Category Archives: Customer focus

Stated Versus Revealed Preference

My father provided me a good example of the flawed thinking of relying on stated preference when I was growing up. Stated preference is, as you might deduce, the preferences voiced by customers when you ask. This is certainly useful but people’s stated preference often do not match there actions. And for a business, actions that lead to customers are more important than claims potential customers make about what will make them customers.

His example was that if you ask people if clean bathrooms in a restroom is required for a restaurant they will say yes. Potential customers will say this is non-negotiable, it is required. But if you eat at many “ethnic restaurants,” as we always did growing up, you would see many popular restaurants did not have clean restrooms. If the food at atmosphere was good enough clean restrooms were negotiable, even if customers stated they were not.

Now I think clean restrooms is a wise move for restaurants to make; it matters to people. Instead of creating a barrier to repeat customers that has to be overcome with much better food and atmosphere it is wiser to give yourself every advantage by giving the customers what they want. But I think the example is a simple example of stated versus revealed preferences.

McDonald’s gets a great deal of success by doing certain things well, including clean bathrooms, even if they miss on things some people think are important for a restaurant. McDonald’s really gets a fair amount of business for people driving a long distance that really want a clean bathroom and a quick stretch of their legs and quick food. This is a small percentage of McDonald’s customer visits but still a very large number of visits each day I am sure. Understanding, and catering to, the problem your customers are trying to solve is important.

The point to remember is what your potential customers say they will do is different than what they do. It is sensible to listen to stated preferences of customers just understand them for what they are.

We need to pay more attention to revealed preferences. Doing so can require putting in a bit more thinking than just asking customers to fill out a questionnaire. But it is worth the effort. A simple restaurant based example would be to have wait staff pay attention to what people leave on their plate. If you notice certain side dishes are not eaten more often, look into that and see what can be done (improving how it is prepared, substituting something else…).

Related: Voice of the CustomerThe Customer is the Purpose of Our WorkCustomers Are Often IrrationalPackaging Affects Our Perception of TasteBe Careful What You Measure

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

Software Process and Measurement Podcast With John Hunter

In my podcast with Tom Cagley, Software Process and Measurement Cast: John Hunter on Management Matters, as you might expect there was a bit of a focus on software development and agile software development as related to the ideas I expressed in Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

photo of John Hunter at the Borobudur Temple

John Hunter at the Borobudur Buddhist Temple in Indonesia.


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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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Simple Customer Care: Communicate

Some management issues are hard. You are often balancing priorities. Sometimes though it is extremely simple: either you have concern for customers and take actions to back that up or you have some concern but don’t do anything about it.

Here are some examples that show you really just don’t care.

If you have invested millions in setting up computer systems to authorize, and reject, payments for say a credit card and you fail to notify customers when you reject a charge you just really don’t care. There might have been an excuse 10 years ago that it was too difficult to notify people. Today if your IT people can’t do that, hire a new CIO and have them create an IT support system that isn’t an embarrassment to any institution relying on it.

Another sign of an extremely weak IT and customer focus presence in an organization would be deleting records of your customers after 6 month or 1 year or ever. Again this is common among the too-big-to-fail financial institutions that seem much more able to design system to extract fees and justify ludicrous bonuses to executives than to provide the most basic services for customers.

Amazon, and most any non financial-too-big-too-fail institution, keeps your records available for you. The too-big-too-fail crowd though won’t keep records as well as the site you buy books from. They slap fees on customers if they want to get the paper statements they used to get for free. That is fine with me (the fees are far too high, but the concept is fine with me). The too-big-too-fail crowd wants to save money by not mailing you paper. Fine.

Then, deciding to delete your records after 6 months, or a year… is just a sign you have no interest in serving customers. Other than an organization that has no interest in customer service, suggesting such a thing would be a direct ticket to remedial training on providing value to customers.

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Customer Focus

Customer Focus is at the core of a well managed company. Sadly many companies fail to serve their customers well. To serve customers, a thorough understanding of what problem you solve for customers is needed. The decisions at many companies, unfortunately, are far removed from this understanding.

It is hard to imagine, as you are forced to wind your way through the processes many companies squeeze you through that they have paid any attention to what it is like to be a customer of their processes. When you see companies that have put some effort into customer focus it is startling how refreshing it is (which is a sad statement for how poorly many companies are doing).

If the decision makers in a company are not experiencing the company’s products and services as a customer would that is a big weakness. You need to correct that or put a great amount of energy into overcoming that problem.

Another critical area of customer focus is to know how your customers use your products. It isn’t enough to know how you want your products to be used. Or to know the problems you intended people to use your products for. You need to know how people are actually using them. You need to know what they love, what they expect, what they hate, and what they wish for. This knowledge can help offset experiencing the products and services yourselves (in some cases getting that experience can be quite difficult – in which case you need to put extra effort into learning the actual experience of your customers).

You cannot rely on what people tell you in surveys. You need to have a deep understanding of customers use of the products. Innovation springs from this deep understanding and your expertise in the practice of delivering services and building products.

One of my favorite improvement tips is to: ask customers what 1 thing could we do better. It is very simple and gives you an easy way to capture what customers really care about. You shouldn’t rely only on this, but it is an extremely powerful tactic to use to aid continual improvement (with customer focus).

Related: Delighting CustomersThe Customer is the Purpose of Our WorkCustomer Focus and Internet Travel Search

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The Customer is the Purpose of Our Work

photo of poster with Gandhi quote

Quote from Gandhi on customer focus at the Chakra restaurant

A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.

Mahatma Gandhi [his authorship of the quote is disputed, and likely it isn’t a quote by him, see comments]

A snapped this photo at the Chakra restaurant in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Ironically the food is great but the service isn’t what I would like. But I will gladly go back many times. I’d like a bit more attentive service but I love the food and that is more important to me.

I think service at restaurants is one of the tricker things to do well: different customers have different desires. I basically want great food, my water to be filled up and my bill to be given to me before I finish so I don’t have to wait around to pay. But lots of people will find it annoying to get a bill early, feeling that they are being rushed out the door.

Still there is a certain standard I share with lots of people for things like not having to wait around for a long time to get the bill after I am done. Getting water filled up as needed, pleasant decor, etc..

In Johor Bahru there are a fair number of Japanese restaurants (the food is very good and the service is also good). Several of these restaurants have buzzers on your table to press when you want service. I love Indian food. I must say I like the Japanese service (it did take me a bit to warm up the buzzer idea – it is very practical). It do believe some of the things I would see as weaknesses in customer service are partially a cultural difference (it is interesting to see the different customer service experiences at the different restaurants here).

The quote from Gandhi is great. “He is the purpose of it” is something we would all benefit from taking to heart. To do so, I think we are wise look at how we can better meet customer desires every day.

Related: Delighting Customersquotes by Mahatma GandhiPaying New Employees to Quit

Eliminate the Waste of Waiting in Line with Queuing Theory

One thing that frustrates me is how managers fail to adopt proven strategies for decades. One very obvious example is using queuing theory to setup lines.

Yes it may be even better to adopt strategies to eliminate as much waiting in line as possible, but if there is still waiting in line occurring and you are not having one queue served by multiple representatives shame on you and your company.

Related: Customer Focus and Internet Travel SearchYouTube Uses Multivariate Experiment To Improve Sign-ups 15%Making Life Difficult for Customers

Be Thankful for Customer That Are Complaining, They Haven’t Given Up All Hope

I ran across this message and liked it (by wuqi256):

My time spent in a fast food chain (factory worker on weekends and security guard at night, yes really thanks to them, i have great jobs like that) when i was young trying to feed the family and study at the same time was quite useful.

They taught me that “Customers who complain are the best customers, it shows that they have still residual faith and goodwill in the organisation hence we should sift out those frivolous complains from those genuine ones that need our urgent attention” These are people who we can and should do a lot for as a complaining customer still has a very high chance of becoming a “returning” customer.

The customers that we fear for the most are those that either have voiced out or not heard or those who have given up and moved on to another organisation. Those we can no longer do much for as they no longer give us a chance. Discontentment is one thing but find the root cause, remove the straw from the cauldron and the water will stop boiling.

I know I often don’t bother voicing my concerns when I have given up all hope the organization has any interest in customer service. Sadly this is a fairly common situation.

It isn’t easy to do, but organizations that are customer focused need to be taking advantage of those customers helping you by expressing the frustration (that many of your customers experience, but don’t express). To do so organizations need to develop a culture where everyone is encouraged to improve your processes. The tricky part is not claiming that is what you want, but actually creating and maintaining the systems that bring that about.

Related: The Problem is Likely Not the Person Pointing Out The ProblemCustomer Service is ImportantCustomers Get Dissed and Tell