Publisher’s Column: Keep it personal

In a world where almost every day there’s a new, high-tech product or system that increases business efficiency, it can be easy to lose sight of the basic practices that make companies successful.

While time is undeniably valuable, spending it in a low-tech manner cultivating relationships with your customers and employees is one of the most important things you do. Communication between employees and senior management ranks among the top five contributors to job satisfaction, according to an employee survey the Society for Human Resource Management conducted last year. But not just any kind of communication will do.

In the past, a manager’s job was to give orders and make sure employees did as they were told, writes Bob Nelson of American City Business Journals. Now, however, the best managers are becoming coaches, colleagues and cheerleaders for employees rather than prison wardens.

It’s a management philosophy Vince Mathews, owner of Capitol Clutch and Brake in West Sacramento, Calif., always has embraced. He and other senior managers spend one-third to three-quarters of their day working alongside employees. Doing so gives them the opportunity to discuss trends and problems, and builds employee respect for managers. “It makes for a warmer working environment,” Mathews says. “They see we’re willing to get our hands dirty.”

Mathews says employees also like management involvement for another reason: it gives them confidence that managers have an accurate view of job performance. “We know who’s learning, who’s producing, who’s stepping up,” he says. “They’re being recognized for what they do.”

That kind of recognition is something most employees appreciate. In a survey of 1,500 workers, Gerald Graham, professor of management at Wichita State University, found personalized, instant recognition from managers was the most powerful motivator of 65 evaluated incentives.

Showing your customers personal attention can be just as rewarding. While he acknowledges automated telephone systems and online ordering can reduce man-hours, Mathews doesn’t use either. Wading through instructions to press certain numbers or spell a name can be frustrating for customers, he says, and getting to know those who order online is impossible, making helping them when they have a problem difficult. Mathews and other managers at Capitol Clutch and Brake know customers by name and are available to answer questions in person and on the phone.

In any industry, learning about your customers and forming a bond with them gives you a valuable edge. “Everything else being equal in a buying decision, that kind of relationship is going to get you business,” Mathews says.

And that will never change.

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