Tag Archives: customer service

Looking in the Mirror at Customer Focus

Most organizations say they are focused on meeting and exceeding customer needs. But, as a customer, this often isn’t what I experience.

Delighting customers is critical to long term business success. Satisfied customers will remain your customers until they see the opportunity for something that might be better or is cheaper. Delighted customers are loyal and much more likely to remain customers.

Delighting customers is often about paying attention to the small details. Paying close attention to customer’s jobs to be done is a powerful tool. Then apply creative thinking and a knowledge of your industry, technical possibilities and business realities to provide solutions that delight customers.

Mirror in bathroom that is usable after a shower

Photo by a colleague of mine at Hexawise in his Japanese hotel room.

This photo shows a respect for customer’s jobs to be done. In many hotels the mirrors in the bathroom are obstructed after a shower. This mirror has been designed (with a heating element behind the mirror – applying technical engineering and scientific knowledge) to allow customers to be able to use the mirror effectively in the very common use case (after they shower). It is a small detail. It is also the kind of detail that an organization focused on customer delight will get right. Matt shared this photo on Reddit and it received over 80,000 upvotes (there is an appreciation for this improvement).

FYI Hexawise is hiring a senior software testing consultant, in case you want to go see this mirror for yourself and also to work with me and Hexawise to improve customer delight with the software that impacts our lives so much these days.

Solutions must be something that is free (improving processes often reduces costs so it is not always a matter of extra cost) or something customers will pay for (business/market realities). It isn’t useful to create a solution that your customers would like enough to pay 1% extra for if it adds 15% to your costs.

As with so many management improvement strategies how a desire to delight customers is expressed is dependant on many aspects of the existing organization. You can’t wake up on day to the wisdom of delighting customers and announce this new strategy and expect anything to really change. It is dependant on viewing your organization as a system and making the appropriate adjustments to allow the organization to be optimized to delight customers (see creating a customer of customer focus and How To Create a Continual Improvement Culture).

It is critical to design the organization to maximize the potential information generated at the point where customers interact with the organization. That is not a simple thing to do in isolation (based on the current culture of most organizations today). It requires a deep commitment to continual improvement, respect for people and all the rest of the management improvement practices I have been writing about in this blog for over 10 years now.

Related: Aligning Marketing Vision and ManagementDelighting CustomersCustomers, “Internal Customers” and End UsersWhat Job Does Your Product Do? (2007)Stated Versus Revealed PreferenceInnovation Strategy

Cater to Customers Desires to Achieve Customer Delight

Customer delight requires understanding your customers needs and desires. Often even your customers don’t understand these well. Businesses that have a deep appreciation for what their customers, and potential customers, desire and that create systems to deliver solutions that delight those customers benefit greatly from that effort.

To build a sustainable enterprise you must provide value customers will appreciate.

Your customers do not have one unified set of desires. Some customers may want as good an experience as is possible and if that costs substantially more they are happy to pay. Others want to pay the least possible while having an acceptable experience.

Singapore Airlines can cater to creating a great experience. And even within that system they can segment the offering a bit and create coach class, business class and first class. They seek to provide a great experience for everyone but have extra space and amenities offered for higher classes of service for those wanting that given the cost.

Southwest Airlines can cater to providing a friendly and inexpensive experience while passing on providing certain amenities. Southwest understands that they are creating a system to deliver value to customers that appreciate a no frills environment that still treats them with respect. treat customers honestly and with respect.

Aligning what is delivered with what is marketed is also important and something Southwest does well. Other airlines market as if they will provide what Singapore Airlines does and provides a miserable experience instead. I think it helps provide Southwest focus in marketing and operations seeing how badly many of their competitors frustrate customers continually in very visible ways.

To delight customers determine what they desire based on a deep understanding of them. Make sure you understand what they act on not just what they say.

Even if you determine what they want is to spend as little as possible don’t try to trick them with false claims about low prices. The most despised companies all seem to do this (cable TV companies, airlines, mobile phone plans, some contractors…). Essentially they play bait and switch except they don’t even offer the choice to decline once they provide the real price. They just slap on extra fees after they sold you with promises of the cheaper cost.

Instead cater to meet the importance of low price but still treat customers with respect. Yes, you might cut some corners a bit so customers have to wait longer for support or don’t have as much hand holding as they could get for a higher price. But there are many things that can be done with well designed systems to provide very good service while keeping costs low. In fact often better service can be provided at lower costs because systems designed well include less waste and create fewer problems. Those problems are costly to solve and damaging to customers.

Your customers will not have monolithic desires. A big factor in the success of providing solutions that delight customers. Sometimes that means creating product and services that delight people with a wide range of expectations. Other times it means delivering different solutions to delight the different audiences.

My mechanic is trustworthy and less expensive than my other options. He also lacks many of the amenities others might desire. But for me I am delighted with his service. I am happy to drive 30 minutes to get service from him, passing by many other options. I trust him to know what to do and act in my best interest while charging a fair price.

My dentist is very good and expensive. He doesn’t accept insurance (if you have insurance you can submit the bills yourself but his office doesn’t get involved). He does all the dental work himself, including cleaning (which is rare in my experience – often the simple tasks are assigned to others). Assistants deal with scheduling and billing. His market is to provide great service to those customers willing to pay. This is not a strategy that would work for most dentists I don’t think, but it works very well for him and his delighted customers (like me). The customers willing to pay for this level of service is limited but if you delight enough people who are willing to pay you create a sustainable business.

Knowing what your customers want and creating systems to deliver that to them is how to build a great business. It sounds easy but few businesses really do know what their customers want. And even fewer focus on delighting them by continually improving the value they offer.

Related: The Customer is the Purpose of Our Work (2012)
Customer Focus with a Deming Perspective (2013)the most important customer focus is on the end users (2012)What Job Does Your Product Do? (2007)What one thing could we do better? (2006)

Add Constraints to Processes Carefully

Take great care in adding constraints to processes to avoid doing so needlessly.

Online you will frequently find forms that have required fields that needn’t be. Certainly if you were designing with focus on what is best for customers those requirements rarely make sense. Occasionally a required field is a sensible constraint on an online form but so often they add unnecessary constraints.

I frequently find those forms even requiring a false answer since a response is required and none of the options are true. Often this is because the organization is thinking of the boxes they expect users to fit themselves into rather than thinking how to create the best user experience.

I wrote previously about a company representative that suggested a customer change their name because the computer system didn’t accept names with 2 characters. Constraints on creating a secure password are a frequent failure of web sites for the last 10 years.

Man without arms denied housing loan due to inability to provide fingerprints

because Wu Jianping has no arms, creditors claimed they could not give him a loan since he was unable to be fingerprinted.

After the case was publicized and there was a great deal of negative publicity on social media the banks modified their process and approved the loan. But your organization shouldn’t have as the mistake-proofing (obviously not mistake-proofing at all) that when the process doesn’t quite work well then rely on a massive social media outcry which is a signal to us to straighten out the issue.

Frequently I see unnecessary constraints creating the edge case excuse. By burdening your process with unnecessary constraints you create edge cases that fail and then use the excuse that each of the edge cases is rare and therefore you can’t justify the expense of fixing them.

But if you designed the process sensibly in the first place the edge case never would have failed and you wouldn’t need special work arounds for such “edge cases.” A simple example of this is unnecessarily complex web page code that fails if to submit a button without javascript. Yes, a small number of users won’t have enabled all javascript to run (today anyway) so it is an “edge case” to deal with if you don’t have the form work without javascript. But there is no decent reason to have it fail in most cases.

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Support Theatre

Support theatre provides the appearance of supporting customers when in fact it is just treating customers poorly based on a management system that disrespects customers. It is a similar idea to security theatre that has become so popular for government in the USA for the last 10 years.

Dilbert does a good job of illustrating “support theatre” in this webcast:

I have had the exact experience Dilbert does of tech support refusing to think about the actual symptoms of the problem and insisting on following some script and wasting my time – repeatedly. This is not some accident. Management has designed systems with the attitude that customer’s time doesn’t matter.

Companies that practices support theatre are usually very focused on cutting the company’s cost and not “wasting” the companies time fixing the problems they create for customers or even helping customers put on “band-aids” to cope with the injuries the company has inflicted on the customer. Those companies also don’t learn from their failures to improve and stop future customers from suffering the consequences of their poor processes.

It is painful to interact with such companies. I find that most large companies I am forced to interact with are deeply into support theatre and only very superficially concerned with customers. It is a shame that the type of customer focus that those interested in management improvement have been advocating for decades is ignored by so many companies today.

If you care about your customers and want to build an organization that prospers by delighting customers go to the customer (user) gemba. Focus on how to improve the customer experience. You likely will have many easy opportunities to improve how things operate since the experience for customers today is often so bad.

Related: Making Life Difficult for CustomersPracticing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at AppleCustomer Service is Important (2006)Simple Customer Care Strategy: CommunicateUse Urls, Don’t Use Click x, Then Click y, Then Click z InstructionsHow to protect yourself from your credit card companyVerizon Provides Lousy Service = Dog Bites Man (2008)Is Poor Service the Industry Standard? (2006)Incredibly Bad Customer Service from Discover Card

Good Startup Ideas from Startup Weekend JB (Malaysia)

I like all these startup ideas from Startup Weekend JB (Malaysia). I can’t figure out how to comment on their blog (I am guessing Tumbler just eliminates commenting?), so I started this post – and ended up adding much more than I planned on putting in a comment.

All of these ideas are not very technically challenging and pretty much versions of these businesses are already successful around the globe. But creating great user experiences (in apps or on web sites) is often neglected for doing something passable (and local conditions mean the business is a bit different here than it would be somewhere else).

To create a greatly successful startup focusing on great, not adequate, customer experiences is extremely useful. And you can leap ahead of competitors that don’t focus on customer delight.

One of the interesting things from my experience living in Johor Bahru, Malaysia the last few years is that Malaysia has way more entrepreneurial diversity than the USA (in my limited experience). Many of these businesses stay small. But you have entrepreneurs in all sorts of businesses at events in JB. In the USA the events I went to were all software focused (internet businesses etc.).

Here you have people setting up factories, printing companies, beauty entrepreneurs, construction companies, bakers, motel chain (less than a handful of motels so far) etc. going to HackerSpace meetings and Drinks Entrepreneurs, BarCamp etc.. Startup Weekend I do think was very IT focused, even in JB (it is setup to be that way so it isn’t surprising).

There are small business entrepreneurs in the USA, but they don’t go to entrepreneur/ LeanStartup etc. type meetings (in my experience). And they are more limited; so many businesses in the USA really can’t be done easily by some new college graduate. The capital and legal requirements are just so huge you need so much to start that it isn’t something considered in the cool-startup communities (in general – I’m sure there are some things like micro-brew startups etc.). In JB it seems to me fewer than 33% are IT dominated. Though I expect this will increase rapidly. I think there is a real benefit to including non-IT focused people in these communities.

The number of people outside of IT that decide to be entrepreneurs out of school is tiny (it seems to me). In Malaysia it seems much more common. But in general people don’t talk about it as being entrepreneurs they are trying to make a living and setting up their own business to do so is just a natural thing to do.

SmartDining – find local restaurants (mobile app) and order (for take out or dine in).

The app shouldn’t be too hard to do well. The challenges will be working with restaurants, marketing (so often the case) and maybe mapping (finding good suggestion). How to balance efforts well will also be a challenge – you could spend tons of time on many different valuable efforts related to this business. Vote.

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Don’t Ignore Customer Complaints

I find Paul Graham’s ideas very useful. I disagree with his recent tweet though.

tweets from Paul Graham

Update: See note at bottom of the post – Paul tweeted that his original tweet was wrong.

Base your assessment of the merit of an idea on the actual merit of the idea, not the category you place the person in that is expressing the idea.

His reply tweet addresses the problem with the first one in a very specific case. But you have “bugs” that are part of your management system, “policies,” products or services. Few customers will bother to voice those problems. Rather than ignoring some of what you hear, you should evaluate the merit of the complaint.

If the complaint is not something that should be addressed or explored fine. But that has nothing to do with the category of the person (“complainer” or not); it has to do with the merit of the complaint.

I understand some people are annoying because they make lots of meritless complaints. Ignoring the meritless complaints is fine with me. But just as I think ignoring advice because the person giving the advice doesn’t follow it is a bad practice I think having a policy of basing decisions on something other than the merit of the complaint/suggestion is unwise.

This is especially true since organizations on the whole do a lousy job of listening to customers and understanding customer desires. We need to greatly enhance the practice of customer focus not seek to reduce it. Every organization is unique, however, and if customer focus is exceptionally great, I can understand the idea of the tweet: that we are devoted to customer focus and each new insight, but we have taken it too far and need to discriminate better. I still think discriminating based on the merit of the complaint is a better than doing so based on our categorization of the complainer but in that case (which is very rare in organizations) the advice isn’t nearly as bad as it is for most organizations.

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Out of Touch Executives Damage Companies: Go to the Gemba

When your customer service organization is universally recognized as horrible adding sales requirements to customer service representatives jobs is a really bad practice. Sadly it isn’t at all surprising to learn of management doing just that at our largest companies. Within a system where cash and corruption buys freedom from market forces (see below for more details) such practices can continue.

Such customer hostile practices shouldn’t continue. They shouldn’t be allowed to continue. And even though the company’s cash has bought politically corrupt parties to allow such a system to survive it isn’t even in the selfish interest of the business. They could use the cover provided by bought-and-paid-for-politicians-and-parties to maintain monopolistic pricing (which is wrong ethically and economically but could be seen as in the self interest of a business). But still provide good service (even while you take monopolistic profits allowed with corrupt, though legal, cash payments).

Of course, Adam Smith knew the likely path to corruption of markets made up of people; and he specifically cautioned that a capitalist economic system has to prevent powerful entities efforts to distort markets for individual gain (perfect competition = capitalism, non-competitive markets = what business want, as Adam Smith well knew, but this is precisely not capitalism). Sadly few people taking about the free-market or capitalism understand that their support of cronyist policies are not capitalist (I suppose some people mouthing those words are just preaching false ideas to people known to be idiots, but really most don’t seem to understand capitalism).

Anyway, this class of protected businesses supported by a corrupt political and government (regulators in government) sector is a significant part of the system that allows the customer hostility of those politically connected large businesses to get away with a business model based on customer hostility, but wasn’t really what I meant to write about here.

Comcast executives have to know they are running a company either rated the worst company in the country or close to it year after year. They, along with several others in their industry, as well as the cell phone service providers and too-big-to-fail-banks routinely are the leaders of companies most reviled by customers. Airlines are also up their for treating customer horribly but they are a bit different than the others (political corruption is much less of the reason for their ability to abuse customers for decades than is for the others listed above).

Leaked Comcast employee metrics show what we figured: Sell or perish [Updated]
Training materials explicitly require a “sell” phase, even in support calls.

The company’s choice to transform what is traditionally a non-revenue-generating area—customer service—into a revenue-generating one is playing out with almost hilariously Kafkaesque consequences. It is the nature of large corporations like Comcast to have dozens of layers of management through which leadership instructions and directives are filtered. The bigger the company, the more likely that members of senior leadership (like Tom Karinshak) typically make broad policy and leave specific implementations to lower levels.

Here, what was likely praised in the boardroom as an “innovative” strategy to raise revenue is instead doing much to alienate customers and employees alike. Karinshak’s assurances that he doesn’t want employees to feel pressured to sell in spite of hard evidence that Comcast demands just that are hard to square with the content of the document.

So what is going on here? Most people can easily see this is likely a horrible practice. It is a practice that a well run company theoretically could pull off without harming customers too much. But for a company like Comcast to do this it is obviously going to be horrible for customers (same for all those too-big to fail banks, cell phone service providers and other ISPs and cable TV providers).

Lets just pretend Comcast’s current leadership executives were all replaced with readers of the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog. And lets say that for now you are suppose to focus on improving the policies in place (while thinking about policy changes for later but not making them yet).

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Quality Processes in Unexpected Places

This month Paul Borawski asked ASQ’s Influential Voices to explore the use of quality tools in unexpected places.

The most surprising example of this practice that I recall is the Madison, Wisconsin police department surveying those they arrested to get customer feedback. It is obvious that such “customers” are going to be biased. Still the police department was able to get actionable information by seeking the voice of the customer.

photo of a red berry and leaves

Unrelated photo from Singapore Botanical Garden by John Hunter.

Certain of the police department’s aims are not going to match well with those they arrest (most obviously those arrested wish the police department didn’t arrest them). The police department sought the voice of the customer from all those they interacted with (which included those they arrested, but also included those reporting crimes, victims, relatives of those they arrested etc.).

The aim of the police department is not to arrest people. Doing so is necessary but doing so is most similar in the management context to catching an error to remove that bad result. It is better to improve processes so bad results are avoided. How the police interact with the public can improve the process to help steer people’s actions away from those that will require arrests.

The interaction police officers have with the public is a critical gemba for meeting the police department’s aim. Reducing crime and encouraging a peaceful society is aided by knowing the conditions of that gemba and knowing how attempts to improve are being felt at the gemba.

All customer feedback includes bias and personal preferences and potentially desires that are contrary to the aims for the organization (wanting services for free, for example). Understanding this and how important understanding customer/user feedback on the gemba is, it really shouldn’t be surprising that the police would want that data. But I think it may well be that process thinking, evidence based management and such ideas are still not widely practiced as so the Madison police department’s actions are still surprising to many.

Quality Leadership: The First Step Towards Quality Policing by David Couper and Sabine Lobitz

Our business is policing, our customers are the citizens within our jurisdictions, and our product is police service (everything from crime fighting and conflict management to safety and prevention programs.)

If we are to cure this we must start to pay attention to the new ideas and trends in the workplace mentioned earlier that are helping America’s businesses; a commitment to people, how people are treated — employees as well as citizens, the development of a people-oriented workplace, and leadership can and does make a difference.

If we change the way in which we lead the men and women in our police organizations, we can achieve quality in policing. However, wanting to change and changing are worlds apart. The road to change is littered by good intentions and short-term efforts.

This article, from 1987, illustrates the respect for people principle was alive and being practiced 25 years ago; most organizations need to do a great deal more work on applying practices that show respect for people.

Related: Quality Improvement and Government: Ten Hard Lessons From the Madison Experience by David C. Couper, Chief of Police, City of Madison, Wisconsin – SWAT Raids, Failure to Apply System Thinking in Law EnforcementMeasuring What Matters: Developing Measures of What the Police DoThe Public Sector and W. Edwards DemingDoing More with Less in the Public Sector – A Progress Report from Madison, Wisconsin

Customers

Customer focus is critical to succeed with management improvement efforts. Few argue with that point, though my experience as a customer provides plenty of examples of poor systems performance on providing customer value (usability, managing the value stream well, etc.).

At times people get into discussion about what counts as a customer. Are customers only those who pay you money for a product or service? What about internal customers? What about users that don’t pay you, but use your product (bought from an intermediary)? What about users that use a service you provide for free (in order to make money in another way, perhaps advertising)? What about “internal customers” those inside your organization without any payment involved in the process?

I find it perfectly fine to think of all these as customers of slightly different flavors. What is important is providing what each needs. Calling those that actually use what you create users is fine, but I think it often just confuses people rather than adding clarity, but if it works in your organization fine.

To me the most important customer focus is on the end users: those that derive value from what your organization provides. If there is confusion between various customer groups it may be helpful to use terms like end user, but really using the term customer for a wide range or customers is fine (and modification such as internal customer to provide some clarity).

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Customer Focus by Everyone

There are many critical elements to a management system. One that is fundamental, yet still poorly executed far too often, is creating a system where all staff can focus on enhancing value to the customer every day.

If your enterprise does not focus on this, it should. If you think your enterprise does, my first, second and third suggestions are to think more critically about whether it really does. If the answer is yes, then you are lucky to work in such an organization.

Saying that customers are valued is easy. Actually designing systems to focus on providing value and continually improving to provide value more effectively is not. It really shouldn’t be obvious to a customer in 5 minutes of interacting with your organization that it is obvious customers are not very important.

It is very difficult to create a system with customer focus by all staff without several basic supports in place. Respect for people needs to be practiced – not just mentioned. If there isn’t time to work on improvements to the system, often meaning you have the equivalent of sickness management instead of a “health care system” that is a shame. The reality of most organizations seems to be to make it very annoying for customers to even bring an issue they are having to the attention of the organization and even then the gaol is to use the absolute least amount of effort for the band-aid that can be tolerated.

Staff have to be given authority to act in the interest of customers. But this can lead to chaos if a good system isn’t in place to steer this process. And without processes in place to capture (systemically) needed improvements there will be huge waste.

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