A Passion for Passion

Tom Peters

A dollop of care and concern goes, as we all know, a long, long way. Yet time and again—in relations with co-workers, bosses, subordinates, and key clients and vendors—we get into a bind. We fail to take that extra moment to pick up the phone and resolve (or at least defuse) a nagging problem. Silence leads to escalation and frequently ends up costing us hundreds of hours, untold agony, and occasionally millions of dollars.

A customer-service team leader from Union Pacific Railroad explains the dramatic impact of getting focused on "feelings problems." Technology and increased capital spending account for a tiny fraction of Union Pacific's remarkable turnaround in customer relations, she believes. Most of the rest: constant, timely, friendly contact with customer counterparts. "Letting the customer know, before the fact, about a problem that's brewing will almost always make it go away," she says. "People aren't asking for the moon, just not to be surprised." During the current recession, for example, she and her teammates have made herculean efforts to stay in touch with key clients, to anticipate any sudden shifts on either party's part.

These soft ideas and anecdotes can be turned into robust research findings. Ron Zemke, in his newsletter The Service Edge, discusses the pathbreaking work of Professor Robert A. Peterson of the University of Texas. Peterson, with more than 100 scholarly articles to his credit, couldn't for the life of him find the expected strong, positive relationship between current-customer satisfaction and repeat business. But he kept digging, and finally came up with an answer: the "L-word," says Zemke. That is, love. Customers with genuine affection for an institution are loyal—the way I feel about L.L. Bean or Federal Express, for example. Other customers may be quite "satisfied" with their service, but unless the emotional bond is there, it doesn't automatically translate into future sales. (Peterson tapped this vein when he started adding questions to his customer surveys about "love" and "hate," instead of just "like" and "satisfaction.")

Bob Kriegel and Louis Patler, in their readable new book, If It Ain't Broke, Break It, are even more insistent about emotion's lead role in business affairs. At one point, for example, they admiringly quote a leading executive headhunter: "The thing that makes the difference between a good manager and an inspiring, dynamic leader goes beyond competence. It's passion. That is the single quality that is going to lift a person head and shoulders above the rest in these tough times."

Kriegel even went so far as to invent a passion index. He asked managers at a Hewlett-Packard seminar to choose an important project, specify it in detail—and then rate it "from 1 to 10 on a Passion Index, with 10 indicating burning desire and 1, smoldering ashes." He warned his charges, regardless of the avowed importance of the project, not to undertake any task that scored less than seven on the "PI." Those who ignored his advice by and large came a cropper; most who followed his suggestion rapidly moved to action, then success. (Kriegel and Patler also comment on passion's contagious nature. Passion for an outside activity such as woodworking or gourmet cooking, they observe, energizes workday behavior, and even rubs off on colleagues.)

In his foreword to Lynn Payer's book, Medicine & Culture: Varieties of Treatment in the United States, England, West Germany, and France, Dr. Kerr White, retired Deputy Director for Health Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, adds fuel to yet another aspect of emotion's fire. "(B)etween 40 and 60 percent of all therapeutic benefits (from contemporary clinical interventions)," he writes, "can be attributed to a combination of the placebo and Hawthorne effects, two code words for caring and concern, or what most people call 'love.'" That is, "it"—attention, care, concern—works with brittle relationships, tough customers, and even gravely ill patients.

Now, I doubt that this testimony to passion's power causes many of you to exclaim "wow," or "right on." That is, we know all this. So why the fuss?

The fuss is a transparent effort to get you to take this emotion/care/concern "stuff" seriously, to go from "yeah, sure" to "strategic awareness." Taking that
extra minute (literally!) on a little personnel problem, now, could save big bucks—and lots of emotional wear and tear—down the pike. "Loving" customers (via a thousand little kindnesses and courtesies), beyond mere "satisfaction," could revolutionize your business, and even your industry. (Just ask grocer Stew Leonard!) Evaluating proposed projects, no matter how seemingly important, on Kriegel's passion index could have enormous impact on your career. And so on.

As that headhunter told Kriegel and Patler, competence certainly has its place. On the other hand, competence, or quality measured only by the likes of "mean time between failures" or "number of rings before the phone is picked up," is far from the whole story. In other words, and paradoxically, get organized about passion. Acknowledge emotion's prominent place. Let it animate and guide your strategic concept, not to mention your moment-to-moment personal dealings on the job.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.