Polo Shirts, Getting Closer to Your Customers and the Dangers of Looking at the Wrong Thing

It was a typical senior leadership event at a large bank. Fancy hotel ballroom, round tables set out cabaret style, large screens around the walls, loud music and a raised stage in the middle of it all. Standing on that stage was the up-and-coming  Senior Manager who was Master of Ceremonies (MC) for the day. Introducing the executive speakers, announcing the new corporate video, signalling the breaks and times to be back and acting as the ‘link’ between it all.

I’ve been to many of these events in my time in financial services here in Australia and the UK, but this one was pleasantly different. The reason? The MC was a natural storyteller.

In-between every speaker she told stories. Personal stories that helped make sense of the previous speaker and their message, or gave context for the next speaker, or just to lighten the mood and add a bit of fun and humour into the proceedings. One of her stories really stuck with me.

She worked in the bank’s IT department, and every day when she came to work she stepped on an escalator that went from level one directly up to level three.  Level two was visible, but you had to take a different route to access it.

Every so often she would notice that one of the teams on Level two were wearing branded polo shirts. As everyone else was dressed in the grey of corporate banking, it stood out and was curious to know why. The timing appeared random as well. It was roughly once a month but it wasn’t on the same day each month. She became even more curious.

Finally, one day as she was travelling up the escalator to level three she saw the team dressed in their polo shirts. This time she couldn’t help herself. She had to know why. So, she turned straight round, went back to level one, and took the alternative route up to level two and found the first team member she could find, introduced herself and asked him about the polo shirts. This was his response:

“Since the new CEO came onboard, there is all this talk about the customer, and being ‘customer-centric’, and ‘getting closer to our customers’. Now, we’re all IT geeks, both introverted and about as removed from the customer as you can get, so we ‘ve been really struggling with what we can do to get closer to our customers.

As we were talking about it one day at our team meeting, and we had dismissed the usual ideas of ‘listening into customer calls’ and ‘spending a day at a Branch’, one of the team suggested that we get some branded shirts and wear them to work one day a month. That way people could see where we worked and if they were customers maybe they would start talking to us. We thought it was a good idea which sounded a bit more like us.

So we did it. And sure enough, all of us have had an experience where someone on public transport has struck up a conversation, told us they were a customer and then complained about something we weren’t doing well. It’s helped us learn so much more about what our customers want and what we as a bank are not giving them.”  

Back in the hotel ballroom, you could tell this story had a real impact. And during the next coffee break, as we were queuing for coffee one of my colleagues starting sharing that story and how much she had enjoyed it. I agreed and asked; “You know what’s going to happen now? Orders for branded polo shirts are going to go through the roof.” What I expected was a laugh. What I got was a strange look followed by her saying; “Sure will, I think I might get some for my team“.

I see this all the time. People look at the end result and think if they just take that idea and replicate it they will get the same result. In this case, the logic was if I buy my team branded shirts they will become more engaged with our customers and will be more motivated to improve the customer experience.

They might be, but for me, this kind of thinking is fundamentally wrong. The point of the story is that a group of people, understanding their own context and challenges, came up with a way to get closer to their customers, that works for them. They tried to solve the challenge themselves.

That’s the behaviour you want to try and replicate. That’s what you want your team to do. To actually think about what they could do differently to talk to and understand their customers and then try out and learn from it.

Absolutely share that story. But use it as a prompt or something that gets people thinking about what they can do.  Don’t suggest that it’s the ‘answer’, just before you hand out the branded polo shirt and tell them: “Guess what they’re wearing to work tomorrow.” Let people figure out what works for them. You get much stronger ownership, much better results, and it might very well be cheaper than a polo shirt gathering dust in the back of someone’s closet, or worse still, a disengaged and annoyed team member talking to one of your customers on the Number 57 tram tomorrow morning.




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