By Any Other Name

Organizations become cynical when leaders substitute a new name for real change. I once knew a CEO who insisted on addressing his broadcast e-mails to “Team.” In fact, most of the people who got those e-mails spent their time at each other’s throats. They were anything but a team, and they knew it. In fact, the only behavior common to this group of managers seemed to be deriding the CEO’s e-mails. Calling them a team was not going to change anything.

However, when a new name is backed up with action, the potential for change is remarkable. I have seen cases where the idea of a new name engendered the conversations and commitments needed to reinvent departments and entire companies.

A few years ago, after a roundtable client meeting, I asked some of the participants to look for things at their businesses that might benefit from renaming. What labels or titles might have been bestowed somewhere in corporate antiquity that no longer fit? What impact would a renaming have if it were backed up with action? The results were quite surprising.

Groups of people at client organizations had a lot of fun with the natural cynicism that an exercise like this can bring up. But the exceptions were, well, exceptional.

One manufacturing firm that runs a small in-house call center decided that its agents should be called “customer advocates.” The concept was the butt of some inside jokes until a new “CA” raised her hand and asked if she now had responsibility for customer satisfaction and the ability to do what was necessary to improve it. That question, leveled with earnest desire directly at the owner of the business, opened up a much deeper conversation. The CA position and its accountability and recognition were completely re-engineered. Today, CAs are accountable for and measured on customer satisfaction — which, incidentally, is up 23 percent. Changing their name did not make the difference, but the name change opened the door for the company to make the shift real.

Another interesting renaming happened at a business services firm. There had been a palpable us/them attitude between the outside sales force and the inside delivery organizations until the day someone suggested that everyone stop talking about closing sales and start talking about opening relationships. Once again, there were at first a fair amount of phrases like “…a skunk by any other name…” But soon the idea began to take root. Some investigation revealed a high level of turnover in the client population and showed that the current structure contributed to a much higher-than-necessary cost of selling and retention. A re-engineering of sales ended with an entirely new organizational structure. The net result was a 6 percent reduction in revenue from new business, offset by an increase of 27 percent in revenue per client and a 13 percent lower cost of selling. Working toward “opening” rather than “closing” has driven both top- and bottom-line performance.

And if you want a recognizable example from big business, you only need to hear what the customer-service organization at the legendary Ritz Carlton organization calls its staff: “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” And, it shows.

Where companies often get tripped up is that renaming is easy while making the new name a reality is harder. If you are not certain that you want to put teeth in the name, adjusting the staffing, remuneration and accountability of the position or team involved, skip the name change. When we change the label and not the reality, we create space for cynicism.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, October 23, 2006.