The White Picket Fence Rule

Growing up, in the 1970’s, neighborhoods were wide open and everyone spent time outside talking with their neighbors. I would see my grandfather casually leaning on the white picket fence, in the back yard, chatting with Mr. Ledger about the day’s events or upcoming weekend plans. Well, for the sake of this story, I’ve replaced the hurricane fence with the picket fence…it’s more visually appealing. I’ve used this analogy, over the years, as an example to show my customer care professionals how they should converse with our customers. Both men were relaxed and actively listening and responding to what the other had to say and when needed, there was true empathy. For a while, that analogy seemed to work. You could almost hear the change immediately, as my associates began to visualize the fence, when they were interacting with our customers.

Gradually, over the past 10 years, I’ve seen more and more blank stares as I tell this story. I wasn’t reaching my audience. At first, I thought maybe I was just losing my touch, but then it hit me.

Look at our newer neighborhoods, these days. Can you tell me what your neighbor’s back yard looks like? I would be willing to bet you don’t know. Why is that? 40 years later, I still remember what Mr. Ledger’s yard looks like. There were 4 tallow trees lining the fence, a perfectly cut lawn, and a concrete birdbath in the center of his yard. I can tell you, I’ve currently got a great neighbor, but we don’t speak much and I don’t know what his back yard looks like and it’s because of a wooden 6 foot privacy fence that divides our yard.

I’m not a psychiatrist and I haven’t done official research, but I’m a professional observer of people and I have a PhD in Life. It seems to me that because of these 6 foot privacy fences, and more recently social media, the younger generations have lost the art of interpersonal communications. More and more, we’re isolating ourselves from our neighbors and I believe it’s going to hurt the customer service industry in the upcoming years.

As managers, we’re guilty of participating in this silo effect. It’s much easier and a better use of time to shoot out a broadcast email about a change or a new policy. Better yet, let’s just post it to a share-point and hope everyone gets the message. Also, let’s forget about actually going to the break room to get coffee and let’s just put a coffee pot in our office. We don’t want anyone to waste our time and stop us along the way to tell us something trivial. We have work to do.

How are we going to get our younger generations to ever give great customer service if they don’t have good interpersonal skills? Most didn’t have the privilege of watching two adults interact across a white picket fence like I did or many of my employees had in my early years of management.

We’re going to do it by modeling the behavior we expect. Make it a point to walk your floors and have meaningful interactions, as short and uncomfortable as they may be, with your employees. Wait…”uncomfortable”? Yes. Remember, you’re teaching by providing an example. Your agents are used to communicating in 164 characters, or less. It may take persistence, on your part, to get some employees comfortable enough to engage in a conversation with you, but I promise, it pays off. Also, when there’s news that needs to be handled gently, pull groups into a conference room and give them the benefit of hearing it from you, with your tone, tenor, and tempo.

Your agents will begin to provide better customer service and I’m willing to bet you’ll have a happier staff as well. How can you begin to move this initiative forward and break down fences in your business?


Written by Rob Woodruff
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