empathy and customer-experience challenged customer service agent. I had just asked him why my son’s seat assignment “disappeared” two days prior to his departure. 

He offered no apology and showed no concern.  He just mechanically quoted the contract.

As a consolation, he offered my son a middle seat in the back of the plane. I said, “If we wanted a middle seat, we would have selected one when we booked the ticket two months ago.” Once again, the agent quoted the policy.

I countered that I understood that the airlines create a one-sided contract that allows them to exploit their customers any way they saw fit (note: I didn’t say “exploit”).  My comment wasn’t about whether it was legal or their right to do so.  It was whether it was fair. 

I wound up purchasing a premium seat for $75 (despite us having selected and been subsequently booted out of a free seat). 

In all fairness, United did refund the $75 fee when I sent a complaint to the CEO. 

But, that’s not the point. Why does a consumer have to beg and plead to be treated fairly?  Why couldn’t the agent have done the human thing and said,  “I understand. That’s frustrating.  Since it’s two days before the flight and we are the ones that took away his seat and we have premium economy seats open anyway, why don’t we put him in one of those.”  But he didn’t.  He doubled down on the policy.

Increasingly, I find companies hiding behind their policies and processes.  And, in many cases those policies and processes are very not particularly friendly to people.

In many organizations there is increasing pressure to optimize revenue, decrease expenses, minimize staffing, or protect organizational resources. 

It seems that organizations have forgotten that while processes and policies are abstract written documents, they impact real people in very tangible ways.

It’s probably easy when sitting behind a desk to develop policies that disregard basic humanity and treat people poorly.

The decisions are theoretical at that point.  The individuals (whether customers, employees, or suppliers) being impacted are far removed from them. Their results and consequences are reflected in numbers on a spreadsheet or graph rather than in a person’s frustration, disappointment, and inconvenience.

The problem is that callous regard for people in policies gets translated into the corporate culture. It’s no longer people behind a desk at corporate headquarters making abstract decisions.  It’s about front line employees treating other people in ways that they would never tolerate for themselves, their family, or friends.

One of my clients has a 120 day payment term on invoices.

Think about that. 

At some point, a PERSON thought it was acceptable to make someone else wait four months to receive payment for their work. I wonder what went through his or her mind. 

Would they be willing to have their paycheck deferred four months? 

Would they accept that for their kids or family members? 

Probably not. 

My guess is that such thinking never entered the policy maker’s mind. I’m sure that he or she confidently proposed the policy with graphs proudly showing how it would improve cash flow or add additional revenue through the payment float.

Worse yet, the policy doesn’t seem to bother anyone in the organization. They state it matter of factly. When the company is late on a payment (which it often is), their A/P call center agents implore my patience. After all, they say, it’s ONLY going to be a few more days until it’s sorted out (never mind that I’ve already been waiting four months).

I bet you’d have no problem listing five or six policies in your own organization that you would never want applied to you or someone you knew.  I’d also bet that you might even enforce some of those on a regular basis.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The strangest “negotiation” that I ever participated in was with one of the world’s biggest high tech companies.  I’m pointing out their size because often I hear that Fortune 100 companies have market and other financial pressures that they must take into consideration.

The company hired me to deliver a workshop.  To say it was not my best performance is an understatement. I sent them an invoice for $0. 

I immediately received a call from my contact.  She said, “I can’t accept this.”  I said, “But I didn’t meet your expectations. You didn’t get the value that you hired me for.”

She said, “I understand, but it’s against our core values not to pay someone for their work.”

We went back and forth.  As I said, it was the strangest negotiation I’ve ever participated in.  I was advocating against charging my client while my client was trying to convince me to take their money.

Ultimately, we came to an agreement  They would pay me for the workshop but I would provide a free, follow up session.

Big companies, any company, can be human.

Back in graduate school, I was assigned what has become my favorite book, E. F. Schumacher’s “Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered”.  The book has aged incredibly well.  It is probably more appropriate today than when it was written in 1973.

As its name implies, the book challenged excessive consumption and the organizations and countries that were driving it. Revolutionary at the time, Schumacher noted how decision-making that didn’t take into account humanity or the planet was destined to destroy both.

Schumacher was focused on the macro-economic impacts of decision-making that didn’t take into account people.

Today, while that is still an issue, I think it’s time to look at the micro-economic impacts as well.

Companies have to make money, return capital to shareholders, and run efficiently and effectively.  Unfortunately, the easiest and laziest way to do that is often at the expense of people. As a result, basic respect and consideration for people often gets ignored during policy-making.

That doesn’t have to be.

When making decisions, whether at the policy or implementation level, if individuals simply asked, “Would I want to be treated this way?”, I think we’d see significant change.

Almost every business decision touches an individual. And, it’s not just about customers.  There are human beings in every stage of the value chain from supplier to employee to customer.

Shouldn’t we treat every person with whom we work in the same manner that we’d like to be treated?

What if we started making decisions as if people actually mattered?

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Brad Kolar is an Executive Consultant, speaker, and author with Avail Advisors.  Avail helps leaders simplify their problems, decisions, data, and communication.  Contact Brad at brad.kolar@availadvisors.com.

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