ServiceExperts™: Addressing Competence – the Key to Change in Service

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ServiceExperts™ is a series of contributing articles from recognized industry professionals offering their thoughts, viewpoints and opinions on the latest trends impacting the service industry. Jim Bohn, PhD is an author and researcher-practitioner focused on improving organizational performance one person at a time. Dr. Bohn has decades of on-the-job experience in addition to a strong foundation of academic research. Dr. Bohn has organizational expertise and insight stemming from decades of successfully leading leaders. His business insight derives from observing the organizational behavior of multiple Fortune 500 organizations, ranging from hospitals and healthcare to retail and finance, service, manufacturing and telecoms.

He served in a variety of roles in the corporate world beginning in 1973, personally leading the transformation of multiple underperforming teams to achieve award-winning levels of success. Retiring after 33 years with Johnson Controls, Dr. Bohn launched his own Change Management and Organizational Transformation Practice, PRO/AXIOS LLC. Dr. Bohn has a unique blend of hands-on, in-the-trenches experience in addition to a rich pedigree of research from his Ph.D. studies. In addition to lecturing at local universities, he is the author of several books including, “Architects of Change: Practical Tools for Executives to Build, Lead and Sustain Organizational Initiatives,” “The Nuts and Bolts of Leadership,” “Getting I.T. Right: Installing the Organizational App,” “If Your Water Cooler Could Talk,” and “People Development: The best part of leading a team,” all available on

Addressing Competence: the key to change in service

I sat down with a group of service technicians to ask them about an upcoming change. The room was a bit tense. I was from Corporate and they were skeptical about my interest. Technicians never say they’re not interested in help from Corporate, but they clearly don’t have much interest in someone who has never pulled a wrench or fixed a chiller.

I don’t blame them. Here’s why. Competence is their badge of honor, their demonstration of capability. A guy like me who hasn’t done that work doesn’t really merit the honor that comes with competence in that domain. Technicians pride themselves on their competence, and the greater the challenge and achievement, the higher their personal assessment of their competence.

Competence: A critical human motivation

Competence is one of the most powerful motivations in human nature. Everyone wants to be competent. Even the smallest child likes to say, Look at what I did!” No one wants to be a loser. And competence is a key motivation in service. Technicians pride themselves on their ability to accomplish difficult and demanding tasks. They like gaining a reputation for competence. “That guy knows what he’s doing,” is the highest compliment that can be paid to a technician. So, executives must ensure that any change taking place in an organization doesn’t tamper with or reduce technician competence.

Here’s an example: When I met with those technicians (and everyone who manages a change in service should make a deliberate effort to meet with a team and listen to their concerns) something slowly came to the surface. The screens on the new handheld devices were difficult to read and the aging technicians were concerned they would not be able to see what was on the page. That would have put them in a touch situation with their customer (to whom they want to demonstrate competence) by not being able to get the information the customer was seeking. Being competent in front of a customer is #1 for technicians. Anything that degrades their competence will build resistance to the change. It’s that simple.

A second way competence influences change

People observe other people all the time, especially successful people with good track records. This happens in service too. Some people are legendary. Perhaps because of significant successful projects, major certifications, or even fixing a runaway situation with little hope. These people are known for their competence.

Why is organizational influence important in change?

In your organization you have influencers that may not appear on an organizational chart. Or if they do, they are not in managerial roles. However, everyone knows who they are. Everyone knows their names. These people are incredibly competent and they have major influence on your change. When you get ready to roll out a change, these people will be asked what they think. In that moment, your change is on the line. If you haven’t spoken with these key organizational influencers, your change is in trouble. Again, people will look to the most competent person and ask what they think.

So what do you need to do?

The simplest and most basic thing you can do is sit with a few other leaders and ask the following question: “Who is going to have the most influence in the acceptance of this change?” Then make a point to get together with those people one-on-one ahead of launching the change. Find one or two that can be ambassadors of this specific change – people who believe in it and who will communicate to the field. Talk through the implementation issues – where are the risks? Where are the problems? What do they recommend? Listen to their language, their concerns and the issues they raise. Address those issues in your project plan. Use their language when you communicate the change. Let the organization know you spoke with them. Not everyone is going to like the changes you institute, but if you address this key issue of competence, both at an individual and influence level, your change is going to have a better chance at success.

Tags: Change Management, competence, Service leadership, Service organization, thought leadership
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