Gino Chouinard was looking for a little consistency out of his employees at HearUSA Inc. The notion that one customer was getting a different deal from the other, depending on which store the customer visited or which employee helped him or her, did not sit well with the hearing aid provider’s president and chief operations officer.
“I thought it was a credibility issue with our patients,” Chouinard says. “One patient could buy a hearing aid in one place at one price and, depending on the quality of the professional or their salesmanship, could pay a different price at another location. That was a big issue to me when I started, and it was a change I wanted to make.”
The source of Chouinard’s frustration was not with the employees who were offering different deals. It was with the 450-employee company’s leadership team and its inability to set a clear direction for its people to follow.
Chouinard felt employees were doing what they thought was right. And judging by the numbers, the company was growing, from $89 million in fiscal 2006 to $112 million in fiscal 2008. But he still felt that the inconsistency of service, if not addressed, could lead to problems down the road.
“They’re focusing on providing care for these patients,” Chouinard says of his employees. “They are dealing with these patients every day. Their main objective is to help them. But it’s the credibility of the professional if the patient realizes they could have had a discount if they had pushed a little more.”
Chouinard needed to show employees the importance of credibility and how it could affect the image of HearUSA and the people associated with the company.
But it would take more than just one memo to employees to enact lasting change. Chouinard was fighting years of history in trying to get employees to change their actions.
“They are used to one way of doing the business and you start to change things and it’s a little difficult,” Chouinard says. “You need to show that you’ll do whatever it takes to make the change happen.”Identify the problem
Before he could start to implement a solution, Chouinard wanted to know a couple of things: Where did the problem of inconsistency originate in the first place? Why were his employees unclear about how they were expected to perform on the job?
Chouinard had to get out and talk to his people to get to the bottom of the problem.
“You can’t just stay in your office and hope people will come to you,” Chouinard says. “You have to create the process whereby you get the information.”
The gears that set that process in motion are greased by your approachability.
“When I go there and I talk to our employees, it’s to listen,” Chouinard says. “I make sure they understand that they can express any concern they have. I’m not trying to go over our management. Because we have local management, it’s very important not to go out there and start making decisions.
“When you deal with people, it’s to always understand their frustration and pain. Try to get to know them more on a personal level than to just treat them as a number.”
Chouinard learned through his conversations with others in the company that it was time to look in the mirror. Leadership was giving employees a mixed message as to how they were expected to perform their job.
“A lot of pressure was put on achieving certain goals and numbers,” Chouinard says. “And on the other side, we were asking them to provide the best quality of care. I figured it doesn’t have to be opposed to each other. We can combine this. By focusing on quality of care, the performance will come out of that. It was an effort to realign the focus of the message we were sending and making sure we were sending the right one, really focusing on providing the best quality care out there.”
Chouinard needed employees to see how the inconsistent pricing was causing problems for the company that would ultimately turn off customers and have a negative effect on business.
But more important, they needed leadership to give them a better sense of what they were expected to do and who they were doing it for.
“If you make your decision and it’s always focused on the patient, it might not be a good thing for the employees or the shareholders,” Chouinard says. “If you make a decision that only benefits the shareholders, in the long run, you’re going to have issues with your patient or your employees. We’re trying to give them the tools of reasoning to make decisions.”
He needed employees to see how their role as the customers’ contact point fit into the big picture. He needed to attach a clearer sense of purpose to his employees’ jobs.
“You have to help them understand what the vision of the company is,” Chouinard says. “Sometimes, it’s a misunderstanding on where we’re going and what we’re trying to accomplish. Then you need to clarify that. You need to use feedback to reinforce your message to the field.”Deliver the change message
Chouinard knew his company and its employees needed better direction. There needed to be a plan that could be easily communicated so that everyone knew what he or she was supposed to be doing.
“You need to have a good plan in place, and you need to articulate the plan,” Chouinard says. “Sometimes, there are tough decisions and your employees need to understand where you’re going. If you want to keep them motivated and moving forward, you have to be able to tell them why you’re making your decision and why you want to get there. What are the consequences if we’re not going there? How are you going to keep them up to date? How are you going to communicate the progress you’re making?”
His ability to deliver a clear message about how things would be changing would go a long way toward implementing this change effectively.
“It’s really believing in what you’re going to say and being in control of what you’re going to talk about,” Chouinard says. “If you’re not comfortable with what you’re about to say, you shouldn’t say it. People would see right through it. If you’re not passionate about it and you don’t believe in it, it’s obvious that it’s not a good thing.”
Here is where the inconsistency and lack of direction in message was really leading to problems at HearUSA.
“Sometimes our leaders get a message from us and turn around and say something completely different,” Chouinard says. “That’s usually because they don’t take the time to process the information or they thought they understood, but they did not really care to ask more questions. That’s why it’s really important to always stay on top of it and communicate directly with them and make sure they understand.”
To combat this problem, Chouinard made a concerted effort for face-to-face meetings with his people or for meetings in small groups where he could speak directly to his people.
“Communicate the vision directly to them,” Chouinard says.
He says that he couldn’t speak to everyone in person. So when you’re tasking others with the job of delivering a message, make sure you ask questions and do all you can to prepare the messenger for the questions they might receive. When you’re prepping them for their conversations with employees, step down from your pedestal and speak to them at your level.
“You need to be open to suggestions and not think that you’re always right,” Chouinard says. “You need to be humble and open to suggestions. They have to be strong enough to say what they have to say and make suggestions. If you leave that door open with your employees and they are still yes-people, you have to make a move. You just can’t tolerate that.”
If they are just yes-people, they aren’t going to have the belief that they need when they speak to your employees. If they have concerns but don’t feel free to address them with you, that will show through when they speak to others.
“Always seek input from them instead of just telling them what to do,” Chouinard says. “You need to involve them and empower them to make their own decision. You need to find people that you have an affinity with and that you can work with. You need people that will take your vision and your strategies and help you implement them.”
At the same time, you’re the leader and you need to remember that. If you truly believe it’s the right way to go, you need to get your people on board with it.
“As long as you can explain what you do and why you’re doing it and you can make your employees understand the vision of where you’re going, they will respect you for that,” Chouinard says.Make the change last
Change can be exciting. It’s something new and it can create a spark that builds energy in an organization as everyone wants to see how it all is going to work out. But if you can’t get that energy to last, that spark isn’t going to help you very much.
“You need to stay on top of it and monitor what’s going on,” Chouinard says. “It’s easy to make a change that’s going to last a couple of weeks and then you go back to business as usual if you don’t monitor it.”
You need to find a way to drive home your message without beating your employees over the head with it.
“You need to try to empower them to a certain degree and, at the same time, give them some guidelines and specific parameters on what they can do and what they can’t,” Chouinard says. “You need to be able to leave them a certain level of freedom to provide the best quality of care to their patient. If you constrain them too much, they feel limited in their capacity of providing that quality of care.”
So how do you figure out where to draw the line between freedom and control?
“You just have to make a decision,” Chouinard says. “If you make a decision one way, if it’s more controlled, you have to make sure your employees understand why. If you decide to allow them more freedom, you have to make sure that you communicate properly with them in terms of training and tools to allow them to make the right decisions.”
“But I think the best way is to have your door open. … If you provide some guidelines or you put some programs in place and explain them well, then you can monitor them through your assistants. It’s just a matter of staying on top of it and keeping your team focused on the execution of your vision.”
How to reach: HearUSA Inc., (800) 333-3389 or www.hearusa.com