The Mistrust and Underestimation Factor

Tom Peters

Why do we perpetually underestimate people’s potential? A British pub chain introduced a great customer-service idea, the “100 Club.” An employee becomes a member if she or he can recall 100 patrons’ names and drinking habits. When the idea surfaced, a top honcho reportedly said, “All right, but we’ll be lucky to have one or two (among 20,000 employees) who are up to it.” A few months later, over 500 employees knew in excess of 600 names and habits. One bionic chap could recall over 2,000.

An Embassy Suites program allows customers to decide on the restitution when a problem arises. I wasn’t there but I’ll bet my farm on the corporate bean counter’s reaction to the idea: “If they find a hair in the tub, they’ll demand free rooms for life.” The reality: Regardless of the magnitude of the hotel’s perceived sin, most customers asked for no more than a complimentary breakfast or a couple of free drinks in the lounge.

These examples should not surprise us. People are talented. Of course they can remember 100 (or 500) names and drinking habits. After all, lots of those barkeeps have figured out how to raise three kids on an annual take that most managers couldn’t survive on for a month; any number are doubtless repairing autos or electronic devices on the side, serving on a local council. And why should you expect a customer who is treated well to rip you off? After all, you are often a customer. Do you look to rip off the hotel if you
have a minor—or major—problem?

These concerns hit home recently as I was flying American Airlines from Dallas to Kansas City with my wife and her 84-year-old great aunt; we were going to bury the latter’s husband of 63 years. We’d arranged for prepaid tickets to be picked up at the airport. Naturally the airline wanted to see an ID. I handed over my driver’s license and a credit card; but the ticket agent insisted on IDs for the other two as well. My wife and her great aunt were waiting quite a distance away, and I said, “Look, their names are listed on the screen under my name, right? Do I have to go bug my wife’s great aunt?” I described our mission and her infirmities. “It’s for your own good,” was the snippy rejoinder. Of course it’s for American’s own good, not mine. But that little falsehood aside, why, in this sort of case, couldn’t the
agent have relented?

After surmounting the ticket hurdle (I yielded of course), I went to return my rental car, which I had perilously left unattended in front of the terminal while all of the above went on. Signage in the rental car area is confusing at best. I ended up accidentally driving up a lane the wrong way in the Hertz parking lot. As I pulled to a stop, four yellow-clad employees started shouting in unison: “You can’t park there. Stop. Go back.” I hadn’t really planned to park “there,” but the screaming took me round the bend. I simply got out of the car, pulled my briefcase from the trunk, tossed the contract and keys into the trunk, locked the trunk, and caught a bus to the terminal.

Four hours later, at my wife’s family home in southwestern Missouri, I sat down for a well-deserved beer and a conversation with an old family friend. He’s a union steward at a local building-materials plant. He regaled me for an hour or so with tales of pettiness and mistrust on the part of management (returned in kind by the employees). I respect him immensely and know his employer, too: His every word rang true.

Why must we be so mistrustful? Underestimate people so badly? I’m not in the least bit irritated at American’s counter person or the yellow-clad Hertzies. But I’m mad as hell at their managements. When I encounter pettiness at the front line, I get white hot at the people on top—all of course preaching about their “bone-deep belief in people.” Wanna bet?

American claims that its front-line people have lots of leeway. If so, why didn’t the front-line person act like it? There’s a chance that she was having a lousy day. But I suspect it’s the result of an iron-fisted, untrusting approach to employees. At Hertz, the story is doubtless the same: If courtesy and authentic care for the customer is missing in the parking lot, it’s almost certainly the product of an uncaring, suspicious management. And of course my friend’s tale from the plant is just a garden variety, rust-belt American case of mistrust and pettiness brewed over several decades.

I’m no Pollyanna. People do have bad days. (I sure do.) And some people don’t live up to trust when it is given, even at IBM let alone at my friend’s factory. But by and large, everything I write about—such as installing exotic organization structures and pursuing constant quality improvement—rises or falls on the basis of trust: a belief in the potential and inherent decency of front-line people (and customers too).

I’ll bet my last dollar you’ve got dozens or hundreds or thousands in your outfit capable of remembering 500 names and habits of customers, and a handful who doubtless could give that bionic Mr. 2,000 a run for his money. But you’ll never know until you ask. And you’ll never ask if trust and appreciation isn’t there in the first place. That’s the Catch-22 that dooms so many firms’ grand schemes for improving competitiveness.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.#