Guest post by Dallas Kincaid, founder and operations manager of Xecunet.

Following Gini Dietrich’s recent post about why paying employees for innovative ideas doesn’t work, I told her about my recent attempt to motivate my employees without money.

As a business owner, one challenge I have faced over the years is that, as you grow, you become further away from working hands-on with your customers and it’s easy to start looking at them as account numbers rather than business owners.

Most of my days now are spent putting out fires or mentoring people who have taken over some – OK, most – of the day-to-day operations of my company. We are a business Internet service provider for fairly large organizations that view web access as mission critical. Simply put, when things go wrong, people are pissed.

Part of my challenge is making sure my staff doesn’t become numb to these emotions and, when problems occur, they own the issue and continue to show empathy toward the customer. Not an easy challenge, especially because some of these people have been dealing with angry customers for more than 10 years now!

I always push customer service as our No. 1 product (which is an entirely different blog post), but I felt I needed to find a way to make my employees feel what it’s like to be on the other side of the equation.

Here is what I did at a recent staff meeting…

The day before the meeting, I went to Walmart and bought $2 25-piece puzzles. I then removed a single puzzle piece from each box. At my staff meeting, I paired everyone into teams and told them they had four minutes to complete the puzzle and that the team that finished first would win $150.

It was great watching everyone tear into their puzzles, and it was even better watching the expressions on their faces when they realized they were missing a single piece and would be unable to win the money. Once everyone was done, I went to the whiteboard and asked each team to give me a word to describe what they were feeling.

–          Incomplete

–          Frustration

–          Confusion

–          Betrayal

–          Annoyed

–          Cheated

I then explained they should look at each puzzle as a business, and each puzzle piece as an element that the business needs to run and make money, and the adjectives were the emotions they felt toward us, their ISP, when we were unable to deliver that piece.

When I first put the puzzles on the conference room table, I could tell some of them thought this was going to be some cheesy team-building exercise. It ended up turning into a great discussion with the entire support team about why it’s important to stay focused on customer service.

When I came up with this exercise, I did so specifically to meet the needs of my own business, but in retrospect, it could apply to any business. It doesn’t matter if you are an accountant, janitorial service, or a uniform company – you provide a piece to someone’s business puzzle.

P.S. – I really knew it was effective when the minutes of the meeting were sent out. Here is the first paragraph:

“Dallas set us up by bribing us with money he never intended to give to us. He handed out puzzles for us to break down into groups to complete only for them to be missing a piece. Then he asked how it made us feel. Personally I am still looking for my $75 but here are what others had to say about how the missing puzzle piece made them feel…”

Dallas Kincaid is the founder and operations manager of Xecunet, an international Internet service provider based out of Maryland.