Published in Automotive

What Alcoholics Anonymous and Employee Behavior Have in Common

“Providing only the ‘information’ via training isn’t the hardest part of changing behavior. When it comes to modifying deeply ingrained behavior, ‘12-step programs’ have a superior track record. They use incentives, celebration, peer pressure, coaching to adopt new habits, negative reinforcement, and role models—things organizations can draw on.”

Keith Ferrazzi, Behavioral Change – Culture Change Consultant for GM, eBay, Verizon, etc.

Full disclosure. My name is Roger, and I am an alcoholic. I’m also a recovering alcoholic, with 32 years of continuous sobriety. And I still attend AA meetings regularly, have an AA sponsor and a 32-year-old support group of fellow alcoholics who can walk in my socks and who are still working on changing their behavior far beyond simply “not drinking”. The group’s real value to me is that “they have my back”, by supporting my efforts to do the next right thing in my life! It’s been decades since I wanted a drink but, in my opinion, AA’s main value is being a part of a caring support group for “behavior change”…one day at a time.

However, I don’t preach that AA is the only way to tackle addictions, but it’s been the catalyst for myself and millions of others to replace those addictions with a desire to live a life of value and integrity. And I strictly subscribe to the very common AA practice of “taking what I need (from AA), and leaving the rest”. The AA program promotes adopting new habits using celebration (of AA accomplishments), peer pressure, negative reinforcement, role models, etc… I believe that most of the public still believes that AA’s primary focus is strictly about “not drinking”. But in my opinion, that’s only a “general admission” ticket to the game. The real value of the 12 steps focuses on changing my behavior“one day at a time”.

12-Step Program Principles and Employee Behavioral Change

Notice anything similar about the benefits I perceive of the AA program and the quote from Keith Ferrazzi at the top of this post? Many of the features of the AA 12 step program are a part of the framework of Ferrazzi’s second best seller, Who’s Got Your Back, (He later revealed he wanted to call it “12 Steps For The Rest of Us”). Ferrazzi’s work at General Motors, using many of the AA steps, appear to be producing strong results, as this summary indicates.

After discovering that success in organizational “cultural” change extended far beyond simply providing the information via training, Ferrazzi and his team at Ferrazzi Greenlight spent 4 years studying 12 step programs like AA, as well as programs like Weight Watchers.  His journey was described in the popular piece he penned for the Harvard Business Review, titled Managing Change One Day At A Time. This article breaks down the correlation between the 12 steps of AA and a behavioral change model for businesses.

And although I did not know it at the time, much of the 12 step program framework I used for my MaritzCX Cafe blog post this past January is the same framework Ferrazzi used in his consulting with GM, eBay and others.

Elevating Behavior Science Beyond Theory to Dealership Real World Applications

Don’t get me wrong, behavioral science research is new and necessary, but what about the actual intervention work at the customer facing level that takes place every day?

Ferrazzi’s efforts target the enterprise level of organizations, as do most of the prominent consulting firms that also specialize in behavioral science. And while it’s appropriate to launch a change effort at the top of any organization, the one-to-one customer experience at auto retailers is actually delivered by a group of far distanced independent franchise dealerships. Dealership franchises are usually run by strong minded entrepreneurs who, in the past, have been used to a unique freedom to cultivate an employee culture pretty much free of corporate control. And change at the dealership level, dictated by the OEM, filters down very slowly, if at all!

So, my question is, how does this behavior re-engineering by Ferrazzi and the current crop of behavioral science practitioners work its way down from the enterprise level to intervene with the dealership leadership? And beyond that, from the dealership leadership, generally anchored on the showroom side, to the customer facing front line (including the service center). In fact, how does any behavioral change effort affect the behavior directly at the customer level, which can be dramatically distanced from the enterprise level in many organizations?

 “Where we need to see more work is in the ‘intervention’ space, because that is where Behavior Science really shines…Can I get this outcome behavior and how do I make this happen?  One thing about Behavioral Science is that it can be applied by almost anyone in almost any circumstance”

Matt Wallaert, Behavioral Science Implementation Activist

Implementing Behavioral Change in the Showroom and Service Lane

I’m the retention manager/behavioral science enthusiast for the service center (exclusively) of a very large Buick GMC dealership in Houston, and while I believe Ferrazzi’s “behavioral” work is the next big thing for retail auto, at this point, I don’t see any efforts directed at the auto retailer. The level I live in every day is at the point of customer experience delivery—the dealer customer facing front-liners.

My position at the dealership is rare in the retail auto world because there are few like me who mostly focus on retention and staff behavior (I also cover GM’s Voice of the Customer). But my position won’t be rare in the future. While “price sells cars” still reigns supreme in dealerships via the “showroom”, the peaking of new vehicle sales, and certainly the profit margins per vehicle, is slowly shifting the OEMs attention towards Fixed Ops and retention. And it’s my personal belief that the pattern of increasing recalls is also forcing OEMs to concentrate more on vehicle owners instead of primarily showroom buyers. But how do I learn how to intervene with behavior change with customer facing personnel, when most of the behavior science practitioners have not worked their way down to my level?

The Toughest “Behavioral” Mission—Changing the Behavior of the Mostly Male, Customer Facing Staff to Better Meet the Expectations of Women Vehicle Owners

I’ve been championing this mission for almost two decades now beginning in 1999 when I convinced the author of a new book titled GenderSell to come speak at the Sterling McCall Auto Group in Houston.  Let me be crystal clear, this mission is not about the doing the right moral thing…it’s about doing the smart/profitable thing.

This mission is seemingly impossible because the mostly-male centered culture in retail automotive has been set in stone for many years.  I knew I was going to need help, so I’m teaming with Anne Fleming, CEO and “car buying advocate” of Anne launched Women-Drivers a decade ago and I’m coming up on 2 decades chasing the same passion.

Anne and myself have spent decades sharing with auto retailers the economic benefits of creating different customer experience practices for women vehicle owners, but the needle is moving much too slowly.

Why women? (just 3 of the many)

  • There’s a saying among marketing to women mavens that “When you meet the expectations of women consumers, you generally exceed the expectations of every other consumer’s expectations”
  • Millennials and women share similar expectations
  • Want some numbers for the future? The most important one I see is that millennial women are obtaining twice the drivers licenses as young men (see below)

A graph showing the number of driver's licenses obtained by men vs women

Source: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute

Anne and I believe that the expectations of women and millennials are similar when it comes the CX—and so do other influencers like this from the Huffington Post.  But changing the existing male-dominated culture to meet the expectations of women vehicle owners will be extremely hard.

In summary, even though it may appear ironic that today’s great gift of brain science applications in business could be linked with a program/fellowship launched in 1934 that “seemingly” helps alcoholics stop drinking; when you become aware of the true mission of AA (behavioral change), it makes perfect sense.  And I can personally attest to AA’s success in changing mine! Certainly, I still have “character defects”, but the AA program addressed many other behaviors far beyond the drinking.  That’s why our motto is “progress, not perfection”.