Is What Happens after "Thank You" Hurting YOUR Business?

Is your business suffering because of how your employees respond when customers say "Thank you?"

Consider this scenario: while shopping in person or by phone, an employee helps you - e.g., gives you directions, goes out of his/her way to explain something to you, makes a suggestion that saves you time or money. When you say "Thank you," the individual replies, "No problem," or "It's just my job," or "Whatever."

These types of answers seem to have become standard in the workplace. For a long time, being on the receiving end of one of the above responses bothered me. I wondered whatever happened to the reply I was taught when someone thanked me, which is simply, "You're welcome." There was something perturbing to me about the new "standard" exchange, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. A recent experience allowed me to discover the reason for my dissatisfaction and taught me a valuable business lesson.

After receiving a very generous gift, I called the individual who sent it to express my gratitude. Rather than cutting me short by saying something like, "It was nothing," she took the time to listen to everything I wanted to say, and her reply indicated that she fully understood my message. Instead of downplaying or minimizing her action, she simply accepted my thanks. I gained two important insights from this experience.

First, by fully acknowledging her role as benefactor, this individual refrained from trivializing my feeling of gratitude. Rather than responding that her gift was no big deal, for example, or that she wished it could be more, she simply heard me out and accepted my appreciation for the value she had provided.

In the business world, employees who serve customers often view their actions in terms of the "cost" to themselves - e.g., the amount of time or effort they expend - rather than in terms of the value they provide to others. As a result, they do not see the impact their assistance has on customers. For example, an executive assistant who made a phone call to arrange parking for me so I could meet with her boss in Los Angeles, where parking is notoriously scarce, saved me a great deal of time and helped keep my stress level down. Yet she brushed off my thanks by saying, "This is very minimal work. It's not a problem." Clearly she had no idea that her simple action had made my life easier.

Second, by graciously receiving my expression of gratitude, my benefactor enabled me to reciprocate in small measure for her act of kindness.

The norm of reciprocity is very strong in U.S. culture. That is, when someone does something for us, we feel obligated to return the "favor" at some point. Thus when an employee who helps us subsequently dismisses or trivializes our thanks by saying (for example), "I was just doing my job," in essence that person is depriving us of the opportunity to fulfill our part of the exchange. It is this refusal to receive the gratitude I offer, I realized, that has been the source of the discomfort I described above.

Think of the consequences that these all-too-common "No problem" or "It's just my job" responses have for everyone involved. When customers' efforts to recognize the value provided them are spurned, they may feel uncomfortable, unappreciated, or not heard. Without recognizing why, they may even take their business to organizations where such recognition is received well. Because employees have no idea how even small actions on their part can have a big impact on others' lives, they do not recognize the value they provide. Further, by refusing to accept the recognition for their efforts, in effect they are trivializing customers' efforts to show their appreciation, and denying them a role in an important social norm.

In addition to leaving both parties feeling diminished, this type of interaction is bad for business. Why? Because instead of recognizing the value they provide and being energized by the opportunities that present themselves every day, employees are focusing merely on the tasks they perform instead of on the value they provide. Thus they cannot see how they contribute to the organization's goals. As a result, the organization cannot optimize its business results. Why not tap into the capacity that every one of us has to add value to others' lives? Doing so is uplifting for all concerned: employees feel more engaged and valued, customers feel that they have been heard, and both of these outcomes are good for business.

To answer the question posed in the title of this article, "Is what happens after "thank you" hurting YOUR business?," try this assessment: as occasions arise during your conversations with individual employees, say "thank you." Listen to how they reply. If the responses are aligned with the message you want your employees to convey to your customers, keep up the good work! If they are not, you may want to take a look at the suggestions about how to teach employees to receive customers' thanks in our article The ROI of Receiving Customers' Thanks.

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.

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