In The Workplace

Tommy (not his real name) is a customer service representative who has been with us for more than 12 years without being promoted. Recently, our chief executive officer (CEO) received a letter from an important customer citing Tommy’s work, which the customer says saved his organization millions over the years. The CEO passed on the letter to Tommy’s department head and to human resources (HR) for proper action. HR has recommended that Tommy be given an appreciation plaque. However, the department head opposed the idea as Tommy is not known for his hard work. He suspects that such a letter could be easily solicited from any customer. Also, he argued that Tommy’s last performance rating was “below average” due in part to at least two complaints from customers. How do we resolve the issue? — Yellow Submarine.

It’s possible that a commendation letter could be easily solicited from customers, especially by those employees who have long-standing and positive work relationships with them. So what can you do? If you’re the department head, don’t ignore the commendation letter. But take it with a grain of salt.

Trust but verify, because you don’t want to make a mistake that could lead to a serious workplace conflict.

First, let’s make clear what we mean by a solicited commendation letter. It’s a letter that did not arise from the sender spontaneously. It is meant to help another person who may have requested it to gain a possible reward or recognition, even when undeserved.

The employee may have not done anything monumental for the customer, who could be willing to help his contact person earn a reward. This is dangerous. It means that the employee-customer relationship has been compromised. It’s also a good reason for Tommy to be reassigned to another customer or to other tasks.

Conversely, what if the letter is valid and unsolicited? Surely, you would not want to ignore such a written commendation that attests that Tommy is an excellent worker. More importantly, you don’t want to ignore a commendation letter from a valuable customer.

Once again, the perpetual lesson is — trust but verify. Don’t betray any doubts about the sincerity of the commendation letter. Offer an alibi, like trying to distill lessons from the episode that can be disseminated to other workers.

It’s important to not reveal your agenda or to allow your inner thoughts to surface in unguarded moments. Once the customer suspects something, the worst that could happen is the termination of the customer relationship. Therefore, consider the following options and weigh their short-term and long-term implications:

One, phone the customer immediately. Be happy and positive. Thank the customer right away for acknowledging Tommy’s assistance. Be careful not to sound insincere. Then propose to arrange a meeting with the customer to discover how exactly things happened. Explain that you want to learn more lessons from Tommy’s “exemplary” behavior to determine whether his example could be replicated with other customers.

Two, arrange for a meeting with the customer. If the customer accepts, bring Tommy to that meeting. The more details you can get from the customer, the better you can assess the commendation letter’s veracity without Tommy or the customer suspecting anything. The underlying idea is to find ways to do more business with the customer.

Consider a lunch meeting with the customer to learn more about how Tommy has helped. This is an opportunity to evaluate the letter sender’s body language. If circumstances require, you may need to bring Tommy along to the meeting.

Three, consider the letter-sender’s rank. How high is that person in their organizational hierarchy? Is he a department manager, a vice-president, or a more senior official? The higher the position, the greater the likelihood that the commendation letter was not solicited. The opposite may be likely if the sender is lower-ranking.

Still, allow for possible exceptions to this rule of thumb.

Last, assess Tommy’s work with the customer. Interpret his performance in the proper context. How much did sales increase by when Tommy handled the client? Plot Tommy’s performance vis-à-vis the gross revenue generated by the customer.

Is Tommy truly a hard worker? If average, then what makes his performance exceptional in the customer’s eyes? What were the specific reasons given by the customer for commending Tommy? What does Tommy do with this customer that can’t be found in other accounts he handles?

Whatever you do, perform your investigation in secret. This means keeping HR out of the loop as much as possible. Be optimistic but realistic, because you don’t want to be fooled by an insincere commendation letter. But even if you discover that it’s a solicited letter, don’t rock the boat too much.


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