A Demonstration of Labor

About 10 years ago, we had a custom pool put in. The contractor told my wife and I that we’d be fans of his for about 3 days, then hate him for 60 days, and then love him again at the end of the project. And he was exactly right. The tractors showed up the next day, dug the hole, and we had the beginnings of a beach-entry swimming pool. We celebrated for a couple days. And then nobody showed up for over a month. We called, left imagemessages, sent email – and got no response. Then one day, someone appeared, and the gunite started flowing. And then silence again for weeks. Finally, one stop short of a call to the Better Business Bureau, our pool was completed. And we were happy again.

At the end of the project, the contractor tried to explain that the project lulls were not his fault – the city had to inspect and sign off on permits at several stages, and in California where pools go in daily, apparently the city inspectors were really busy. The problem, I tried to point out to him, was not the length of the project, but in the lack of status updates. If he had only returned my phone calls, I would have been satisfied, knowing the reasons for the delays. At the end of the project, we loved the pool, but I was not sure that I would recommend the contractor to anyone else due to his poor bedside manner.

In the May 2011 edition of Harvard Business Review, Ryan Buell and Michael Norton discuss this same problem in their article “Think Customers Hate Waiting? Not So Fast…”

“Our research demonstrates that a different approach – simply showing people what is taking so long – gets better results. Customers find waiting more tolerable when they can see the work being done on their behalf – and they tend to value the service more.

“This holds true even when what’s shown is merely the appearance of effort What we term the labor illusion – a demonstration of labor, whether literal or not, expended to meet the customer’s request – can be so effective, in fact, that many customers who endure waits but see a running tally of tasks end up happier than those who don’t have to wait at all.”

Case in point: in one of my roles at Microsoft, I ran a small operations team for a couple years. My first year, there was much management turnover, and little guidance from the leadership team. While my team included several “rock star” employees, we felt a bit beat up at times from various players trying to position themselves in the leadership void. But by the second year, the team was viewed as highly successful. What changed? Not the amount or quality of work – we were consistent, if nothing else. But we did institute a daily standing meeting, in the hall, in front of a whiteboard that I had installed out in the open, where we outlined everything we were working on as a team, with our priorities clearly stated, for all to see. We were the same people, doing the same work, trying to make a difference. All we did was make visible what we were already doing.

It’s amazing how clear things become when you throw a little light them.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.