“Hi! How am I doing?”

Ed Koch, the three-time former Mayor of New York City who died recently, was known for walking around the streets of his city and engaging citizens with this unique and unexpected question.

When I heard this little fact I was absolutely astounded by the brilliance of Ed’s question. While others might see it as quirky and self-serving, this pointed question offered a disarming invitation to citizens to provide direct feedback on the performance of the NYC municipal government in general, and the Mayor more specifically, in meeting their needs.

There’s no doubt in my mind that when Ed asked this opening question he often got an earful. However, once he had a citizen talking, I suspect that Ed took the opportunity to probe and gather detailed information about the current and future needs and expectations of each individual he spoke to. I also suspect that the information Ed gathered through his conversations made their way back to City Hall (1) for a response when critical issues were raised, (2) to provide insights on the pulse of the citizenry, and, most importantly, (3) to detect (and respond to) shifting trends in citizen needs and expectations as early as possible.

Now, the skeptical among us might be thinking that Ed was just being a savvy politician when he went out asking this question. And, I guess you are probably right. But, before we dismiss Ed’s motivation and therefore the question as just another political tactic, let’s stop and consider what organizations can learn, and leverage, from Ed’s brilliant question.

Regardless of which sector your organization is in, you are in the business of serving and satisfying the needs and expectations of your stakeholders and/or customers. To do this successfully you first need to know what these needs and expectations are. This is the platform most organizations use to set and refresh their strategic plans. However, more than understanding all stakeholder/customer needs and expectations, you need to know how your stakeholders/customers rank order their needs and expectations. You see, while stakeholders/customers want and need many things, some of these things are more important to them than others. And since your organization doesn’t have infinite capacity, knowing what’s most important to your stakeholders/customers is key to picking your spots carefully so that you deliver the most value possible to them. Unfortunately, organizations often don’t do this step very well.

However, more troublesome is the fact that many organizations don’t evaluate their performance on delivering products and services, and whether that performance meets stakeholder and customer needs and expectations, on an ongoing basis. And they don’t continue to monitor the “pulse” of their stakeholders and customers, and more specifically their needs and expectations, between planning events (often going three years between stakeholder/customer touch points and conversations).

The problem here is that your stakeholders’ and customers’ needs and expectations can change over time – both the needs and expectations that make their list AND the relative importance of those needs and expectations. If you aren’t checking in with your stakeholders and customers regularly, you run the risk of falling out of touch with them, failing to consistently fulfill their needs and expectations (and sub-optimizing the value you provide in their eyes), and loosing ground to your competitors or alternate providers who are more in synch with what your stakeholders and customers need and expect.

The best solution is to plan a stakeholder/customer conversation strategy that features and leverages Ed Koch’s simple little question.

What if you regularly engaged your stakeholders and customers with this opening line: “Hi! How are we doing?” What you’d find is that your customers and stakeholders would tell you exactly how you were doing at meeting their needs and expectations. It’s only natural that many would tell you how your organization is disappointing them and what you need to do better. However, some would also tell you what you are doing right.

Go ahead – try it out on the next stakeholder or customer you encounter.

Whatever responses you get to the question when you ask it, it’s important to realize that what your customers and stakeholders tell you is a veritable gold mine. Besides giving you an opportunity to hear about (and solve) critical problems that are particularly irritating to your stakeholders and customers, what they choose to talk to you about is equally important. You see, something doesn’t irritate you unless it matters to you and we usually only remark on things and experiences that meet and/or exceed our most important needs and expectations. It’s exactly the same for your customers and stakeholders. So look at what your stakeholders and customers are talking about every time they answer the question. Leverage these clues and be sure to probe until you are confident that you really understand what what they are saying is telling you about their underlying needs and expectations.

As you gather more information from more customers and stakeholders, be sure to compare what they are saying, and what you’ve learned about the underlying needs and expectations, to past information and knowledge. Ask yourself: “Has anything changed (i.e. new needs and expectations, a change in the prioritization of their needs and expectations, etc.)?” When you take this step, you are well on your way to starting a meaningful ongoing conversation with your customers and stakeholders that has the POTENTIAL to deliver significant value for both of you.

But notice that I said potential there.

While asking your customers and stakeholders the question: “Hi! How are we doing?” is a positive step forward, asking the question alone isn’t going to get you very far. You have to do something with the intelligence and insight you get from the responses you receive and the conversations you have. In fact, unless you and your organization are committed to going all the way, and taking action on what you’ve learned, you may as well not start down the customer and stakeholder engagement/conversation path at all.

Why? Because you can actually damage your relationship with your stakeholders and customers if they take the time to open up to you and then you don’t respond in some tangible, high-value way. While you may choose not to take immediate action on every customer and stakeholder request or complaint you hear, you do owe them a response to their input. That response can range from a promise of quick corrective action, to putting them in touch with someone who is in a better position to help, to acknowledging their feedback and explaining how you will use it to deliver even greater value to them in the near future.

Every organization would do well to follow Ed Koch’s lead and leverage the question “Hi! How are we doing?” as part of an ongoing customer and stakeholder engagement plan. However, it’s important to realize that you shouldn’t go out and engage your customers and stakeholders in these important two way conversations unless you and your customer/stakeholder are both going to benefit in truly meaningful ways.

What do those benefits look like?

For your organization: The ability to solve critical customer and stakeholder problems before they get out of hand, repair relationships and build trust, and gain greater customer and stakeholder insight that translates into the delivery of ongoing relevant customer/stakeholder value

For your customers and stakeholders: A personally meaningful response to the insights provided in the form of resolved issues, a feeling of being understood and valued, and the receipt of greater levels of value via their relationship with your organization

All this from Ed Koch’s brilliant little question. Thanks Ed!

So – How am I doing?

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  1. david k waltz
    Feb 12, 2013

    Sandy, great job breaking down the tightly packed symbolism of the “How am I doing?” question into bite-sized elements. I think one of the main factors that inhibit organizations from doing what you suggest is plain ole’ fear – they are uncertain as to what the response will be and are afraid to find out.

  2. Sandy Richardson
    Feb 12, 2013

    Hi David – glad you liked the post.
    I agree with you – fear of what they will hear back is the biggest obstacle holding companies and business leaders back from asking this question. And I suspect that the fear is really on multiple levels/about different things.
    For example, fear of hearing that things aren’t going as well as thought (as you point out) and fear of having to deal with the actions required in response to customer/stakeholder feedback. One difficulty many organizations have is in their ability to prioritze work and what they respond to. If you were to regularly solicit customer/stakeholder feedback, imagine the prioritzation nightmare that that could cause!
    I understand the fear companies feel about talking with their customers/stakeholders but it’s important for business leaders to feel the fear and do it anyway.In the end,if they don’t, it’s almost certain that their company will fall behind when it comes to delivering value to their customers and stakeholders over the long term.