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How Companies Can Break Out of a Culture of Saying ‘No’

December 15, 2015, 3:40 PM UTC
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Photo by Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

Global companies keen on cutting costs are trying to make their processes more efficient any way they can. Many firms have created highly engineered systems that drive toward simplicity and unwavering consistency. But what happens when a customer calls with an unusual request that doesn’t fit into a neat, tidy, little box?

Until just a few years ago, what Grainger’s customers got was a big, fat “no” from the company’s customer service associates, admits Deb Oler, a vice president at Grainger (GWW), a global distributor of maintenance, repair, and operating products, and it has invested heavily in streamlining its internal processes.

“Big, complex companies with millions of customers doing $250 sales at a time generally have a pretty standard way of billing people,” says Oler. “You can’t, all of a sudden, change it so you have 57 different ways of doing it. So how do you do it in a way that’s cost effective and still allows you to do what you do as a business?”

Grainger employees had grown used to telling customers “no” when they couldn’t find solutions that met their needs. To Oler, the problem was clear: Grainger needed to change from being a “no culture” to a “yes culture.”

But rigid processes were only part of the problem. “So here’s this company that’s great at flexing during the Ebola outbreak,” says Oler, referring to Grainger’s role in serving customers, including hospitals, transportation hubs, and the government, to provide protective gear and other safety products. “But if you’re a regular customer who does business with us all the time, and you ask for something a little different, we would frustrate everyone.”

At a glance, the cost of saying “no” didn’t seem too steep at Grainger. The number of customers calling the company with uncommon requests was pretty small—maybe two per day. But some of the individualized requests represented the potential for much bigger business than the company’s $250 average sale. And some of those customers were giving their business to competitors because Grainger couldn’t stretch to meet their needs.

Many companies struggle to be flexible, particularly in the face of the increased pressure to grow more efficient and customer-centric, wrote Mark Pearson, head of operations consulting at Accenture, in an article for Harvard Business Review. His team’s research on the topic, which was featured in a book they published titled Value-Driven Business Process Management, found that less than 20% of business processes make a company stand out among its customers—yet, processes risk becoming obsolete if companies don’t collect customer feedback and make adjustments based on that information.

What Grainger needed, Oler realized, was a central place that would quickly, and more flexibly, respond to customers’ unique requests. This led to the birth of the “Yes Desk” in late 2012. Whenever a customer wanted something that couldn’t be done within Grainger’s streamlined systems, it was forwarded to the Yes Desk. This team was charged with looking into the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of responding with a “yes” to a customer problem within 24 hours.

The company’s senior leaders soon learned that the Yes Desk wasn’t enough, though: Employees needed to change the way they handled problems, shifting their usual “follow-the-procedures” way of thinking to a more open, inquiring approach.

“We had to get into the habit of asking the customer, ‘What is the problem you’re trying to solve?’ instead of focusing narrowly on a request to print in blue ink,” Oler says. “It was a mindset and cultural shift.”

Making that kind of change on a companywide scale took significant effort, but the results were worth it. There was a communication strategy around the Yes Desk – which continues today – that included a combination of podcasts, emails, and town halls to help Grainger team members understand the Yes Desk’s purpose and how to engage with it as part of their daily routine with customers.

Grainger also began to track all the people who used the Yes Desk. Senior managers quickly saw that some teams submitted many requests while others submitted none. Grainger regularly celebrated the successes of team members who were more flexible with requests, giving visibility to those who brought the concept of the Yes Desk to life, hoping to encourage – and convert – the cynics. Managers started bringing up Yes Desk results in meetings with employees. They even told other leaders about support staff who had helped meet unusual customer requests.

“These were often people who had never gotten any recognition before for being a part of helping the business,” says Oler. “It energized people.”

Customer engagement soared and employee engagement rose alongside it. And as more customers’ made specific requests, Grainger began to change its internal procedures to accommodate them. Grainger came to realize that the approach meant it wasn’t a “yes to everything desk” but one that still ensured profitability.

“Customers see we are open and willing to consider whatever it is that they’re trying to get done,” says Oler. “And if in fact we’re going to say, ‘no,’ we do it quickly so they can move on. That was exactly the opposite of what our culture was before.”

As of September, the Yes Desk has worked through more than 800 requests and is on pace to handle more than 1,000 queries this year, Oler says. Overall, it has helped create more than $180 million in sales opportunities for Grainger. The Yes Desk now has two full-time employees. But the small staff is bolstered by a large community of Grainger workers focused on leading with “yes” to customers’ nonstandard questions.

“It has changed the dialogue with the customer,” says Oler. “We want them to come to us first when they have a problem.”

Making Big Changes Happen

While leadership experts often disagree on how to make a big change take hold, and stick, at a company, Grainger’s Deb Oler advises executives to keep the change simple and focus on employee behavior. Key elements that worked for her team include:

—Tracking who adopted the new behavior – and who didn’t.

—Recognizing individuals who were early role models in front of their peers.

—Encouraging managers to meet one-on-one with employees to discuss results and coach them through barriers.

—Taking advantage of opportunities to celebrate success.

Keith Ferrazzi is the CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a research-based strategic consulting firm, and the author of Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back?. David Wilkie is the CEO of World 50, a private community for senior executives to share ideas.