Don’t Phone It In, America!

When everyone's enthusiasm, professionalism, and 'gusto' is at historical lows (what's below the basement? that! lower than the basement we're living in during our CovidStupor) – the opportunity to 'win biggly' has never been more open to business thinkers still pushing for excellence and rejecting the easy excuses of the day. We are a nation of ambition, let's not forget. We should remember that whatever the headlines might read. There is hope!

I can't help but notice that somewhere in the chaos – in the disordered, disjointed, spasming months of 2020 – American businesses seem to be 'phoning it in.' Maybe you've noticed the same thing. Of course, there have been distribution channel hiccups – frustrating logistics disruptions. It's true, the very nature of customer interactions, and user experience is forever changed. We know zoom meetings/remote work are the new normal. American business leadership has been forced to adapt and make a myriad of concessions – perhaps more than we should. Employees down the organizational chart also seem to be dramatically less willing or motivated to 'spring into quick action' or 'go above and beyond.'

To 'phone it in' is to do something with low enthusiasm or effort. While the phrase may sound innocuous enough in an age when telecommuting and conference calls are normative, it originates from the notion that a person can't be bothered to show up when expected. By 'showing-up' I mean more than physical presence. I mean making Herculean efforts toward excellence at every stage, in every way to ensure the client, the end-user, or the 3 'o clock zoom call appointment is thrilled with the interaction or whatever it is that you're delivering to your market.

Don't believe me? Don't think we're seeing this significant reduction in effort, zeal, and positive enthusiasm? I'll try and paint the picture.

Here is a list of 'phoning it in' examples that are becoming disturbingly common in these 'uncertain times' (aren't we all tired of hearing that little phrase!). I've experienced every single one of these this week.

The world's #1 mortgage origination and refinancing company representative went on vacation and their 'assistant' didn't return the emails, phone calls, and dashboard requests. We missed the closing deadline. COVID and 'work from home glitches' were blamed. The local restaurant (quite trendy, excellent food) keeps signs along the roadway that read: come on in, we're open! But they are not open to occupants. They are only open for call-in/pick up. Should you walk up to the restaurant door to order – no employee will have any interaction with you. Should you sit outside on their bench to place the on-line order, you will be 'shewed off' because the 'bench' is the staging area for to-go bag orders. I wondered whether they were interested in my business at all. I kept thinking, “My gosh, how can I give you my money and buy your food! Also, not thrilled to see flesh and blood customers?!” Restaurant number two (right next door) required a sort of 'social contract' to be allowed on the premises, including itemized directives about how many people could leave the table at one time (one), how a patron is to exit the building (ingress/egress restrictions), and a clear declaration that they would not accept cash as payment. The wait staff seemed genuinely annoyed that I was in their restaurant – a threat to their very lives. I really just wanted a medium size pizza and for someone to offer a human gesture. If we can't detect friendly smiles behind the masks, we're going to have to be even more enthusiastic with our words and small gestures. Three of the five items on the supply list at the big box home improvement store are 'unavailable due to Covid-19 backorders' – that included a box of basic construction screws. A janitorial services worker wheeled an industrial size vacuum cleaner across a large ballroom to vacuum a small section of a 2500 square foot space. She vacuumed approximately 50 square feet, unplugged, and moved at a glacial pace back across the room without finishing the area. There was no 'spill' or isolated mess – just a half-hearted result. I could go on. If you aren't noticing these small partial-efforts around you, I encourage you to pay attention. The bar isn't lowered, the bar is sitting on the floor. So what is causing all this shoulder-shrugging race to the bottom?

Several factors are at work:

1) The meaning and value of diligent, passionate work seem to be losing cultural cachet. In a world of protesting, large societal change, murders, riots, explosions (our thoughts are with you, Beirut), and pandemic infection charts – the micro-movements that produce excellence seem to be of less comparable importance.

2) As our personal lives are radically altered, the chances for glitches and mishaps increase. The more kids doing homeschool, the schedules always mid- juggle, wifi mishaps because of bandwidth problems, and our daily patterns in total dissolution – it's no wonder certain balls get fumbled and dropped.

3) The old proximities (multiple eyeballs on a project), the checks/balances of accountability, and the absence of logistics friction points used to allow for nearly mistake-free execution. Not so today.

So how does a company separate itself from the lesser competition in this chaotic context?

First, know that anything that looks 'extra' or 'beyond' or 'over the top' considerate will stand out even more today. The stress and disorder of these months make 'excellence' in your service or product exceedingly rare. You and your team should recognize this as a big opportunity to wow. The attention to detail and thoughtful efforts to reduce 'friction points' are going to look damn near heroic!

Second, it is always a fruitful thing to remind your team (leadership, employees, etc.) why your company is so valuable to people. Those down your org chart need you to be a broken record – always, incessantly reminding them to not allow their focus to drift from that shimmering horizon – the destination. Your company will make the most impact by staying true to the cadence and mission established long ago in less erratic days. This driving rhythm must become the very heartbeat of the entire organization – it alone will motivate and propel others to maintain excellence. Your team will 'show up' rather than 'phone it in'.

Third, make a big deal (it should feel like you're making TOO BIG of a deal) about personal relationships. Loneliness and isolation and confusion are the result of all the headlines, tweets, and market trends. Human contact is vital. Be sure to throw those lifelines to your team. From that trusted, secure relational basis you can say the hard things: we are better than this. We are never going to settle for 95%, I owe my team my best. Our clients need our excellence and we are proud to give more than 'good enough.'

Lastly, help everyone you meet to re-set their parameters and horizons. Giving historical context to this weird year is critical – 'you're going to make it – we are all going to make it' is a great (and true) line. Reframe discussions. 'By next June, this moment will be something we recall with a shiver and grimace.' Brighter days are ahead – but everyone will remember who stayed cool during the rough patch. This is our moment to shine.