It seems great minds think alike. A new article on ExploreB2B opens up about how Game of Thrones can help inform Customer Service. Here’s the link.
I promise something different in my next post.
It seems great minds think alike. A new article on ExploreB2B opens up about how Game of Thrones can help inform Customer Service. Here’s the link.
I promise something different in my next post.
You can’t control customers’ feelings, or their personal circumstances, or how much attention they are going to pay to you. Their experience of your brand, or your product, or your service is down to how they feel. And you can’t control their feelings.
You can control how you maximise the chances that the experience is positive.
Here are ten examples of what I mean, described, of course, from the customer’s perspective. If you make any of these better, your typical customer’s experience will improve.
Improve any one of these things and you will make the customer experience better. In addition, you will cut your costs of sale and service and make your people happier. Improve all ten, and the experience you offer may well become the stuff of legend.
(I wrote this and then discovered Seth Godin’s wonderful post: Your call is very important to us which covers related ground, but with added goodness (I love the idea of routing delayed calls to the CEO’s spouse…) Enjoy).
Image credit: Mike Bird
When customers complain, they expect that the people to whom they speak will be able to handle it. But this can only happen if our organisations trust customer service agents to use their judgement, initiative and discretion to do so.
But this is rare.
How do we know it’s rare?
Because too many times the agent has to hide behind phrases like: “…it’s our policy, I’m afraid,” or “…these are the only options I can offer you,” or “…let me speak to my supervisor.”
In other words, our people could resolve the problem, but our policy and procedures get in the way.
Why do we do this? Because we don’t trust our people.
Our agents become a barrier between the customer and resolution of their problem. Worse, agents know this, so they feel frustrated and grumpy.
Does the customer pick up on this? Of course they do.
So, instead of making things better for the customer, we make it more likely that we will make an already unhappy customer even more unhappy.
Yes, of course, there is a need to have consistent processes so that we can offer consistent standards of service quality. And, yes, I know that service is a cost and we need to make sure that we manage our costs with discipline and attention. And yes, of course, we know that if we give our agents free rein, we might incur liabilities and risks which may not be acceptable.
So we accept these constraints. And we require that our people work to them.
And by doing so, we assume that value we gain in meeting these needs outweighs the damage these constraints cause to trust: damage to our trust in our people, and damage to our customers’ trust in our brand.
And yet. And yet…
Not in intent. Yes, such guarantees open these organisations up to abuse, but their success shows that losses through abuse are more than outweighed by the increase in brand perception, trust – and sales.
Perhaps we need to think about this trust thing differently.
So come on. If we want customers to trust us, then maybe we need to think about trusting the people we employ to work with customers to make things better.
Trust is earned – so let’s earn it.
(Image credit: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress), Senator Atlee Pomerene meets first US Secretary of Commerce, William Cox Redfield, c.1910).
Customers complain about every business.
If we are lucky, customers complain to us. Then we can put things right, help fix their problem and learn things which make our business better.
If we are not so lucky, our customers complain to their friends, or to people they meet, or to their followers on social media. The result? Our reputation is damaged, we lose revenues and we open the door to competitors to show our customers how much better they are.
Why don’t customers complain to us? Because we train them not to.
Let me explain some of the ways we do so:
We make it hard to complain
Many organisations seem to do their damnedest to make it hard for customers to complain. Typically we do this to save money. Most of the time this is a false economy. Some examples:
All of these measures stop customers complaining. Result? They (and their sales revenues) go elsewhere.
We are slow to respond
We seemed to move fast enough when we were selling our product to the customer, didn’t we? So why don’t so many organisations respond as quickly to a complaint? Sure, we may have excuses:
Customers don’t care why we’re slow. They just want it fixed – NOW. If we don’t show the same sense of urgency as they are feeling, we are showing that we don’t care.
When a complaint disappears into a black hole, we cannot be surprised if we have lost the customer by the time the complaint emerges.
We respond in ways which do not respect the customer
(Warning: linked article contains profanity)
Customers making a complaint are unhappy. They are often angry. Often, this is the fault of something we have done or failed to do. And they have bought things from us in good faith.
At the very least, we should treat them with respect. What does respect for the customer look like?
And, above all, it means treating the customer as a person, and treating them as we would want to be treated.
We treat the customer as a suspect
All too often customer services go wrong because they have been designed from the outset to treat the customer with suspicion.
The result is a customer experience based on one or more of these assumptions:
Occasionally, of course, customers do behave badly; but if we start from here, the experience we offer our unhappy customers is very likely to make them feel worse.
Even if we fix the problem, we are likely to lose the customer.
It is much better to think about helping customers on the assumption that they are correct and that they have a valid reason for complaint.
After all, something has made them want to get in touch, so something about what we are doing must be wrong.
Moreover, a complaining customer is one who is engaged – isn’t that what most of our companies want? Engagement with the customer?
Why not begin instead by designing our service operation from the assumption that we want to help people?
Then, after we have done this, we can put in place some reasonable safeguards, just in case the problem really is on the customer side.
But let’s stop doing it the wrong way round.
We need to think about complaints differently. A customer who complains is giving us a gift.
They are giving us another chance to get their custom; they are giving us a chance to restore – or maybe enhance – our reputation; and they are giving us a chance to learn from their experience to make things better for others.
It’s a gift we need to be better at taking.
(Image credit: Lythia Scott Eiler, US National Archive)
Today, I am very pleased to present a guest post by Jim Lucas of Lucavia.
Music, math, foreign language, computer programming. Have you ever wondered whether subjects like these can be learned or if you simply have to be “born with it”? A brief query shows a usual pattern. You’ll find a debate about the role of hard work and dedication versus natural talent, and then a consensus emerges. It takes hard work and dedication to become proficient or to master a subject (think: Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule). But to achieve at the highest levels requires more of the same plus a generous helping of natural talent and luck—where only the truly gifted achieve genius.
From a management point of view, simple knowledge of a subject is not interesting; only its application and performance matter.
For example, think about retail customer service. Virtually every businessperson claims to know all about customer service and yet the quality and depth of customer service varies wildly between companies—and even within the same company from store to store and from experience to experience. So, why is it that customer service is so well understood and yet so poorly performed?
The answer is that most retail businesses do not have knowledge of customer service; they have opinions. What’s more, instead of performing customer service they constantly improvise, both as organizations and individuals. It is little wonder when an organization uses their 10,000 hours, practicing customer service 10,000 different ways, that customers perceive it as chaos.
The remedy to this situation is, as they say, simple to understand but difficult to master.
The first thing is to define customer service from your customer’s point of view.
The second thing is to write down the steps in your customer service experience including the standards of performance you demand for its proper execution.
Thirdly, systematize how you present this information to your staff—and be careful to select candidates for their aptitude to learn and to be passionate about delivering it.
And, finally, rehearse. One doesn’t become an Emma Kirby by performing only in front of a live audience at the Royal Opera House. You have to train, refine, and improve offstage to earn your standing ovations.
(Image credit: Susan Huseman (USAG Stuttgart))
Contact centres aren’t perfect, but they are better than what went before. They are here to stay, even while we continuously improve their performance. Contact centre transformation is easier when we don’t lose sight of the core reason for the centre in the first place: to enable customers to talk to our company, buy things and get help.
Nowadays it has a different association (see illustration) but many of us in the UK still associate this timeframe with a familiar phrase: “Please allow 28 days for delivery.”
It was a routine part of the terms and conditions for mail order.
A serious customer journey
Mail order, of course, meant not just receiving goods by post, but ordering them by post as well. Find the product you wanted in a newspaper (or magazine or catalogue), fill in a paper form, cut it out, write out a cheque for payment, put them both in an envelope, address the envelope, put a stamp on it, go to a post box, post it…
For up to 28 days.
Almost a month.
Then when the parcel arrives, open it and see if what you have received is anything like the black and white image in the original advertisement. Or the right size. Or if it works properly. And has not been damaged in transit.
And if it’s not right, begin the whole rigmarole again. In reverse.
Not, by any measure, an ideal customer journey.
Contact Centres make it better
Contact centres changed all that. Want to buy something? Call up, place the order and it will be dispatched quickly. Problem with a product or service? Call up and the agent will handle your problem or help explain what we need to do to resolve it.
Sure, none of us like being put on hold or to have to navigate through endless sequences of IVR numbers; and many of us have service disasters we can recount about when we got to speak to the agent from hell, but we forget, sometimes, how much better it is than it used to be.
Oddly, the internet hasn’t killed off the contact centre. Despite that we can now order things and services online from our laptops and tablets and mobiles, many of us still want to call up and talk to someone. And when things go wrong, while email, customer forums and online chat are all very well, many of us still want to call up and talk to someone.
Because our lives are complicated and what we want is complicated and our problems are complicated and sometimes we need to explain to someone – a person – what we want, and have them confirm that they have understood what we want, and that something will be done about it.
And a website can’t do that.
Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t work this way, and every one of us has a horror story to tell. But most of the time it does, and often, it works very well indeed.
Contact centres enable this experience. And they continue to do so: while most now also handle customer communications across a range of channels, the customer telephone call tends be the heart of the operation.
Keep sight of the purpose
The challenge facing all of us who work with customers, however, is how we equip our people in contact centres to deliver a service which is consistently good, and consistently cost-effective – while customers remain complex people with changing needs, and the technologies available to customers and to us develop constantly.
I believe that the only way to succeed in meeting this challenge is to remember one thing: the core purpose of the contact centre is to enable customers to talk to our companies, to buy and get help.
Everything we do in a contact centre is about doing this better.
And when it gets hard to do this – and it will – we can console ourselves with one fact: even when things aren’t great, for most of our customers, things are much, much better than they were.
Contact centres revolutionised how we engage with customers and vice-versa. People complain about them, sure, but how many of us remember what it was like before they were commonplace? I, for one, don’t want to wait 28 days again…
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.
Lean 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.
When 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.
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.
Complexity 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:
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.
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 Shaw, Maxims 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.
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.
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 Customer I 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