By Shawn Quinn, Ryan Quinn, and Robert Quinn
After the market crashed in 2008, the debt collections group of a large European company found their work to be more challenging than ever. The leader of this group had attended a course on “Leading for Total Engagement” that one of us (Shawn) taught for the company as part of a culture change initiative. In this course, the leader learned Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) principles, and based on these principles, this leader decided to run an expriment. He noted that one of the company’s espoused values was “Concern for the customer.” He asked himself what would happen if he and his people actually lived up to that value. It was a radical idea, with a radical effect.
Caring for Customers
The debt collections manager had his people trained to listen deeply to the stories of their debtors and then to listen for ways to help. Many customers were losing their homes. Other customers faced other extreme situations. Because the debt collectors listened closely, they were able to tell that in all reality, some of their customers were never going to be able to pay. In these cases, the debt collectors forgave the customers thier debt. Other customers, they learned, might be able to repay their debts in time, but they would never be able to do so under their current debt payment schedules. In these cases, after listening to their situation, they worked with the customers to create new payment schedules that made it feasible for the customers to pay and reduced their customers’ burdens in small but meaningful ways. Other customers had to make hard decisions about which bills to pay because they could not pay all of them. And some customers were still able to pay their bills. In these last two cases, the customers simply appreciated being listened to.
The impact of this simple effort was astounding: the amount of money that these debt collectors collected increased 50% over the amount of money that they were able to collect at the same time the year before. This was a staggering number for debt collections, and particularly in the middle of a financial crisis. The debt collections manager believes that a significant reason why debt collections rose so dramatically is because, when customers had ten bills to pay and could only afford to pay six, the customers chose to pay the bill for their company. We would like to explore why this was so.
One important reason for the increase in bill collections was the fact that the debt collectors listened carefully and took a pragmatic approach to solving their customers’ problems. Clearly, such an approach is more likely to lead to mutually beneficial outcomes. We believe, however, that there is also another, equally important explanation. This explanation can be found in a manager who asked himself the question, “What if we really did care about our customers?”
This question is powerful because:
- It recognizes the discrepancy between what we normally say we do (care for customers) and what we actually do (care about whether our customers will pay their debts, by our products and services, and so forth);
- It invites us to see and feel about our customers differently (what are their situations, and how do they actually feel);
- It motivates us to want to do something for our customers; and
- Most of the customers can tell, most of the time, the feelings we have for them when we talk to them and listen to them.
This last point is important. How often have you been the customer–eating at a restaurant, buying a car, negotiating a contract–when you could tell by the way you felt that the waiter, the car salesperson, or the supplier was not really interested in you? You were a means to close the deal or someone who had to be served until the shift was over and they could go home. Even if they said all the right words and did all the right things associated with “high service quality,” you could still tell. Small (or large) non-verbal cues give people’s real feelings away. Some people are exceptional at hiding these cues, but even they have micro-movement “slips” sometimes, so your unconscious mind feels like something is off, even though your conscious mind agrees with everything they say. 
The manager in the debt collections group did more than just train his people to listen and solve problems. He trained them with a belief and a mission to care for their employees. When people experience interactions with others in which they feel cared for, it fills one of their deepest needs: our need to belong . This is a need that is especially likely to be salient in a time of high stress, like a financial crisis. And when people have experiences that meet this need for them, it helps them to feel secure, safe, capable of going out to meet the challenges they are faced with, and attached to the people who show them this care . We suspect that this had an enormous effect on how positiviely the customers responded to the efforts of the employees in the debt collection center. We also suspect that if the employees called up to listen and solve problems without really caring, then the customers would have felt differently and reacted differently.
This is a critical point. If managers simply try to imitate what the debt collections manager did in thier own businesses, without imitating his reasons for doing it, and imitating how he and his people felt about their customers, then the impact is not likely to be nearly as dramatic. This is a different way of doing business, where caring about the value we create for others is at least as important as the value we create for ourselves. The people in this story did not know that the application of positive principles would have a positive financial outcome. They learned, however, that sometimes when we genuinely care about the value we create for others, the value we create for ourselves can be greater and more incidental.
There is an epilogue to the story of the debt collectors. The effect of caring for customers actually changed the way the managers managed as well. Because everyone was focused on caring for others, the managers did a better job at listening to and helping the front line people manage their emotions. the front line employees had to listen to many difficult stories, and these stories were an emotional burden. By listening to their employees, the managers helped to relieve the employees’ burden, so that the burden was shared and the net effect was that everyone in the office was lifted.
The debt collections manager and his employees did not know that any of this would happen. They simply did what they thought was right and the outcomes emerged. Positive organizing is often about trying to do the right things, allowing new patterns to emerge, and trying agan as a new and better future emerges. The simple question, “What if we really meant what we said when we said that one of our core values was concern for our customers?” transformed managers, employees, and customers, creating new capabilties and new possibilities for that future.
 Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic Processes of Mental Control. Psychological Review, 101(1), 34-52 describes how hard it is to suppress emotional expression. Kennedy-Moore, E., & Watson, J. C. (2001). How and When Does Emotional Expression Help? Review of General Psychology, 5(3), 187-212 explain the costs of emotional expression. Paul Ekman’s (1992) work—Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. New York: W. W. Norton—describes how the micro-movements of facial muscles can reveal lies. And other research explains the relational impact of emotional suppression (e.g., Morris, J. S., Öhman, A., & Dolan, R. J. (1998). Conscious and unconscious emotional learning in the human amygdala. Nature, 393, 467-470; Butler, Emily, Egloff, B., Wilhelm, F. H., Smith, N. C., Erickson, E. A., & Gross, J. J. (2003). The social consequences of expressive suppression. Emotion, 3, 48-67).
 Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
 See, for example, Kahn, W. A. (2001). Holding Environments at Work. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 37(3): 260-279.