How Middle Managers build and sustain a Service Climate: their new role

The film “Castaway” can be a practical way to understand how is built a service climate within an organization. In the first part Tom Hanks, the actor, representing a middle manager of Fedex, a global leading organization of shipments, shows with energy and firmness in a Russian branch, how this company must operate and deliver service consistently anywhere in the world. He highlights clearly the purpose of this organization: fulfilling the promise made to its customers, i.e. correctly shipments arrive on schedule. Failure to do so may result that some customers are not receiving their medicine, or their salary or an important legal document, or that some factory cannot operate, or a child is not receiving his birthday gift. They call the burden carried every night a “precious cargo”. So, it does that employees understand the great responsibility they have for providing service.

The mission of this organization is interpreted with cleverness and responsibility, and is transmitted with great conviction by this middle manager to all employees in the workplace. But he does not speak the Russian language, he uses a translator. The translator is translating the words of this middle manager and says an anecdote that he had when his truck was failing. Then he stole a boy’s bicycle and went quickly to deliver the shipments remained. Hanks, interrogates the translator about what he is saying, and corrects him immediately that he did not steal the bike, but he borrowed that: we must do what it is necessary to ensure that shipments arrive well on time to customers.

The slogan that each customer must receive his shipment timely, and that is the main commitment of every one in Fedex goes beyond a simple business economic view or a mere operational program. This proposal reflects rather a philosophy that guides the action based on a transcendent reason as the axis of behaviors that are being carried out. As Professor Juan A. Pérez López stated, a transcendent reason is observed when one is trying to serve others, doing his best for others. In this case, it is generating a relationship of trust between customers and the company. When Fedex employees are performing they show a genuine desire to satisfy customers through a concrete benefit. The main concern every employee has every day is that each customer receives his package or document properly and in time. To do so, they know that everyone plays an important role. This way to emphasizing and promoting commitment surely is one of the key elements to get employees involved for this great global service company. Thereby, Fedex shows an excellent organizational performance supported by continuous innovation and services’ improvement. It can be said that Fedex is one of the most innovative companies around the world, since it was the first to introduce and carry out many initiatives in its sector. That has been effective for the effort and contribution of different teams guided by middle managers within this organization. Fedex has won several awards and they are a clear sign of its efforts and performance, for example this company is one of the most admired companies in the world, and several times it has been chosen as one of the 100 best organizations to work in America, according to Fortune Magazine.

Another relevant aspect of the behavior of this middle manager is his attitude to face the adversity that is inevitable when organizations are functioning. When an employee reports that a truck got stuck during its route to the airport he goes immediately to that place and manages with serenity and skill that contingency. He guides employees in order to transfer packages and documents from one truck to another in the shortest possible time. And along with that sense of urgency to solve a problem during that operational process, he considers very important to recognize and reward a child for his job well done in front of all employees. The child has been a messenger giving to Hanks a package that was delivered for Fedex at the hotel where this middle manager is lodged. This package arrived from U.S. and was ordered by Hanks before leaving Memphis to Russia. Memphis is the hub for packages distribution of this company. This middle manager through this action is trying to test the main organizational process. His purpose is to measure the time that takes the whole process from U.S. to Russia. He is interested that the company reduces the operational time in each part of the process and so they can fulfill efficiently the promise to customers. The package contains a watch for cooking eggs, and he verifies that the process has taken more than 87 hours. Then, he explains to all employees through this real and practical example that it is an excessive time.

When he is backing to Memphis at the company´s airplane listens astonished and concerned the conversation between two colleagues. One of them asks to another about the health situation of his wife who has cancer. She encourages him and tells that she will go to visit her as soon as possible. When they arrived to Memphis the middle manager is now interested for helping his colleague giving to him the reference of a fine doctor that he knows is one of the best for treating that disease. That kind of actions from employees shows us that there is a genuine interest among colleagues and clear gestures for helping each other within that organizational environment.

The middle manager had a terrible accident when flying to another country. The plane crashed and he is the only survivor on an island. Despite the tremendous difficulty he has to face alone in that place, he can stay alive and is rescued by a merchant ship. During that experience Hanks can rescue a customer’s package. This middle manager has taken care of this package and when he is back in Memphis returns it to its owner. Thus, it demonstrates the great responsibility and care about the shipments ordered to Fedex, despite the tragic circumstances experienced.

This case gives us an important lesson that corroborates research we have realized about the role of middle managers: for promoting organizational effectiveness it is a key action to pay special attention to those who are, in our view, the cornerstone to build and sustain highly competitive environments: middle managers. They are who guide employees in order to internalize the mission of the company. They are a crucial factor to realize what has been defined by top managers about the organizational goals and strategy. So, there can be a real connection between the mission and strategy in the day to day practice. Middle managers are also those who promote an efficient and consistent service orientation for external and internal customers. Frequently, internal service among organizational areas is overlooked and it is an obstacle to consolidate the external service. Middle managers are in charge for guiding employees to generate positive experiences for customers and collaborators through a consistent service quality at each location and every contact. They are who with criterion and competence can lead employees to personalize every particular situation for customers. Middle managers show these behaviors and actions if they are committed. This is reflected through their desire for getting employees that concretely understand and apply the organizational mission doing their best. This behavior of middle managers clearly indicates that they have developed worthy human qualities such as the way they face adversity, without losing courage and optimism. They also show perseverance and strength to seek constantly continuous improvements at work. Their behavior demonstrates that they are trying generously to help others, both subordinates and colleagues in what they need. In sum, these middle managers are developing an authentic service leadership which enables them to build and sustain a service climate within their area and cooperate to this purpose within the organization.

The service climate in Fedex is sustained by leaders at the middle through a consistent practice and application of excellence service procedures. They also are clear examples to get the behaviors expected of employees, which produces an effective team performance. The Fedex’s service climate strength has a solid foundation: its culture. This is based on three pillars: people, service and profits. First, they focus on people, their orientation and development that facilitate to delivering an efficient service with an authentic style and through this service they obtain the required results. It is a simple and clear way of thinking, saying and doing things in practice. The most remarkable aspect of this global company is how they apply the organizational philosophy. Some of the most frequent comment of its customers: “Fedex employees are the friendliest and best customer service oriented”, and “employees usually do more than expected to ensure that every customer has his needs met”. This company firstly offered a service during the night and then, through its innovative conviction developed other services always well aligned with new and different customers’ needs around the world. In addition Fedex every time is trying to better treat its customers through what they call an “outstanding experience”, which is more than a mere service. Undoubtedly, the success of this company has been possible particularly for the middle managers’ leadership and especially through the internal environment that they have built: a service climate. The main characteristics of this service leadership can be summarized this way: a great business’ knowledge and its processes, a remarkable ability to involve employees for implementing the organizational strategy, the ability to guide each team, and a profound commitment with the mission of the company and its values.

An important assumption of this culture is the need for each person to get a balance in his life and work. So, they inculcate the idea that life is not only for working, but also to dedicate time to other aspects that contribute to the satisfaction and happiness of every person. Thus, Fedex is an example of a company that puts customers at the center of all its activities, and it devotes special care for orienting and developing its middle managers and employees. Its strong focus on organizational climate and culture favors the effort for obtaining different results for its stakeholders on three fields: economical, learning and confidence.

In other article we emphasized that middle managers should assume their new role according to three dimensions that we summarize here: a) to implement the business strategy in order to get economical results, b) to build a positive internal environment, fostering efficient organizational performance, and c) to contribute for consolidating the organizational culture, forging trust and unity in each teamwork. The Fedex case shows us concretely how middle managers assume their role with enthusiasm and commitment according to the organizational policy. These middle managers develop a service oriented leadership that is a key factor for playing their role with conviction according to the organizational style. So, for building and sustaining a strong service climate it is an imperative that middle managers develop a service leadership. That means that they are able to: 1) create and deliver new benefits for customers, through intangibles, not just tangibles, so the company can obtain the strategic results. To do this task middle managers must share knowledge and develop specific skills in order to manage service processes and guide employees utilizing technologies and resources with efficiency. 2) Foster a continuous learning through an attractive and spontaneous environment that increases the operational and service expertise. To do this task middle managers must know how to adapt their management style. 3) Forge unity in every department or teamwork through mutual trust which means that members share some basic convictions and values when deciding and acting in the day to day routine.

In order to build and sustain a service climate it is necessary to have service leaders at the middle. For this purpose it is a requirement that top management focus on middle managers’ development specifically on their competencies and character. It also requires that middle managers assume their personal development seriously through an integral vision.