Your competitors are not who you think they are

bad_spellers_untie_postage_stamp-p172016310883664861uuftb_216Customers don’t compare the online experience they get from us with that from our competitors. They benchmark instead against the best they have seen, regardless of sector. We have to understand this if we are to use customer experience to help us sell and keep customers.

Don Peppers is one of the pioneers of the customer experience industry. In a recent LinkedIn post, he  tells the story of a bad customer experience a colleague had with Stamps.com when trying to unsubscribe from their service.

The customer horror story, however, was less interesting to me than that he (like we all do) compared this experience with Stamps.com with that offered by another company – and found Stamps.com wanting.

That company was Amazon.

Amazon does not sell anything which Stamps.com sells.  Amazon is not seeking to take customers away from Stamps.com. I would be astonished to find that Amazon features in any strategy document which Stamps.com use to understand their competitive landscape.

In the traditional sense, they are not a competitor.

But when you think in terms of the customer experience, are they a competitor?

Damn right.

Customers do not compare the online experience they get with one company with the experience offered by competitors in the same sector. Instead, they compare their experience with the best experience they have had online, regardless of sector.

If we do not offer an experience  which measures up to the best experience which our customers have had elsewhere, then we will have unhappy customers.

It’s not fair, I know.  Customers are not even comparing apples with pears; they are comparing stamps with books.

This really matters.  Because if we aren’t aiming to be cheapest (and very few of us can, in the long-term) and if our market is crowded with me-too products with pretty much the same features (as in almost every consumer market sector), then how do we compete?

The experience we offer our customers, that’s how. When we make it easier, faster and more pleasant to buy and use our products, we win and keep customers.

If this is how we choose to compete, we need to understand that our ‘competitors’ aren’t our competitors.  As far as our customers are concerned, our competitors are everyone who is offering a service, or a sale, or an experience which follows the same grammar of customer engagement that we do. And if we aren’t competitive when compared with these, we won’t get or keep the customer.

Worse, as Don Peppers is showing, they will tell the World about how unhappy we have made them.

But, as Amazon demonstrates, if we choose to compete in this space, with the right attention and commitment, then maybe we could become the benchmark: and that is a very powerful place to be.

(Picture courtesy of Zazzle.com).

How to tell if an organisation is serious about the customer experience

Richard Branson serving customers on a Virgin flightThe best way to improve the end-to-end customer experience is to pay attention to it.  This is much less trivial than it sounds. The more senior this attention, the more chance we have of success.

A lot of blather has been written about companies offering a good “end-to-end” customer experience. Most of us can agree that it is something to which companies can, and probably should, aspire. Yet for most companies, it is something which remains resolutely beyond the horizon.  This is not for want of trying.

Most companies begin their thinking about end-to-end customer experience by “mapping the customer journey”,   identifying the things which make it go wrong and putting in things to fix these. This is relatively easy and results in some improvements – for a while.

Some companies (often those infected by consultants) try to redesign such processes to create a coherent whole. They back these changes up with a painful project, like corporate root canal, where they implement new systems (consultants again), have lots of workshops (consultants once more) and (probably) put some posters on the wall exhorting staff to Think Like A Customer, or some such.

Thousands of hours and millions of pounds spent – with, usually, very little long-term difference, because, most of the time, such efforts fix the symptoms, not the real cause, of poor customer experience.

Why do organisations grow up, develop, and operate without putting the customer at the heart of the business? For one reason only: they have being paying attention to other things.  The drivers of the business, the things on which organisations focus day-to-day (and the things which, more often than not, have been the basis of the organisation’s success) have been things other than the customer.

In other words, the organisation, especially at the top, pays attention to things other than the customer and its metrics, numbers, activities and reward systems show this.

Customer initiatives have the best chance of success when the CEO and her top team pay attention to customer performance in the same way, and with the same regularity, as they pay attention to revenue or EBIT. We know they are serious when they accept, for example, a hard customer metric in their bonus package. When they pay attention to the customer as routinely as they do to the production numbers, the rest of the organisation does too.

Inevitably, this means that customer experience improves.

As do revenues.

As do costs.

As do profits.

If we want to fix things for the customer, end-to-end, we need to make sure that the people in our organisation who have overall responsibility for our business, end-to-end, are paying attention to the customer, with the same priority, as the other aspects of the business to which they pay attention.

Otherwise, we are going to find life very hard. Because, when push comes to shove, hard numbers drive out soft.

People have only so much bandwidth and they will focus on those things which organisational behaviour reveals as the most important – those things which get senior attention. And while most organisations claim to want to put the customer at the heart of their business, the things to which the business truly pays attention – the hard numbers, if you like –  push other priorities to the side.

Customer experience is rarely in this top list of priorities unless it has been baked from the start as part of the core ethos of the company. So, if we want our organisation to make things better for the customer properly, the first step is to make sure that the top team really pays attention to the customer.

Get this right, and everything else becomes much, much easier.

 

Clayton gets it right

Clayton_Christensen_World_Economic_Forum_2013In this interview, Clayton Christensen spells out some ideas which are so right that they almost have the force of Laws for Business.

Clayton Christensen is the godfather of innovation. His books define how people think about innovation, education and disruption (and more recently, values).  Strategy + Business, the management journal from Booz and Co., published a great interview with him here.

In it, he says two things that ring so true that I think they deserve to become laws of business, especially when looked at through a customer lens.

The first concerns decision-making:

“When you make a decision based on expediency—because you think you can get away with paying only a smaller, marginal cost—you always pay the full cost in the end.”

He’s talking here about our personal lives, but it applies in spades in the customer world.  The contact centre which drives agents to keep calls as short as possible for cost purposes almost always pays a higher eventual cost in terms of customers calling again, customer dissatisfaction, agent retention and customer churn.  The website which skimps on early customer testing during the design phase will almost certainly have to spend a fortune in redesign once it goes live and customers don’t like it.

So, if I may, Christensen’s First Law:

If you skimp on things early, you pay much more later. Every time.

The second quote is more substantial, but even more fundamental:

“You might also ask, “What is the job to be done?” Every company needs a robust theory of the job that it’s facing. At the fundamental level, most jobs don’t change very much, even though the technology does. When he was the emperor of Rome, Julius Caesar had to exchange messages rapidly with his far-flung governors. He used horsemen with chariots. Today, we have FedEx, but the job hasn’t changed. If you’re focused on the job that has to be done, you’ll be more likely to catch the next technology that does it better. If you frame your business by product or technology, you won’t see the next disruptor when it comes along.”

Who is doing “the job?” The customer.

And so to Christensen’s Second Law:

Focus on the job to be done or you’ll be beaten by someone who does. 

It’s a short interview, but full of good things.  Read and enjoy.

(Tip of hat to Petrina Alexander, who first drew my attention to the article).

(Image credit: Remy Steinegger, World Economic Forum under Creative Commons License)

The customer revolution begins…at start-up

Customer rockLean Start-Up methods offer an overwhelming case for working with customers as early in the product cycle as possible. This lesson applies to all of us, not just start-ups.

Eric Ries, the author of Lean Start-Up, worked with Steve Blank while he was forming his ideas.  Steve has just posted on the HBR blog a phenomenal summary of the lean start-up approach and why it, as he says, “…changes everything.”

Lean start-up relies on a number of tools – experimental design, minimum viable product and so forth – but if I read him right, one of the central concepts which makes it work is this: the only authority is the customer.

This idea runs through the process like a name through a stick of rock.  Involving the customer in the design process, getting to customers early, behavioural (A/B) testing – the whole lean start-up gamut begins with the customer and how propositions can only succeed if they are designed with and for the customer from the get-go. At all stages, the primary decision driver is what the customer tells us (or better, shows us).

Build it like this, and the customer experience is not an overlay to be applied afterwards, nor is it something ‘fluffy’ or intangible or unimportant – instead, the proposition and the customer experience become the same thing.

Even more interesting is the lean start-up promise that doing things this way will get our propositions to market MUCH more quickly and (probably) more cheaply than the alternatives.

Thinking this way changes everything.

Does it apply only to start-ups?

I don’t see why. Are there really any barriers stopping the rest of us from applying these ideas in our organisations right now?

I didn’t think so.

The Case of the Cashless Customer

ImageAs some of you may know, I have spent a little time in the arcane world of mobile payments.  Dave Birch is one of the good guys in this space (an excellent mix of enthusiasm and scepticism in equal parts).  In this piece, he shows (with tongue firmly in cheek) what happens when new technologies hit the market but the preferred customer experience is still being worked out.

All you need to know is that he doesn’t want to pay with cash. If you like this kind of thing, read on…

 

How do you know your strategy is working? You say no.

124833a
The Separation of the Sheep and Goats,
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, c540AD

A good strategy sets out our priorities. Priorities, however, are only valid when we know what we won’t do.

In my experience, organisations are full of managers willing to claim that “…X is our top priority.”

It is much harder to find managers willing to say  “…X is our top priority, so we won’t do Y.”  Which is funny, because this is what top priority means: other things won’t get done. And this is OK, because we are putting our resources and attention into the things that matter most instead..

What tells us what matters most?  Our strategy. If our strategy is clear, we know which markets, customer, products, services and capabilities are most important to us. By implication, we also know which are not.

For those of us interested in customers (and I assume that is pretty much all of us), then if our strategy is any good, we have to make some tough calls.

For example: Are all our customers equally important?

For most organisations, the answer is probably no.   So the next question follows. What are we doing to make sure that our most important customers get the service they need and expect?  And what are doing to make sure that lower priority customers do not get service or resources at the expense of our top priorities?

This is often a tough call. But organisations which genuinely answer these questions can be very successful. Apple, as one example, do not seem interested in mobile phone customers on tight budgets, and they are doing all right. Low cost airline Ryanair, as another, are interested only in the budget customer – and they are one of the most profitable airlines in Europe.

Setting strategy is easy. Doing it is hard. And our willingness (or otherwise) to use strategy to set high and low priorities is one of the one of the reasons why.

What’s the difference between sales and service? Nothing.

Call centreWhen a customer expresses a need, then a failure to sell to that need is a failure of service. Thinking about sales as a service opens the door to genuine alignment of customer experience.

A long time ago, I spoke to someone who helped set up the contact centre for a new retail bank.  He explained that the philosophy of this bank was different from any other than in operation in the UK. Its aim was to help customers and give them a good experience.

I was intrigued when he explained that for the contact centre this meant not distinguishing between sales and service. The same agents handled all customer queries, including selling new products to the customer .

“Surely,” I said, “this has to compromise the customer experience?  When I, as a customer, need help, if agents try to sell me stuff when I call I will get annoyed very quickly.”

“Not at all,” he said. “Our agents are bonused on customer retention and advocacy, not sales.”

I said, “So won’t that mean, instead, that your agents won’t sell to customers for fear of hacking them off? Won’t that damage your revenues?”

He smiled. “Just the opposite. We train our agents to understand that their role is to help customers with their needs as much as they can. Each customer who calls us needs help – or else they wouldn’t pick up the phone. Most of these needs we can help directly: make a payment, check a transaction and so forth. But sometimes a customer’s need can only be helped with a new product.

“For example,” he continued, “a customer might want a better return on the surplus money sitting in their zero-interest current account. The best way we can help them is to explain the kinds of additional services we can offer such as savings accounts, bonds or ISAs. We then give them a chance to buy.

“If we don’t have this sales conversation, we will have had a customer with a need and we have not helped. That failure to sell is a failure of service.”

This philosophy seems to have worked. From its founding, this bank has balanced solid customer and revenue growth with a reputation as the UK bank with the most satisfied customers.

This principle seems to me to lie at the heart of the term ‘customer-centric’.  It connects sales and service with the same goal: helping the customer.

It means that agents have to believe that what they are selling is of genuine value to the customer: as they have to service the customer afterwards, there is no incentive to sell them a pup. And it properly positions sales as part of a positive customer experience – which is as it should be.

For those of us who are striving in our organisations to make things better for customers, this story poses two challenges.

First, how is the way we sell genuinely part of a joined-up philosophy of customer service – or are sales ‘pushed’ on customers regardless of value?

As for the second challenge? Customers now have many more channels for service. These include email, chat, forums, web sites, mobile or social media.

This challenge, it seems to me, is not the technology. Nor is it the need to design for the interactions we might have with customers (and which customers might have with us) (and with each other).

It is instead to do with how well, when trying to give customers a consistent, seamless, multi-channel experience, we apply a key principle:

How do we make sure that every customer touch point adds value to the customer, helps them with their needs and, yes, sells to them as part of the service?

As my friend with his contact centre showed, if we can meet this challenge and begin with this principle, the results, for our customers, and for our business, can be phenomenal.

Seth nails it

Sinclair C5Only when we build for our customers will they come.

Seth Godin’s blog offers profound, sparse and almost haiku-like wisdom about the new marketing.  If you don’t follow him yet, you should.

In this post, Choose Your Customers, he explains, in very few words, what in my experience is the most common problem leading to product and market failure: when we begin with the product, not the customer.

When we begin with our great product and try to sell it, we are doomed to fail.  If we want people to buy what we do, we have to begin instead with what they need and want, and build (and sell) (and service) from there.

Simple, really – but so easy to forget in the daily muck and bullets of business.

 

Stop complexity from killing the customer experience

Complexity mazeComplexity kills good customer service. We can use the rule of 50/5  to cut through this complexity and  transform the customer experience.

I once worked for a multi-national technology company with a turnover of tens of billion of pounds. The organisation’s processes and systems were so complicated and intertwined that any improvement efforts were doomed, if not to failure, then to mediocrity.

Any new customer fix – a system, a process, a metric or a behaviour change – was just another complication in an already complicated environment. Sooner or later, those in the customer front line would make mistakes because complexity introduced by the new fix made errors more likely. Their normal tasks might often take longer, as the new fix might need new skills or new thinking. It might increase complaints, perhaps through teething problems, or because expectations for improved performance were too high.

In short, because corporate sclerosis was gumming up the customer experience veins, ‘improvements’ were likely to make things more error-prone, slower, less easy, and, almost certainly, substantially more expensive.

This is because of one of the infallible laws of business, something I was fortunate to learn early in my career, courtesy of George Elliott: complexity ALWAYS increases costs, and by much more than we think.

Paradoxically, however,  how complexity drives costs offers a powerful way to enable customer transformation. This is because (again as George explained in my youth) these costs always appear in the same way: they follow the rule of 50/5.

50% of your costs are associated with 5% of your activity, and vice versa.

In the almost one hundred companies with which I have worked, while some the precise numbers have varied a little, I have never seen this rule to be wrong. It is a cast iron law of business.

What’s brilliant about this principle is that it applies in so many ways. Here are some I have found useful:

  • 5% of customers account for 50% of service costs
  • 5% of customers account for 50% of revenues
  • 5% of our customer enquiries yield 50% of our sales
  • 50% of our people’s time is spent working on issues raised by 5% of our customers
  • 50% of escalations come from 5% of customers

For each one of these, the complementary statement is also true: as well as 5% of customers causing 50% of service costs, so 50% of customers cause only 5% of service costs.

Why is this important? Because it means we have a practical way to focus our improvement efforts to deliver effective transformation, reduce complexity and make things genuinely better.

So for one tech company for which I worked, we found that 3% of escalations were consuming 38% of engineer time. We identified and eliminated the causes of almost all these escalations. This enabled the organisation to free up a quarter of their engineers to work on proactive services,  adding value to their customers. At the same time they kept some engineer capacity in reserve to handle the many fewer new escalations which inevitably would still arise.

For another company, recognising that 4.5% of their customers yielded 53% of their revenues drove them to offer premium services to these customers – increasing revenues and retention.

At the same time, they reduced services to the 48% of customers who contributed only 4.9% of revenues, but offered them the chance to upgrade. Result? Some of these unprofitable customers left, some stayed, but cost less to serve – but enough upgraded to make this customer segment twice as profitable.

This thinking works.

But beware. Standard accounting cost models don’t give you a true picture of these costs (because they assign overhead costs uniformly across the board as opposed to how the costs are actually being consumed) .

So let’s begin using the rule of 50/5, but not by looking at budgets and costs on a spreadsheet. Let’s get out from behind our desks to see what is really happening. Let’s look, not at the cost numbers, but where our people are putting in the work with our customers. We’ll soon see where the rule of 50/5 works in our business, and how we can use it to cut through complexity to make things better for our customers.

 

Let’s go HiPPO hunting

Hippo“Most websites suck because HiPPOs create them.”

– Avinash Kaushik,  Web Analytics 2.0

HiPPO? “The Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion.” In organisations the tendency is to make decisions based on what the highest-paid person thinks is right. While they are often very capable, their judgement is no substitute for testing concepts and ideas with real customers in the real world.

This applies beyond website design. When we consider the  procedures and policies which we use to serve the customer, how many if these have genuinely been designed to be ideal for the people who buy from us? Compared with how many have been designed to optimise the process for the organisation instead?

To talk to my telephone operator provider, for example, I need my “customer number” and my “area code”. I keep these in the cloud. Which means that I can’t get them when my telephone (and internet) line is down. Which is, of course, why I want to call in the first place…

Some highly paid process expert, or worse, a CEO, (a HiPPO) will have designed these processes, not for the customer, but almost certainly to optimise the internal technical operation, probably on the grounds of cost and efficiency.

If they had worked with customers to get behavioural data to help them design and test the these processes, they might even have been able to turn contacting the service operation into a positive experience.

Yet I am sure that instead, the costs in agent time, customer frustration and, ultimately, customer churn will almost certainly outweigh any savings made by using a special “customer number” to identify customers.

For this is one of the great secrets of customer experience. A good customer experience is almost always more cost-efficient than the alternative.

Fewer customers complain, sales become easier, and we spend less money and time on workarounds and fixes. In turn, this frees up our resources to spend on positive things that matter to our customers so we can sell more. Cost reduction, revenue growth – a better bottom line.

And this is one of main reasons we need to go HiPPO hunting. Because if we listen to the HiPPO, as opposed to our customers, then pretty soon our customers won’t be our customers any more.

Next time you find yourself face-to-face with a HiPPO, go armed with the most potent data of all: how customers really want to behave.

(If HiPPO hunting is new to you, then this Wired article is worth a look, and I also commend Avanish Kaushik’s blog, Occam’s Razor).

Release the brilliance of your colleagues

Team GB Olympic Track Cycling teamGood customer experience is a result of great people doing great things. Luckily, your colleagues are great.

Think about the people you meet in the workplace. In almost every case, from the janitor to the CEO, two things are true. The first is this:  your employer believes this individual is the best person for that role whom they can get. If they weren’t, your employer would get someone else. Second, this person believes that this is the best job for them. If they didn’t, they would go get a better one.

That’s right: pretty much most of the time, you are working with great people in great jobs.

I have been lucky enough to have worked around the World with almost a hundred companies and in my experience this is overwhelmingly true: your people are brilliant.

But so many companies don’t believe this.  They seem to expect that their people are unmotivated and are doing mediocre jobs. So that’s how they manage them and guess what? That’s what they get.

But mediocrity is not what we promise our customers.  If we want to do things better for customers, it isn’t good enough.

So let’s not manage for mediocrity.

Let’s manage for brilliance.

How do we this?

Here’s what we don’t do.  We don’t police our people’s activities to catch them doing the wrong thing.  We don’t set up elaborate reporting of pointless metrics which make no difference to the customer.  We don’t have a big kick-off meeting with a motivational speaker and hope that this is enough.

Instead? We set important goals (maybe unreasonable goals?) and standards for performance. We do what we can to make achieving these goals as easy as we can. We give people what they need, pay attention to how well they are doing and look for ways to help them.

Then we keep paying attention so that they continue to  know this matters: to us, to the customer and to them.

Then we get out of their way.

Brilliance will happen, I promise you.

Your people will love making the difference.

And your customers will love what results.

 

SMED – The secret sauce of customer experience

pressSMED proved that if you remove the big bottlenecks which slow down your ability to respond, you can revolutionise the service you offer you customers.  

SMED: one of the reasons Toyota became a powerhouse global auto manufacturer. SouthWest Airlines, Tesco and UPS all apply its principles, even if they don’t know it.  It governs agility, speed, cost and enables the customer experience.

SMED? Single Minute Exchange of Dies.

Say what?

Stay with me as I explain.  It’s worth it.

In the sixties, auto manufacturers had to operate long production runs. They produced the same car, over and over, offering customers a limited choice. If customers wanted more options, they couldn’t get them.  The reason? Setting up a production line to produce different variants of car was HARD.  Machine tools had to be recalibrated, components all along the line had to be replaced, and hardest of all, dies had to be changed.

Dies are the blocks which stamp blank sheets of steel into the shape of the  car body.  They weigh many tons, are very difficult to manoeuvre, and have to be  consistent to within a fraction of a millimetre.

Changing dies typically took  between 12 hours and three days. So changing the line meant stopping production for at least this long. Change them more often than once a week and the factory could spend more of the year idle than making cars.  In effect, too much choice would make the company bankrupt.

Then Toyota employed Shigeo Shingo to help solve this problem. He and his team observed and measured every aspect of the die change process.  They filmed changeovers.  They looked at non-manufacturing examples, like Formula 1 pit crews.

And then they changed things. They reduced human error by using precision metrics.  They prepared each exchange of dies in advance, dedicating and scheduling equipment and resources.  They  clarified roles so everyone involved could, as it were, “do it by the numbers”.

And while they never quite got it down to a minute, they got it down to less than ten. On average, Shingo and his team cut the time to change dies to one fortieth of what it had been before.

The result?  Toyota could offer customers what they wanted, not what the manufacturer hoped they might want.  Toyota could slash costs, as they no longer needed to hold so much inventory and WIP (work in progress). And they could improve quality, as smaller production runs enabled more rapid, cheaper fixes.

It could be argued that SMED enabled the revolution in manufacturing quality, processes and techniques which have transformed our lives since the sixties – what is often referred to today as “Lean

Most of us don’t have to swap dies weighing tens of tonnes in and off a production line. But many of our businesses have big things which slow down our ability to respond and make it hard to give customers what they want.

Some companies have put in the focused effort necessary to transform these things. Doing so has greatly strengthened their ability to compete both on costs and customer service.

SouthWest airlines revolutionised budget air travel, in part by being ruthless about minimising aircraft turnaround time on the ground between flights.  Quicker turnaround = more flights per day, more customer choice and more efficient customer management.

Tesco dominates the UK supermarket scene in part because they worked out how to get goods (especially perishable goods) from source to store in hours instead of having them languish in warehouses; in many cases, the lorry is the warehouse.  A faster supply chain is a cheaper supply chain, gets fresher goods to the customer and can respond more quickly to customer demand.

UPS has put significant effort into minimising the time a parcel just sits. By putting in more dynamic sorting, smaller dispatch sizes and smarter routing, they can offer delivery times and service quality unheard of even ten years ago.

SMED thinking is one of the keys to customer service transformation.  Think about your business.  There must be one or two ‘big things’ which make it hard to flex the business, take time away from delivery or make it slower to respond to customers. What if you put real, rigorous effort to redesign these things, drawing on thinking like Formula 1 pit crews? What if you gave yourselves an unreasonable goal for improvement – like cutting cycle time by a factor of forty?

Wouldn’t that be brilliant? For your business? For your customers?

Go ahead. SMED.

How Amazon turned a chore into a positive customer experience

five acesReframing the experience can make things better for customers.

About fifteen years ago, a client in the US told me how her company had improved the customer experience – by making their service worse.

Their call centre’s promise to pick up any customer call within three rings was key to the company’s competitive positioning. It was fine most of the time – but at peak periods, it was a promise they could not keep.  The delays weren’t bad – four or five rings at most – but they were breaking their customer promise. Result? Unhappy customers.

My client tried the usual things: rejigged rosters to provide extra agent cover, optimised call routing and, despite tight budgets, hired a few more agents to cover peak periods.

Ring, ring, ring, ring….Three-ring nirvana seemed as far away as ever.

Then an agent, at home on her time off, called to make an appointment with her doctor. Waiting on the line, she noticed – nothing.

More precisely, she noticed that she only became irritated by the delay on the line once she heard the ring tone. Waiting for the phone company to connect her call, however, she didn’t mind at all. She discounted this ‘dead time’ when she heard nothing as acceptable, while a ringing telephone line was a failure of service by the doctor’s receptionist.

Her company acted on her observation. They suppressed the first two rings on the line while the customer was waiting, so the customer thought that the call was still trying to connect.  Agents now had five rings in which to answer, while customers on the line heard only the last three rings.

The average time it took to answer the phone did not change. But the customer experience did. Customers were impressed by the speed of response they perceived: “Wow! You answered even before the phone even rang!” was a typical comment.

Was this sleight of hand? Perhaps. Did it matter? Perhaps not.  Customers got the service they wanted and were happy. Nothing wrong with that.

Nowadays, Amazon does something similar. Normally, paying for things online is a pain. We’ve filled our shopping cart and we want to order. So we have to sign in with user name and password, get out our credit card, type in the number and details, fill in the delivery address and wait for payment to be authorised.

Amazon’s great secret is that they get us sign in to browse their shop when we arrive. We do so happily to get offers and ‘Personalised recommendations.’  But this sign-in process also sets up payment and delivery. So we think we’re signing in for a personalised experience, but we’re signing in for payment.

So when we want to buy, we pay by ‘One-Click‘ and think how great it is (cycle time of zero, anyone?). We don’t associate the chore of signing in with the business of payment. Like my client, they are employing customer experience sleight of hand.  And it’s so good they licensed it to Apple to use on iTunes.

Customers hate waiting on a ringing telephone line and they hate signing in to pay.  By reframing how customers perceive such things, we can transform the customer experience.

Question: is there anything which your business does now which your customers hate? Could you could reframe this to make into a good experience?

And if you have to use sleight of hand, don’t worry: I won’t tell.

In praise of unreasonable

inspiration-mars-spacecraftCustomers aren’t reasonable – and our customer strategies shouldn’t be either.

Dennis Tito (the man who paid $20m as the first tourist in space) has announced he wants to send a flight to Mars by 2018.  He doesn’t yet have the money, the spaceship or the crew. But if he succeeds, he hopes to inspire the World into thinking differently about our place in the Universe.

Is it realistic? Probably not – but I wouldn’t bet against him succeeding, and I would love it if he did.

If you work in a city, look around.  See the tall buildings, the shops, the underpasses? Each was once a dream.  Each began only when someone said, “What if we….?”

And each became real only when this someone ignored the toxic voices which said, “Yes, but….” or “With the greatest respect…”  or (the most lethal of all, because it sounds so very sensible) “Let’s be realistic…”

But ignore them they did. And, instead, they built the bridges, and the skyscrapers, and the health service, and Apple and Facebook and all the other, unrealistic, unreasonable things that define the twenty-first century.

No, let’s not be realistic.

Lets be unreasonable instead.

Customers are unreasonable.

If they want a product, they don’t care about our immensely complicated supply chain. They want it – now.

If they have a problem, they don’t want  it fixed within “..the contractual response time” as per the Service Level Agreement (SLA).  They want it fixed – now.

(More importantly, they don’t want it fixed, they want it never to have happened in the first place).

And they don’t care that our lines are very busy and that their call is “very important” to us. They want to talk to someone – now.

They want it perfect, they want it cheap, they want it easy and they want it – now.

…And if we can’t do these things, they’ll find someone who can.

Are these expectations reasonable? Not a chance.

But do customers care? No.

 “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

– George Bernard ShawMaxims for Revolutionists 

So let’s not have reasonable standards for customer strategy and service.  Lets aspire to the unreasonable.

How about an unreasonable customer cycle time? Cycle time – the time the customer experiences when we do anything which affects them: from when the customer first becomes aware of us, through to when we supply our products, from their paying us or our providing customer service.

Why not aim to have a cycle time of zero? 

Why zero? Why not? Wouldn’t it be fantastic?

Customers get everything they want, straightaway.  Our costs plummet because our supply chain is instant.  Our service is better because we can respond immediately. Our people are happier because fewer things get between them and giving the customer what they want. And our competitors are left in the dust.

Is this reasonable? God knows.

Is it desirable? Hell, yes.

Is it attainable? We’ll never know unless we try.

Because it is only by aiming for the unreasonable that breakthroughs happen. It is only by being unrealistic that we genuinely force innovation and creativity. And it is in this space – the “are you mad…?” space – that you can inspire greatness.

So let’s not be at home to Mr Reasonable.

Let’s shoot for Mars.

Let’s be great.

Marco Polo’s compass

compassA compass, more than a map, will help your customer strategy to succeed.

The 13th Century explorer, Marco Polo, faced many obstacles on his way from Venice to Kublai Khan‘s court in China. His maps were rudimentary and on many occasions he found himself literally in uncharted territory. So how did he know the paths he should take? How did he know he was taking the right course?

He had a compass.

His compass told him which way was East, so that no matter which obstacles he faced, he knew the direction to go.

A good customer strategy is like Marco Polo’s compass. If we set it well, then everyone in the organisation knows which way to go.  So if we need to do something different for a customer or overcome a customer problem we haven’t seen before, we know what kinds of solutions we should consider. If we understand the customer strategy, we know that when they meet these new problems, our solutions will be the right decisions for the customer – and for the business.

Let’s say, for example, that our organisation sets a strategic goal. We want to move more customer service enquiries from the phone to online, reducing costs, increasing ability to scale and – crucially – reducing customer time to resolve. We create detailed plans to deliver this strategy. These plans are costed, scheduled and resourced as perfectly as possible. Then, in line with conventional best practice, we give the plan to a carefully selected cross-functional team to implement.

And within two months the plan is hopelessly off course. Why? Because everyday customer service gets in the way.  Everyday customer service is about handling the new, the unplanned, and the exceptional things that get between a customer and what they want to do.

Our service agents handle such issues by going the extra mile for customers with workarounds and informal fixes which ourcustomers need.  But if our agents aren’t guided – or enabled – to do so by helping customers to go online, then we will help their customers without thinking online. And our great online vision comes to naught.

Our strategic plans – our maps – don’t determine the success of our customer strategy. They help, sure, but unless we know how make decisions for the customer in the direction we have set – unless we have a compass – our plans will fail.

We may set a strategy for the future; but it only counts in the ways it makes a difference to our decisions today.

So if your customer strategy is falling short of its goals, can I suggest this? Look at the decisions that affect customer service: the choices your agents make and how they are empowered; the people you recruit and the metrics to which you pay attention.  If the choices you make about these things today are not guided by the future you want for your customers, then you are already off course.

Reset your compass.

You found us…

Dread Pirate Roberts…what took you so long?

Seriously, thanks for dropping by.

Mike and the Customer is about stimulating fresh thinking about the customer. Many people offer advice and good practice on customer service, customer experience or customer strategy – and when I come across it, I’ll mention it here.

Everybody’s favourite screenwriter, William Goldman, said about Hollywood that “nobody knows anything”.  In the realm of the customer, this is often true, with one proviso: while everyone has some notion of what needs to be done to make things better, very few people know how to do so.

At Mike and the CustomeI hope to help redress this.  My goal is to offer you things that are practical; things you can use to make things better for your customers.  The how, if you like.

Sometimes, however, the path to how is rocky. Sometimes we need a Dread Pirate Roberts to poke us severely to change our thinking before we can see fresh ways to do things.  So, sometimes, I may put something up to provoke an argument and stimulate new thinking. If I do, forgive me – and let me know how what I am saying is wrong and what I should do to correct it.  If you play nice, who knows? We both might learn to do things better.

Whatever happens, I hope you find what you find at Mike and the Customer useful and enjoyable. I love making a difference for customers, and I love helping people to do so for theirs.

Let me know what you think

Fresh thinking about the customer