The Three-Legged Stool

blocks with the letters of S T A B I L I T Y

The Three Legged Stool

“Stability!” you cry. “All I want is to know that each day that I’m safe, my employees are cared for, and that my business will continue to go on without too much disruption! All I want is stability!

You’ve tried it all, haven’t you? Consultants claiming they have “the Answer”… Book after book on reinventing your business to realize the gains you’ve been after… Classes and seminars… all promising you that you need only to drink deep of their knowledge in order to have a steady business, provide a secure environment for your employees, and all together experience stability.

But really, what is “stability”? Why do you want it?

And more importantly, how do you achieve it?

What is Stability?

The dictionary defines stability as “firmness in position” and “continuance without change” and “permanence”.

That’s what you’re crying out for, right? Something that doesn’t change over time? Something that will hold its position and always, reliably be there?

Okay. Now we’re on the same page.

Thinking through what “stability” really means, my thoughts turned to the Maisters triangle for services organizations and the way it defines the relationships among an organization, its employees, and its customers.

The Three-Legged Stool Model – Triangle for Services Organizations

The points of the triangle brought to mind the footprint of a three-legged stool. “A three-legged stool is pretty darn stable,” I thought to myself.

And I realized then where the problem for most organizations I consult with lies: For most people, choices are easier when they’re binary, a choice between one thing or another—“either-or”, “true-false”, or “A-B”. Throw in a third choice, and it becomes far more challenging for most people. So they focus only on two legs of the stool.

Ever tried to sit on a two-legged stool?

In his model, Maisters explains that a triangle is formed between an organization, the frontline employee (the one who interacts with the customer), and the customer. The bond between the customer and the frontline employee is typically the strongest, while the other two links need constant Management attention.

man and woman chatting with sales associate about a product while smiling

This is also precisely where Management’s strategies usually fall short. Remember, they cognitively want to focus on just two–so either the organization-customer bond or the organization-employee bond ends up neglected. Worse yet, many organizations typically end up lumping the employee in with the organization so they think they’re solving everything simply by promoting “customer focus”.

Right now, let’s address that with a little brainstorming for each leg of our stool:

  1. How can you strengthen the link between your organization and your customer?
  2. How can you strengthen the link between your organization and your frontline employees?
  3. How can you maintain the link between your customer and your frontline employees?

Don’t read any further! Think through the three questions, and jot down some ideas for each.

Okay. You have some notes, written down or typed out? Good. Now I’ll share with you some of the ideas I’ve seen implemented or even implemented myself.

three-legged stool triangle with arrow pointing between customers and organization.

First Leg: The Link Between Your Organization and Your Customer

Strengthening this leg is about encouraging connection, so your customer feels like something more than a source of revenue for you.

  • Have your organization CEO or Owner reach out to the customer specifically to express appreciation for their working with you.
  • Send customers meaningful gifts, with a card signed by your whole team

I’ll warn you up front: this can come off as disingenuous if all you’re really doing is trying to get your brand or logo in front of them. So think about a gift that’s about the customer and what they might like, not about your logo. As John Ruhlins explains in his book Giftology, there is a right and wrong, way to give, and gifts with strings attached ten to backfire.

  • Engage your customer in your mission—ask the customer for additional opportunities and areas where you take additional steps to serve them or make their jobs easier.

This one is my favorite—when done well. Asking for additional opportunities can come off as self-serving if you’re not careful. For example:

After asking “What else we can do to serve you?” when the next quarter begins you start trying to sell your customer the additional service.

Instead of a collaboration, the customer feels like you’re trying to drum up more sales opportunities with them. Yes, using marketing to learn more about your customers is good technique for understanding their needs—unless you turn it around and use it on them to try to sell them.

Too often, I’ve seen customers answer the standard “what do you want?” and “what would you be willing to pay for it?” question only to be instantly hit with “Okay, so if I give you that, will you sign right now?” The customer immediately tenses. Their breathing gets shallow, and their skin pales as they realize they don’t really need the thing they were just maneuvered into buying—they started off trying to be helpful, and now they feel trapped.

By you.

So, always make sure you give them an out. And don’t put any pressure on them!

You can ask for opportunities, but only in the right way.

lady holding a gift box with tag that says thank you

An example of this from my own experience: We were providing consulting services to a large CPG client in the food space. We had a very collaborative relationship; our frontline employee (the service provider) had a great relationship with the customer and knew what they wanted and needed. But our organization had a policy that made the invoicing process take additional steps—steps that required the customer to employ an additional resource to manage the process with vendors.

Our frontline employee, thanks to her relationship with the customer, was able to pull her own organization into the customer relationship by addressing the policy issue—they organized a committee and actually changed the policy so the customer didn’t need the additional employee to manage the invoicing process. When this was communicated to the customer, they were happy and impressed that a vendor’s policy would be revised to help them out.

The result: the relationship was strengthened on all three side of the triangle.

three-legged stool triangle with arrow pointing between organization and employees.

Second Leg: The Link Between Your Organization and Your Frontline Employees

For me, this is the best leg—it’s my favorite area to be intentional because it’s where we get to love on the frontline employee!

You’ve heard it a million times: Take care of your people and your people will take care of you. Taking care of your people begins by not viewing them as resources that are there just to accomplish your will and meet your goals. Rather, help them see three things: That their work has purpose, that they’re cared for, and that they’re valued.

To get this across, you have to know your people and what they need. Although showing them this can be done with something tangible (think pay or work environment), more often than not what they really need is to feel that the organization and its leadership knows they’re out there and appreciates them and their work.

I know, that’s harder than something you can write check for like a bonus or new office chairs. But think about some of these, and how they can redefine how your people relate to your business.

Pay attention to your people and solve issues by helping them

One thing I did when stewarding a team was something called “I Noticed…” Each month, I set a time to write down something I observed about the people on the team. Most of the time, I never sent anything to them or said anything to them—I just kept a journal of what I noticed, things like:

  • When they put off a vacation to meet a deadline
  • Which particular person always made the team members cranky when they had to deal with her
  • How they had all worked every Saturday for the last month

I didn’t judge. Whether they were good things or bad things didn’t matter—I just made it a point to take the time to notice each and every one of them and write sonmthing down. Being intentional and taking this time, I could dig deeper and identify to the root cause of what I’d observed.

Why does this matter? Because instead of reprimanding someone for being late every day, I could ask questions. I could learn about their values and understand what was going on in their life so instead of going after the symptom—the tardiness—I could offer assistance such as adjusting their schedule to accommodate parenting responsibilities. Or better comprehend their values, which may be different than mine, so in that different light I didn’t take their coming in late as something personal against me and my expectations.

And at the end of the year, I wrote each person a letter highlighting all the contributions I’d noted they’d made throughout the year. Even the employees who I’d had the most difficult time with had contributed in one way or another–and I noted that in their letter.

Their response: Overwhelmingly, they all expressed they felt cared for and loved and that their contributions had been noticed.

Because I took time to address issues in terms of their needs, not putting an end to the issue.

How’s that for strengthening the second leg of our stool and its stability?

team building - team of men and women in yellow shirts cheering

Team building events (structured and unstructured)

Team building events help you and your people learn about one another and connect beyond your roles in your organization—which not only fosters cooperation but also increases communication and collaboration.

  • Structured team building—usually a planned exercise or activity—can include both onsite meetings (a brainstorming game or an in-the-building scavenger hunt) and formal offsites (an escape room or bowling). COVID’s shaken up the ability to do these, but you can still be creative, and try things like Zoom background competitions and digital “find one of these in your house” scavenger hunts.
  • Unstructured team building—the classic is, of course, a team Happy Hour. Again, though, COVID has created a barrier. But with my team, we’ve started doing optional virtual happy hours. It’s about as unstructured as you can get—log into a Zoom room and BYOB—but you’d be surprised how much it still facilitates people getting to know each other outside the work structure.

Engage your employees in the vision-setting process

Take regular, intentional time to explain the culture you want to create to your frontline employees. Then ask them to provide feedback in 360⁰ reviews of leadership so the frontline employees can tell you how you’re doing in creating your organization’s culture.

Doing this is crucial to gaining employee buy-in and engagement.

However, more importantly, you have to listen to them. If you involve people and ask them for their feedback and then appear to disregard it, kiss their buy-in good bye. So even if you decide not to take action on what they suggest, take the time to explain to them why so they don’t feel like the meetings where you discuss it all are a waste of time.

Do this correctly, and your employees will take ownership of the culture you’re building together.

One effective way I’ve found to encourage buy-in and ownership among the employees is to gather once a week and put the company values up on a screen where everyone can see them. Then I ask everyone gathered there to share examples of how someone in our organization has demonstrated any of the values. This puts the focus on what is being done, and how we’re succeeding as an organization. And it opens the door for questions like “How can we spread this throughout our organization?” or “As well as we’re doing, what do you think we can do to take it to the next level?”

three-legged stool triangle with arrow pointing between customers and employees.

Third Leg: The Link Between Your Customer and Your Frontline Employees

As we’ve mentioned, the bond between the customer and the frontline employee is typically the strongest. But that doesn’t mean we can’t put an effort into making it still stronger, does it?

  • Get clarity

Clarity is the best way to keep the link between the customer and the frontline employee strong. People want to know what to expect. Set expectations, meet those expectations, and foster open lines of communication, and you’ll build trust. But remember don’t get too regimented, either—allow some flexibility for your frontline employee to occasionally surprise and delight!

  • Don’t overcommit your frontline employee

Too often the frontline employee is on too many projects, and the relationship between the customer and frontline employee suffers for it. Good resource planning can help in this area. Balance what the frontline employee has to do, wants to do, and likes to do with what the customer needs—otherwise, it will start to feel like a grind to the frontline employee and the customer will just end up irritated.

  • Empower the frontline employee

If your employee has to answer every customer request with, “I can’t do that, there’s a policy against it,” there will be frustration on both sides—your employee feeling cut off at the knees when trying to make the customer happy, and the customer feeling they can’t get help because either your organization is too rule-bound or your frontline employee lacks sufficient authority to accomplish anything.

Instead, let your frontline employee be the hero.

Define the role as one that advocates for the customer and brings the customer good news. Then, as far as the process goes, make your organization a neutral player, one interested in balancing its own needs with the customer’s. This will keep your frontline employee and your customer aligned and happy with each other as they work together, while your organization focuses on keeping them both happy.

A triangle of success!

rocks in triangle balancing on each other in front of the ocean

The Stool: Three Strong Legs, All in Balance

If stability is what you want, nothing beats a three-legged stool.

According to Maister, for an organization, those three legs represent the relationships between you organization and your customer, between your organization and your frontline employees, and between your customer and your frontline employees. Disregard one leg, and the stool becomes wobbly—unstable—and may even tip over.

And how do you get your stability and stop the wobbling?

A stool is stable when all three legs are equal and oriented toward the same thing – safely holding up the seat. Think of the seat as the organization’s mission—the mutual connection for the legs and the thing the legs support.

In other words, focus on the mission, and make sure it’s supported equally by strong and balanced business relationships among your organization, your front-line employees, and your customers.

That will give you a three-legged stool you can sit on for a long time.

That will give you stability.