Tag Archives: Customer focus

Expand the View of the System to Find Ways to Improve Results

Here is an example of improvement made possible by expanding the view of the system (and viewing the results from the perspective of the customer instead of just looking at internal process measures).

I was working to improve the processing time for court orders of child support (in the retirement system for the USA federal government). The time to process the court orders was taking far too long (longer than legally allowed). The first process improvements took place in the office (there were many easy ways to improve the process). In a few months things we finally starting to be under control and it was obvious the results were still far from acceptable. Looking at the whole process the time delay due to our office had been nearly entirely eliminated.

However the total time was still far too long. That time was not under our control, so how could it be our problem? Just because you do not control a portion of the process does not mean you cannot influence those results. By using a system that was already in place (but was used very rarely) to have the mail go directly to us rather than to a central mail processing location I was able to improve the process by more as any internal improvements.

Madison County courthouse in London, Ohio.

Madison County courthouse in London, Ohio (Wikimedia image).

The delay from getting mail forwarded to our location from the central mailing location was many weeks long. I was able to have the orders for child support sent directly to us. Thus I was able to greatly improve the results with an improvement that was seen as not part of our system (the mail system delay before we received the orders). There are often ways to make improvements that are (or seem) outside of your area of responsibility and control.

By expanding the system view and looking at the results of the entire system it is often possible to find improvements that are not possible by only looking at “your” system. These changes can sometimes be more challenging to accomplish as they may require convincing others to make changes.

Related: Quality of the Entire Customer ExperienceThe Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging AssumptionsActionable MetricsGood Project Management Practices

Learning from Customers

Don’t make it hard for customers to be heard.

Provide training and tools to employees to document customers voices. Train employees to learn as much as possible from customers. Value the time employees spend listening to customers and learning from them.

Most customers won’t speak up, those that do speak up provide valuable insight. Don’t waste what they offer.

graphic with the quote - The quality revolution is nothing more, or less, than the dramatic expansion of scientific problem solving using informed observation and directed experimentation to find out more about the process, the product and the customer. by George Box

Create a management system focused on continual improvement that is engaged in seeking out customer feedback and continually improving the value provided to customers.

Most organizations do the opposite of this. They make put many barriers in the way of customers speaking to anyone that will listen. They put systems in place to discourage feedback from customers.

Those organizations use surveys of customers that seek to limit customers voices to a few well defined paths that don’t learn from customers at all. How large USA companies design customer surveys.

  1. Did you think we were great, very good, good or other?
  2. If you didn’t think we were great which front line employees should we blame?

Sure they word it a little bit differently, but that is close to what I see almost every time I get a survey to complete. And there is no room to explain that the problems are not the fault of front line employees but decisions by the company to waste customers time. A few organizations behave differently. But not many.

Related: Customer delight requires understanding your customers needs and desiresDon’t Ignore Customer ComplaintsCustomer Focus by EveryoneStated Versus Revealed PreferenceQuality of the Entire Customer Experience

Peter Scholtes on Teams and Viewing the Organization as a System

In this presentation Peter Scholtes provides an explanation of teams within the context of understanding an organization of a system:

We will not improve our ability to achieve our purpose by empowering people or holding people accountable. I know that those are fashionable words but what they have in common that I think is the wrong approach is that they still are focused on the people and not on the systems and processes. I’m sure that will trigger quite a bit of conversation and perhaps some questions.

He is right, though those are difficult old thoughts to break from for many. He does a good job of explaining how to seek better methods to achieve more success in this presentation and in the Leader’s Handbook. Following the links in the quote above will also provide more details on Peter’s thoughts.

Peter includes a description of the creation of the “organization chart” (which Peter calls “train wreck management”) that we are all familiar with today; it was created in the Whistler report on a Western Railroad accident in 1841.

Almost a direct quote from the Whistler report: “so when something goes wrong we know who was derelict in his duty.” The premise behind the traditional organizational chart is that systems are ok (if we indeed recognize that there are such things as systems) things are ok if everyone would do his or her job. The cause of problems is dereliction of duty.

Peter then provides an image of W. Edwards Deming’s organization as a system diagram which provides a different way to view organizations.

In the old way of viewing organizations you look for culprits, in this way of viewing the organization you look for inadequacies in the system. In the old way of viewing the organization when you ask “whom should we please” the answer is your boss. In this way of viewing an organization when you ask “whom should we please” the answer is our customers.

This is an absolutely great presentation: I highly recommend it (as I highly recommend Peter’s book: The Leader’s Handbook).

Without understanding a systems view of an organization you can’t understand whats at the heart of the quality movement and therefore everything else you do, management interventions, ways of relating to people, will reflect more likely the old philosophy rather than the new one.

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Quality of the Entire Customer Experience

Customer expectations are high in the highly competitive marketplace today. The quality of a product or service alone is no longer a differentiator; instead the overall quality of the experience is now the differentiator for customers.

ASQ has asked their Influential Voices to explore how this “new” expectation impacts on how we need to manage our organizations. See my past blog posts as part of the ASQ Influential Voices program (I have participated since 2012).

To some degree the premise is faulty and is making the common mistake of declaring old thoughts as if they are new. This is a common problem that hampers the application of the management improvement concepts: because the history of using the ideas are not explored to learn what has worked and what problems organizations have faced adopting the ideas.

But there is some truth to the idea that customer expectations have risen. Product quality, in many ways, has been raised in the last few decades and this naturally results in raised expectations. This pattern was well known in the 1960s (and before). Kano’s theory of customer satisfaction expressed how new features moved from being “delighters” for customers initially and eventually became minimum expectations (you gain no credit for delivering them but will upset customers if you fail).

It is also true that raising the overall customer experience is more difficult than raising product quality (due to the nature of the systems that deliver the results in each case).

I do think there is truth to the idea that customers have raised expectations for businesses to improve the entire experience. Customers are less willing to accept excuses about how the provider is not responsible for various aspects of the experience.

photo of mural of kids and animals

Mural at the Smith Samlanh Education Center in Phnon Phen, Cambodia

We expect to be able to pay for our purchases online and have an easy to use history of our purchases available. One of the examples of businesses continually failing in this expectation is seen at many USA financial institutions that often fail to provide history after a very short period of time (sometimes even as low as 1 or 2 years). This is an example of how far some organizations have to go. It is ludicrous to not keep permanent records of financial transactions in most cases.

While in many ways overall customer experiences are improving we still have huge room for improvement. Many companies continue to fail to even meet minimal required features (forget actually providing customer delight).

One way that shows the idea of focusing on the customer experience is nothing new is that it is the natural focus of the traditional management improvement methods (as described by Deming, Ackoff, Box, etc.). When people were seeking alternatives to “quality management” (as the use of that term was so vague in practice that it was difficult to know what was meant by “quality management”) I settled on “customer focused continual improvement.” That remains my touchtone.

An organization in 1980, 2000 or 2017 should have had the same focus on continually improving the customer experience. Reading through my posts on this blog (which I started in 2004) provides many examples of managing with that in mind: The most important customer focus is on the end users (2012), What Job Does Your Product Do? (2007), What Could we do Better? (2006), Delighting Customers (2010). These links all discuss the importance of understanding and continually improving the overall customer experience by gaining an in depth understanding of their needs and desires.

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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 dependent 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 culture that values 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 products 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)

Continually Improving Using a Focus on Delighting Customers

ASQ asked the ASQ influential voices to respond to this question: What is the best way to ensure quality and customer integration grow together?

When I first got involved in the quality field that name (quality) seemed to vague for me. And different people and organizations seemed to have vastly different meanings in mind for efforts they all grouped under the heading of quality. What I came up with to capture what I was interested in was customer focused continuous improvement. Continual is actually a better word than continuous for what I had in mind, I now know.

But that phrase has held up in my mind (unfortunately it is a bit long and so isn’t ideal either). Focusing on continually improving with a deep understanding of customer needs and the marketplace will do you well. Customer integration is required in the customer focused continual improvement framework I have discussed on this blog and in my book: Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

Beach with reclining chairs and thatched toped umbrella looking into the ocean with small boats in the view

Wonderful beach near Hoi An, Vietnam where you can order food and drinks in peace. See more photos by John Hunter.

Accepting that as a wise course of action leaves the question of how to continual improve with an integrated deep focus on customers. These shouldn’t be two isolated activities. And even to continually improve without worrying about customers requires viewing the organization as a system is critical in my view (which further enhances integrating the customer into the organization’s DNA). As anyone reading this blog knows my beliefs build on the work of W. Edwards Deming, so appreciating the importance of a systemic view is to be expected.

A deep appreciation for the long term needs of your customers and potential customers should guide where in the system to continually improve. And my belief on how to continual improve is to create and continually improving management system with principles of experimentation (with the necessary understanding of what conclusion can be drawn from results and what cannot), an understanding of the organization as a system and respect for people as principles to be guided by to achieve continual improvement.

Quality practices of experimentation directed at continually improving management practices and internal processes need to be completely integrated with the efforts to continual improve customer delight. Those efforts should be one process and therefore they automatically grow together.

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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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Unintended Consequences

Using data to understand your processes and improve them is very useful.

But using data often results in unintended consequences. If you don’t have a good understanding on the pressures collecting data will bring to bear on the system you can create pressure for results that damage the delivery of value to customers.

In this example there are requirements to take action if certain conditions are present. In this case, if the airplane is pushed back from the gate for more than 3 hours without taking off passengers must be given the opportunity to get off.

The Tarmac Delay Rule in 2010 has led to a jump in the rate of flight cancellations

Indeed, to avoid the fines, airlines are now far more likely to cancel flights that are sitting at the gate or on the tarmac than they once were, explains Vikrant Vaze, an assistant professor of engineering at Dartmouth and a co-author of the study. That means you’re now more likely to board your plane, sit there, and then still have the flight canceled.

It doesn’t seem the conditions imposed are unreasonable to me. But the expectation was for airlines to make sensible adjustments and not force customers to wait so long in the airplane sitting on the ground. The system could be improved by having more gates in operation, not pushing loading planes if you knew plane wasn’t going to leave for more than 30 minutes, etc.. But when customer value is taken very lightly (as USA airlines do) it isn’t surprising the USA airlines would take a very customer unfriendly method to avoid the issue that was the source of the new rules.

Distorting the system or distorting the data are often the result, instead of the process improvement that is desired and expected.

Related: Bad Weather is Part of the Transportation SystemPoor Customer Service at USA AirlinesData is Important and You Must Confirm What the Data Actually SaysUnited Breaks GuitarsRespect for Employees at Southwest Airlines

Functional Websites are Normally Far Superior to Apps

An email to I just sent to Uber

I understand the regular Uber app not having a functional website.

Uber Eats not having a functional website is super lame. It strikes me similar to Walmart 15 years ago telling people “we only have stores go to them, we just use the internet for advertising our stores.” Today for Uber: we only have apps, “we only use the web for advertising our apps.” Both you and Walmart want to use a limited function service that you both are comfortable with and want users to just put up with annoyance because neither of you want users using the connivence of the web.

When you bother to create a functional website maybe I’ll use it (I use several food delivery services now).

Using limited apps is rarely wise (unless you are crippled by the lack of a real computer and are stuck having to use just an app). Uber cars is a rare exception where the needs are so simple a limited app is ok. Picking restaurants and food on a tiny screen with a crippled app is just a lousy experience for anyone that uses real websites. The Ux for the app is horrible.

Just like old school businesses were only comfortable with their old business models and didn’t create functional websites (instead using the web just to advertise that you should go to their store, or giving you forms to complete and fax back to them…) new businesses are often stuck on only using apps even though they often provide a lousy user experience compared to a functional website.

There are some apps that are very useful and not having a functional web app can make sense, but it is fairly limited. Getting a ride apps I can see as only apps. Driving instructions and live maps using GPS to locate you is another great app use. Boarding passes can make sense (though I do question some of that whole process conceptually this could be a good example of a app with no functional website).

But most cases not having a functional website is just lousy Ux.

Now there are some times when using technology to provide good service just isn’t worth the effort. Often though businesses just are stuck in their fax-thinking or physical-store-thinking or app-thinking and fail to use a technology that would provide great benefit to their users. I find it odd how often app vendors seem stuck in their app mindset. It wasn’t so surprising old businesses that were not based on technology didn’t take advantage of the incredible opportunities provided by the internet and the web. But it is less understandable when companies that are thought of as technology savvy are as blinded by their history (can’t see out of the app-mindset).

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