As leaders, we need to be optimistic. I mentioned this before. We need to be realistically optimistic. We must instill confidence while being realistic about what’s happening. Author Jim Collins shared a great example of this in his book, Good to Great. Admiral James Stockdale was a POW during the Vietnam War. He was in a camp for over seven years. Collins asked him how he got through that experience. Stockdale said that it was the optimists who didn’t make it out — the unrealistic optimists because they kept getting let down. Optimistically, they’d say, “We’re going to get out of this.” Unrealistically, they’d say, “It’s going to be next week,” or “It’s going to be next month.” This is called the Stockdale Paradox. If you set an unrealistic expectation then you’re setting yourself up for potential failure on your optimistic belief.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Shep Hyken a customer service and experience expert and the Chief Amazement Officer of Shepard Presentations. He is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author and has been inducted into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement in the speaking profession. Shep works with companies and organizations who want to build loyal relationships with their customers and employees. His articles have been read in hundreds of publications, and he is the author of seven books including his most recent published this year, The Cult of the Customer.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was an entrepreneur from a very young age — I started doing magic shows for kids’ birthday parties when I was just 12 years old. I learned my earliest customer service lessons from my parents during this time — about showing appreciation and getting feedback, lessons I still use to this day. Over the years, I graduated from birthday parties to nightclubs and private adult and corporate events. Then, after I graduated from college, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. One night, I happened to see a couple of motivational speakers, Zig Ziglar and Tom Hopkins. They made me feel like I could do anything. I knew I could give a speech, too, and thanks to my background, I felt pretty confident about getting up on stage. The next day, I went to the bookstore. Of all the books in the business section, I was drawn to those on customer service, so I bought every one I could find. I realized this is what I love — taking care of customers. It’s my passion.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or “takeaways” you learned from that?
Like everyone, I made mistakes (and still do). Some of them were easily fixed. One time I flew to the wrong city to do a speech. Another example is that sometimes when we listen to customers, they say one thing and you misinterpret it to the degree that it’s the exact opposite of their original intention. One of my clients in our pre-speech phone call gave me a piece of information that I thought I understood. Unfortunately, I was completely wrong. The lesson here is to ask an extra question (or extra questions) because if you don’t, you could make a huge mistake and embarrass yourself later or even cost you a client in the future.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yes, that would be my close friend Bud Dietrich. Growing up I did magic shows, as mentioned, and eventually started doing adult events, whether it was a corporate event, working in a nightclub or doing a private party on evenings and weekends. That’s how I met Bud Dietrich, who was another very famous magician among magicians. He traveled the world working corporate events. He was my mentor and encouraged me to get into the speaking business even though it wasn’t quite the magic business. He said it was really the same thing. He was doing magic at corporate events and I was trying to get booked to be a speaker at corporate events. I remember him saying to me, “Shep, the best advice I can give you is to spend 40 hours a week — the normal hours most people work — not writing your speech or practicing your speech (you can do that in the evening), but getting the speech — calling people, marketing, doing the research on who to call. That’s the real job. If you do that 40 hours a week, you will book speeches and be successful.” I have since paraphrased that, and it’s simple: The job isn’t doing the speech. It’s getting the speech. My job for many, many years was simply to go around the world and deliver speeches on customer service without clients. It doesn’t matter how good the speech is; without clients, there’s no speech to give.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When I first started, my goal was to book speeches and talk about customer service. I recognized at an early point that my clients didn’t just want information — they wanted information they could act on. I made it very clear to my clients that in every speech I deliver, there are ideas that are actionable. Seldom am I asked to give a true thought leadership speech with no ideas on how to deliver what I talk about. Over some time, I developed what is known as a “defining statement,” and that statement is this: I help companies who want to build loyal relationships with their customers and their employees. That’s been my defining statement. Now, if you asked me what I do for a living, I don’t say, “I’m a professional speaker,” or, “I write books on customer service.” I ask a question of the person who’s asking me what I do for a living. I ask them, “Have you ever walked away from a business and thought, ‘Wow, that was an amazing experience’ or, ‘Wow, those people were amazing’?” Every time, that person will say, “Well, yeah, sure.” My response is, “Well, that’s exactly what I help my clients achieve. I help my clients work. I work with my clients to help them develop long-term, lasting relationships with their customers by delivering an amazing experience.” And they go, “How do you do that?” Then we get into what I do to make that happen. We have training. We have me speaking. We offer online programs. We have books. So, my purpose is to help my clients be amazing for their clients and customers.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Well, I think recent times have proven to be uncertain and very difficult. What I immediately did with my team was give them some reassurances. I told them what the plan was and what they could expect. By the way, if you’re a leader and wondering if it was positive or negative, I took a positive track. I was in a position to be able to say to my team, “Hey guys, it’s going to be tough, but let’s not worry about it. You have jobs here. And our goal is to figure out how to adapt to these changing times.” I shared an important statement with them, which was this: As long as you can maintain relevance to this organization, you’ll have a job. In other words, if you come to me and say, “what should I do next?” then we’ve got a problem. Nobody has said that because there’s so much that we can do. I think that put a lot of comfort into the uncertainty. Additionally, I think that it’s not just about leading a team. It’s also about leading your customers. During uncertain times, your customers lack confidence. What I want to do for all our clients is to create that confidence. Whatever it is they do with us, I want us to not create any lack of confidence, any lack of trust or any amount of concern. Our goal is to create confidence in everything we do. We want people to know, at every step of the way, that they made the right decision in doing business with us.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’ve never considered giving up. I am a very motivated and optimistic person. I am also a realistically optimistic person. If you asked me if the glass is half-empty or half-full, you would think, because of my optimism, that I’m a half-full kind of guy. Well, I’ll tell you this. I’m never a half-empty guy, but I’m also a guy who acknowledges that it’s both empty and full. So, I ask myself, “What are we going to do to stay on the side that’s half-full?” I don’t have any lack of motivation as far as getting over anything negative. I believe bad days only last 24 hours. That means tomorrow is another day, and it will probably be a better day. I also created an exercise for myself which I did for a full year. At the end of each day, I wrote down two good things that happened that day, personally and professionally. That helped me create an optimistic attitude. Even in the darkest times, you can usually find something good.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
A leader needs to create confidence through the way they handle themselves and through what they say and do. The goal of a leader is to create the opposite of fear, which is confidence, comfort and even excitement for what could come.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
As a leader, I think one of the best ways is to get everybody to recognize that we’re all in this together and we’re moving forward together. When everybody was forced to work from home, my team chose to communicate with each other three times a day. There were times when we didn’t have much to say to each other or when one of us was very busy. But we still met. It was like clockwork. We talked about what was going on that day, what we could expect, what we were doing what we could do better. One of my favorite things is that we engaged an HR expert — and by that I mean a humor resource expert rather than a human resource expert. That expert was right here in our office. Every day, her job was to find a funny video to share during our midday meeting to give us a little cheer and a little laugh. That was a great morale booster that was a lot of fun to do.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way is to do it before the customer or team knows it’s happening. Of course, that can’t always happen. But if you can be proactive and get to them before they come to you, that does a lot to alleviate concerns and also sets the tone for a better meeting. But what happens if it’s after the fact? Well, I believe in being very direct. Sometimes directness is met with discomfort. But I think directness is about honesty. By the way, being direct doesn’t mean you get to be belligerent, angry or malicious. Being direct means getting to the point and letting people know what’s going on and what we’re going to do about it. There is always a solution. On the other side, when there’s bad news, the solution may not be with the customer or your employees. But it’s important to show that there’s a specific direction that we’re headed.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I think that’s part of what makes business exciting. There is such unpredictability about business in general, we can’t predict what the economy is going to be like in five or ten years. But we can predict that there will be cycles of repetition. We can’t predict whether we are or are not going to have another outbreak of COVID-19 next spring, next summer or next fall that will result in another lock down. We hope it won’t happen, but what are your plans if it does? I believe everybody needs a “doomsday” plan. Now that we’ve experienced it once, we must make a plan for if that scenario were to happen again. On a lighter note, what happens if the electricity in your city goes out for three days? What happens if the air conditioning in your office building is out for a week during summer? What happens if there’s a fire? You hope it never happens, but those are the types of things you need to plan for and practice. You must practice! In the case of a fire, don’t just say “go to that exit.” Learn where the fire exits are. That’s what you do in a fire drill maybe once a year — you remind everybody of what they need to know. Do the same thing with your planning. Make these emergency plans, then revisit them and see if there’s anything to change or improve upon.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I would say the number one thing that a leader or company can do for employees and customers and is to create a level of confidence about what they are going to do next.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
In my world, one of the biggest mistakes companies make is where they cut during difficult times. The goal in my world — customer service and experience — is to cut in places that aren’t noticed by the customer. I have a friend who owns several hotels. His occupancy rates went from a high 80% or 90% down to only 20% during COVID-19. He was forced to make cuts because he was losing money and couldn’t keep his people employed. One of the areas he cut was housekeeping, and I said, “You know, I don’t know what your cut in housekeeping is going to do, but I do want you to consider this: If your guest stays in a dirty room in the middle of a pandemic or even in the best of times… a dirty room is still a dirty room, and the guests will never return.” Look at where you’re cutting and be very, very careful not to cut in the places that are going to impact potential future business from your customers. That’s the big mistake that I’ve seen companies make during tough times.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Years ago when I first started, what catapulted me from being a speaker who wanted to do speeches to being a speaker who was actually doing speeches was that I picked up the phone and did the traditional “smile and dial.” My goal was to make a list of at least 100 targeted companies and learn the names and phone numbers of the people in those companies. Back when I started, there was no internet to help me in this research, so I went to the newsstand at the library and bought one of each of all the business magazines. From each magazine, I tore out all the full-page ads I saw. I figured, if they’re selling something, they probably have a meeting with their salespeople. That’s where I need to be speaking — I’ll call this company. So, that’s how I did it — I smiled and dialed. When we were in a terrible recession in 2008, a lot of my colleagues asked, “Shep, how are you staying so busy?” I said, “It’s because I smiled and dialed.” Either I or someone on my team picked up the phone. We did a minimum of 100 calls a week asking companies if they hired professional speakers at meetings. If they said no, we moved on. But if they said yes, I’d say, “Great. Tell me who you’ve used in the past. What are your goals for your next meeting? What do I need to do to be considered for this meeting?” Those were the basics in the conversations I had with potential clients. If you do enough of that, you’re going to get business. It goes back to what my friend Bud Dietrich taught me — that it’s not about doing the speech, but about getting the speech. Today in this pandemic, we do the same thing. We start reaching out directly to customers. Here’s the cool thing: You’re not limited to just the phone anymore. Thanks to modern technology and social media, you can easily and directly reach people through multiple channels. Now is the time to reconnect on a personal level as much as possible.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
First and foremost, as leaders, we need to be optimistic. I mentioned this before. We need to be realistically optimistic. We must instill confidence while being realistic about what’s happening. Author Jim Collins shared a great example of this in his book, Good to Great. Admiral James Stockdale was a POW during the Vietnam War. He was in a camp for over seven years. Collins asked him how he got through that experience. Stockdale said that it was the optimists who didn’t make it out — the unrealistic optimists because they kept getting let down. Optimistically, they’d say, “We’re going to get out of this.” Unrealistically, they’d say, “It’s going to be next week,” or “It’s going to be next month.” This is called the Stockdale Paradox. If you set an unrealistic expectation then you’re setting yourself up for potential failure on your optimistic belief.
Second, I think a good leader has a plan. Again, we go back to confidence. Having a plan instills confidence. You must create a plan and then communicate that plan. Don’t just communicate it to your employees, but also to your customers. They need to know that you are moving in the right direction.
Third is communication. Let everyone know what’s going on and if there are any issues related to doing business with you as a result of difficult, uncertain, turbulent times. Communication is key. I’ll give you a very general example. I’m at the airport and I know we’re supposed to leave at 4 pm. It’s now ten minutes to four and I don’t see the plane at the gate. The gate agent hasn’t made an announcement and people keep coming up to this gate agent and asking him where the plane is. I finally do this myself, and the agent says the plane isn’t here yet because of bad weather in the city it’s coming from. I think to myself that it would have been nice if he’d simply announced this to everybody waiting. I’ve seen this in action before: As soon as the gate agent told the waiting passengers why their plane wasn’t there and why they’d be delayed, it immediately relieved them because it gave them a feeling of knowledge, which gives them a sense of control and confidence. The next thing this great gate agent did was promise an update every 15 minutes — even if he had nothing to update us on, so we’d be constantly and continuously informed. Passengers that might have been upset, stressed out, disappointed or concerned were suddenly calm and relieved. Sure, they may still have been delayed, but they felt a sense of control because they had that knowledge.
I’m going to give you just one more. I could go on, but to me, these four are so important. Have an attitude of gratitude. This is a contagious attitude, because when you’re thankful for what’s around you and what’s going on in your life, then it creates an enthusiasm or optimism that others will pick up on. There’s an old expression that says enthusiasm is contagious. Be warned: if what you have is not enthusiasm, that is also contagious. The attitude of gratitude is about being truly thankful for what’s going on right now. I mentioned my positivity exercise earlier, which is writing down something good that happened to me on a daily basis. By the way, I still do a modified version of that exercise. At the beginning of every week, I write down what I hope will happen, and at the end of the week I write down what did happen, even if it wasn’t on my list of the hopeful happenings. Then, I circle my favorite things that happened that week. This could be anything from “one of my daughters was in town and we had a great dinner together” to “I booked a great engagement with a new client and I can’t wait to work with them.” In short, having that attitude of gratitude is so, so, so important.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Well, gosh, there are so many. I only gave you a four out of five on my last answer, so I’m going to give you two instead of one for this answer. I love what Jiminy Cricket said — Jiminy Cricket, the great philosopher from Pinocchio. He said, “Let your conscience be your guide.” If I ever wonder what the right decision is in a situation, I let my conscious be my guide. I’m the kind of guy that has to have data, and once facts and data factor into decisions, I have to try not to get locked down into analysis paralysis. In those moments when I don’t know what to do, I think back and reflect. Sometimes it takes me a little longer than others, but finally, I remind myself to let my conscious be my guide.
I’m going to share another saying I like. I originally heard this long ago, but recently I heard it again. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to say it: “The stars don’t shine unless there’s darkness.” That’s what I’m saying with the optimistic attitude I have. Even in the deepest, darkest times, there is going to be some ray of light, some star that shines. You cannot have a shining star without darkness around it. That knowledge has helped get me through a lot of tough times.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Simply go to Hyken.com — that’s my website. You can also go to my YouTube channel, which is Shep.TV. And, of course, you can go to Amazon and check out my books — just type my name into the search bar. I also have a TV show called Be Amazing or Go Home, which is available on Amazon Prime, Roku, Apple TV, YouTube and more. You can also go to BeAmazing.TV, which is the show’s website.