48 - Cartoon Teller

A Management of Worthy Intentions

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We are unfolding the 5 dimensions of the “Identity as Culture” model through this series of parables that brings culture to light through fiction. Intention in the Identity as Culture framework is captured by the questions: What do we as a company aspire to? What journey and contribution do we invite people to make? What are our commonly held intentions, really?

Jan looked up from her familiar position at the counter, always third from the end, her key in the drawer, alarm button beneath the counter to her right, and a soft mat beneath her feet. The mat was a recent addition rendered essential by the 22 years that Jan had stood at the same teller’s counter – including its two previous models – looking out onto the main street in Fernie, a modest but growing town in the BC Interior.

Buoyed by rising prices for coal from the open pit mines of the region and the growing popularity of winter alpine sports in the nearby mountains, Jan’s branch had gotten noticeably busier in recent years. While a customer made his way toward her, Jan smiled to herself as she noticed a spry and talkative senior join the end of the lineup. The redoubtable, “Mrs. E,” as she was referred to among the tellers, was someone they all hoped to serve each week she visited the branch. Jan knew that as much as she liked helping Mrs. E, if she happened to assist her this morning, she would need to watch the time carefully. The new measurement system was tracking queuing time and the customer-facing staff were under a lot of pressure to minimize their interaction with customers unless there was a good sales opportunity.

Four days earlier, Jan had been invited to an in-branch training session to understand the profitability analysis that was recently completed on her branch. It all made so much sense if the primary interest of the bank was in how much money they could make from each customer.

But Jan had always enjoyed the service aspects of her job. She especially loved helping the bank’s most loyal customers, many of whom who had taken to timing their entry in the queue so as to end up at her counter. Sometimes they came by just to say hello because they were in the neighborhood, but mostly they had some banking to do, even if a lot of it could have been done online.

Despite management’s efforts over the years to reduce her time with customers at the counter, Jan had built up quite a storehouse of knowledge about so many of the families of the town. She knew when graduations approached, babies were to be born, loved ones were lost, retirements were coming, and new jobs were found. It always seemed to Jan that she knew far more about her customers than her superiors were aware of. They hardly ever asked about the bank’s customers and instead just kept pushing for more efficiency. They wanted customers to do more and more for themselves, which Jan supposed made economic sense, but how, then was she supposed to actually know these people well enough to really help them?

The head office had been trumpeting a new brand slogan about making things better for customers, but no one really believed it. It wasn’t hard to see what really mattered, especially after the last branch manager got that big promotion for making their branch the most profitable in the region, in part by reducing counter staff. Not that Jan thought there was anything wrong with good performance, it was just that it wasn’t what mattered most to her. She loved the moments of personal interaction—the moments when she could offer a helping hand and serve her customers like they really were hers, each of them, with names, families, great days and tough ones. They were people who lived real lives, just like her.

Mrs. E smiled at Jan as she made her way over to the counter. They’d become friends over the years, and despite her failing health and quite modest means, Mrs. E was an important fixture in the community, someone who added color—and even mischief—wherever she went.

As she prepared to ignore the service standards given to her as guidelines to accelerate line throughput, Jan stole a glance over her shoulder into the open office door of their new manager, who had just taken over this week. “Follow your instincts,” the new manager had told her that very morning. “Trust that you can really help our customers, and the business results will look after themselves.” No one had ever said that to Jan before, ever.

She wondered where this young manager had come from. Plenty of schooling, to be sure—they all had that—but there was something else about her that that intrigued Jan. It was still early days, but Jan wanted to believe that “making life better for customers” was a corporate slogan this young manager intended to make true.

Jan wondered how long her new manager might last in the job, given what appeared to matter to the higher-ups. But what if something was changing? What if this young manager meant what she said, and what if there were others like her? What if there were many young leaders determined to change the intention of the business units they led from merely making money to actually “making life better”? What would happen then?

Jan turned to welcome Mrs. E and heard herself say, “Hello Mrs. E, how can I make your day better this morning?” It wasn’t an unusual greeting for Jan, for that was always her intention, but what was different was the sense that perhaps this time it just might also be the intention of her employer. She hadn’t felt that way in a long time.

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