By Raphael Hernandez
I recently attended the Hay Group’s Employee Engagement Forum in New York City, which was attended by well-known organizations such as ESPN, Univision, Merck, BMW, Miles Finch Innovation, Luck Companies, Data Alliance, Borderfree, Estee Lauder and the Girl Scouts of America. This intimate gathering provided a forum to share insights and experiences related to employee engagement. A story I recounted at my table caught the interest of the broader group and I suddenly found myself standing before the entire audience relating the story. It’s about a 10-year-old entrepreneur I met in Kabul who taught me a thing or two about employee engagement and great customer service.
In 2002, I was working in Afghanistan as a logistics planner and routinely traveled to Kabul to conduct business with organizations there. During one of these visits, I took the opportunity to shop for some unique Afghan gifts I could bring back to my family. I found my way to a crowded market filled with several small businesses, all nestled closely together, competing aggressively for people’s cash. The market was known as Chicken Street.
Chicken Street was unlike any Main Street USA image you might conjure up in your imagination. It was an area heavily guarded by a combined security force of Afghani and Coalition Forces who were responsible for providing a safe and secure environment. Chicken Street was thriving; the place bustled with shoppers and animated salespeople negotiating fiercely. The fact that a few of us were wearing flak jackets with bullet resistant plates didn’t seem to faze anyone. They must have known behind our armor were bulging, dollar-filled wallets waiting to be emptied.
As I walked through the brown and dusty marketplace, I was drawn to a vendor’s stall thanks to the gregarious smile and vibrant green eyes of a 10-year-old boy. He was holding court at his father’s small business, which specialized in clothing items and other accessories. I noticed this particular store not because of the assortment of goods, but because of the charming employee who acknowledged me with a warm smile and made eye contact that suggested, “I care about you. I’m happy you are here and I want to make sure you find what you need.”
The small group of American and French citizens I was with made a beeline to the boy. For certain reasons, I’m going to call this young man, Anwar. I assumed didn’t speak English but was pleasantly surprised when I discovered he did—quite well, in fact. He told us he learned it while watching American movies. When I asked why he chose to learn English, he replied, “So I can take good care of my English speaking customers!”
An interesting transition took place midway through the conversation: he began to ask me questions to identify what my needs were. He listened intently and ascertained that I was searching for special gifts to take back to my family in the United States. This kid was good—really good! Before I knew it, I was buying more stuff than I had anticipated!
I worked my way through college selling men’s clothing in a retail store, so I know a thing or two about customer relationship management, not to mention that I have many years of professional experience as a marketing, logistics and operations professional. As such, I have a solid understanding of professional selling skills. This enthusiastic, engaged, and knowledgeable 10-year-old went through all of the key sales steps any world-class sales representative would have.
He clarified and confirmed; drawing out my needs behind the needs, and he made the close when I signaled I was ready to buy. He did it in a way that made me feel great! I felt great that I was contributing to the local economy and helping Anwar and his family. I felt proud about why I was there representing my country in the first place. And I felt excited that I found truly special gifts to bring back to my wife, daughter, and son; beautiful gifts that were unique to this country—a country with thousands of years worth of culture, history and tradition. You see, I was seeking the truly memorable because of the huge sacrifice my family made in allowing me to pursue my passion: to be of service to others during this difficult time in history.
When I asked Anwar why he was the only one in the store that day, he told me that his father was away on other business. Since Anwar was in charge that day, he wanted to impress his father by selling as many goods as he could before he returned. In doing so, he’d prove that he could be trusted to take care of the family business.
Anwar was a remarkable young man. I was so taken by him that I asked if we could snap a photo together to remember the experience. He enthusiastically agreed.
So what did I learn from this young man about employee engagement and customer service?
Be wary of quick judgments. Employees have valuable skills you may not be aware of. I made the assumption that Anwar did not speak English and I was wrong. He not only taught himself English, he did so to support the needs of his customers and the family business. Are you aware of all the valuable skills your employees possess? As leaders, we need to ask ourselves, do we really know those we lead?
A smiling employee is an engaged employee—so take care of them. Anwar initially communicated with me nonverbally. He made me feel special and drew me in by smiling with extraordinary enthusiasm. Unlike other vendors who were verbally pestering me to shop at their store, Anwar didn’t have to say anything. His smile and sparkling green eyes were infectious and all that were needed to draw me to his storefront. Are your employees smiling in your organization? Why not get them smiling by being a beacon of enthusiasm—just like Anwar was?
Invest in developing frontline employees with sales skills they can use for a lifetime. Anwar clearly had been trained by his father and, very likely, influenced by his community on buyer behavior, marketing, sales, and customer service. He benefited from a culture known thousands of years for its trading expertise. What are you doing to develop your employees so that customer service and an enthusiastic spirit become part of your culture’s DNA?
Engaged Employees are your best brand ambassadors and they have the power to transform your customers into ambassadors. It goes without saying that Anwar was a highly engaged employee and a great ambassador for the family business. His enthusiasm and ability to communicate authentically made me an ambassador—his biggest fan! Are you leading in a way that inspires belief, passion, and commitment from your employees? Do you empower them to express their unique passion to customers? Train them. Get them fired up. Let them loose!
Trust your employees. If a ten-year-old in a war zone can be trusted to manage the family business, doesn’t everyone possess the capability to be trained and trusted to take charge of the business? Today’s 21st Century Leaders must be trustworthy and trusting of their employees. This supports our natural human desire for autonomy, encourages initiative, and ultimately builds confidence—all of which benefit the bottom line and mission attainment. What is your organization doing today to develop current and future leaders so they lead by example, act ethically and earn the trust of those they lead?
As I concluded my story at the Hay Group Employee Engagement Forum, I mentioned how I think of Anwar often and hope he is doing well. I would not be surprised if he is a wealthy 22-year-old small-business owner now. Why wouldn’t he be? After all, he earned a PhD in Business and Leadership when he was 10 years old!
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About Raphael Hernandez: Lt. Col. Raphael Hernandez currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command and in coordination with J. Walter Thompson Atlanta, the Corps’ advertising agency, leads a strategically aligned, multi-million dollar, national integrated marketing program designed to increase brand awareness, generate high quality leads for 3,700 plus enlisted and officer recruiters located across the United States. Raphael has served in the United States Marine Corps for 21 plus years and has extensive experience in logistics, strategic and operational planning and execution, recruiting operations and organizational leadership. He earned a business degree from the University of Texas At El Paso and a Masters in Organizational Leadership from National University, LaJolla, California. He served in Afghanistan and Iraq and in 2011 was part of a 6 person planning team who assisted the Department of State at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, to rapidly develop contingency plans as a result of the 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. In addition, he served as the Director of Operations and Logistics, for the Third Marine Expeditionary Brigade during Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief Missions in the Sri Lanka in 2009 and the Philippines in 2009 and 2010. Connect with Raphael on Twitter: @Raphaeleads