Fundamentals of Customer Interaction: A Leadership Primer

Gitomer (1998) was very specific about why customer satisfaction is worthless and provided keen insights into how to build loyalty.  While many businesses value and find the “voice of the customer” desirable to the organization, the focus is on satisfying the customer and not interacting with the customer.  Sinek (2009) adds the variable needed, why, as in why are businesses still trying to satisfy when loyalty is needeAre we in trouble?  We didn't do it!!!d?  Why are customers still being taken advantage of when logic claims the long-term relationship is more critical than short-term gains; thus, making the need for loyalty that much more valuable in dollars to the business.  Why serve the customer when the customer needs more than simple “service?”

Customer service is simply geared to expeditiously interacting with the customer in a mass environment.  For example, a recent call to a cell phone provider remains an excellent illustration of mass service hysteria.  During this call, a simple question was asked, why is my statement so high?  The representative placed the caller on hold four separate times, never answered the customer’s question, and because the customer changed their plan, the call was considered a success.  The customer then went online, spent an additional hour in Instant Message (IM) with a second customer service rep, and finally was given less of an answer before quitting in exasperation.  Foolishly, the call center sends an automatic survey to the customer asking for his or her opinion.  The customer is going to express his or her dissatisfaction in the “customer satisfaction survey.  Why was it sent?  Why place the financial future of a low-paid customer service rep in jeopardy simply because the customer remains upset, and the managers deem that information valuable?

The customer call center remains the epitome of the carrot and stick approach to customers with the customer and the front-line customer-facing representatives squeezed into numbered boxes, small cubicles, and an individuality draining environment making the customer and the customer representative soulless zombies held captive in an endless cycle of frustration.  Offer a carrot to a customer to go away, threaten the customer representative with a stick if they do not fit squarely into the business environment and achieve all the key-performance indicators (KPI’s) demanded by the business, although the KPI is in direct opposition to serving the customer.  The above incident is a perfect example of KPI’s being anti-customer.  The representative needs to make a quota for call plan changes and sales, the customer needs serviced, but to actually answer the question means that the time the representative spent on the phone would have surpassed a KPI.  The carrot and stick approach is to offer the customer bill credits to go away quickly so the representative can move onto the next call, a KPI mindset causing frustration for the representative and the customer.

Let’s use one more recent example as a comparison.  The Department of Veteran’s Affairs has been in the news a great deal recently.  Veterans remain the forced customer trapped in an endless cycle of bureaucratic red tape.  The result is that veterans are now being called for a customer service survey to determine how veterans feel they were served.  Why would this information be valuable with all the customer hostility in the veteran population?  Why waste taxpayer dollars to obtain veteran “customer” insight when the bureaucracy has not changed, the red tape remains stifling, and the officers enforcing the bureaucracy continue to kill and harm veterans as the captive customer?  Veterans are reporting that after every interaction with the various VA bureaucrats a customer satisfaction survey is thrust upon them and sold to them as an improvement tool.   Doubt remains as to the value to the veteran, and to the VA as a whole, and provides more KPI’s harming the customer, eliminating service to the customer, and destroying any hope of correcting the actual problems; but the VA is gathering a ton of additional information for office clerks to sort through and make reports upon.

With these thoughts in mind, what do we do and where do we go from here?  Better yet, why are these the preferred actions when logic relates there is a better path forward?  Finally, since KPI’s are needed, how should KPI’s be adjusted to provide more actionable data personalized to the individual employee while remaining valuable to the entire business?

On the subject of KPI’s, when was the last time that each KPI was evaluated and the questions “Why” and “What” were asked to justify that specific item on a list of measurable actions in a KPI process review?  If the answer is “I don’t know” or longer than 18-months, there is a significant problem with the KPI’s reporting obsolete data and doing more harm than good.  As a consultant in a call center, I walked item-by-item through the KPI matrix my first day on the job and successfully concluded a project shortly thereafter by simply moving the KPI matrix back into providing actionable and non-obsolete data.  If each piece of data cannot be explained and justified by the newest member on the floor receiving scores on performance, the KPI matrix is obsolete, confusing, and ineffective in driving actions that actually benefit the employee and those the employee contacts.  Ask the managers to define what the KPI’s are, what is being measured, and detail specific actions an employee should be coached in to improve a specific indicator.  If the answers are not clear and easy to understand, the KPI is ineffective and doing more harm than good.

Juran’s rule that the KPI is expected to form a pathway to progression as a business process remains powerful.  When problems arise in KPI data and employee adherence, the problem is 90% of the time not the employee, but the KPI in question.  Is Juran’s rule being applied consistently, effectively, and powerfully to drive understanding and communication in the organization or is the answer to “blame the employee?”  Dandira (2009) remains powerfully applied here: ineffective KPI’s can be, and many times are, a dynamic source of organizational cancer because of employee confusion about what to do to improve, resulting in employee morale problems.

Moving forward, the way remains clear:

  1. Never allow a business process or procedure to be older than 12-months without a full and comprehensive review justifying that process and every step in that process.

I was called in to discuss a customer influencing process.  The process had more than 30 steps involved and 12 separate employees to accomplish the task.  The process could not be described in 30 minutes, and customers were upset from experiencing this process, adding to the already upset nature of the involved customers and the frustration in the front-line employees assisting them.  Technology improved this process by a third, but the company could not determine how to improve the process.  I asked why on each step and employee involved.  Four hours of discussion resulted in cutting 8 of the involved employees from the process.  Asking “what” resulted in further steps cut in the process.  At the conclusion of the contract, the complicated process was described in a single elevator ride, which simplified the results for the customer and set the business on the road to continuous improvement of business processes.  Pick a process, look at the age, and ask in an elevator ride for the process to be described.  Keep riding the elevator until the entire process from beginning to end is detailed.  How many elevator trips were needed?  Never create a process or a measurement that cannot be explained in a single elevator ride.

  1. Who is catching the blame on recorded calls: technology, the customer, or the customer service rep? The problem is not with any of these parties, and properly naming the problem remains the first step in solving the problem.

For example, on a contract for a manufacturing company, a problem existed that could not be explained causing issues in quality control and proper billing to customers.  The problem observed was not the problem; the process and actionable data capture were the problems.  Until the company could properly identify and act on the real problem, they continued to blame the employee and burned through several highly talented employees in the process.  The action taken began with identification of the real problem and the underlying processes.  Then, we began working out the actual solution.  The first and second actions projected and beta-tested were abject failures.  Once the full measure of the problem was identified in a series of continuous events, the third proposed solution worked, not great, but worked.  The fourth and fifth solutions worked better.  Finally the sixth review fixed the problem.  Identify the problem, and then make the resolution an intuitive process of learning and developing.  Failure is okay provided the current failure is moving the problem forward towards solutions and new thinking.

  1. Who is the customer? Are we wasting time on separating internal and external customers when that time would be better spent treating them both equally?  Rarely should the internal customer be treated better than an external customer, but many times resources are limited and external customers must come first.  Do internal customers know why this decision is being made and when the experience is projected to end?

During a merger, I was contracted as a W-2 employee on start of contract.  At the conclusion of the merger, employees were told external customer resources were being moved back to support internal customers, and benefits and resources would flow back to the employees.  Upon the successful completion of the merger, this policy was not honored, and the mass of employees leaving the company was monumental, as employees felt betrayed.  Knowing the “why” and the “what” behind organizational decisions by all customers is important.  If this company had been more forthcoming about the “why” and the “what,” the loss of so many employees would not have been so great.  More to the point, the loss of employees created post-merger problems resulting in “right-sizing efforts,” “down-sizing,” and finally “post-merger consolidation of facilities,” all of which are euphemisms hiding the real problem, failure to treat all customers with respect and valuing the customers.

  1. The “Why” and the “What.” While the “Why” is critical, both remain powerful, and communicating these simply, effectively, and persuasively remains the role of leadership.  Ask yourself, can employees define “what” we do?  Can employees define “why” we do the things we do?  Do employees know “why” we compete in our marketplace the way we do?  What are the answers and why are the answers coming in with the trends?  Can you answer this, and what is the action to move forward?

I had the pleasure of working as a W-2 employee for a company that did this right.  On the first day of training, the employee learned the “Why” and the “What.”  Then, everyday the employee learned how each process, procedure, and daily task fed into the “What” and the “Why.”  This promoted the employee to understanding and becoming an agent for action in the business.  This pattern is replicable, but employees must know the “why” and the “what” and business leaders must know the “Why” and the “What” and disclose this information to the full organization?

  1. Stop only “serving” the customer. “Serving” the customer is useless, wasteful, and ruins the power of customer interactions reducing these opportunities to filling needs, not building relationships.  If your customer-facing employees are only providing “service,” the business has settled for failure and has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is not a subject of semantics, word plasticity, and mind games.  This is a fundamental mindset of the power possessed by loyal customers acting as marketing tools to drive profitability.  If the customer only receives “service,” the customer is not satisfied, the customer-facing employee is not satisfied, and precious resources are wasted on fruitless gimmicks and useless action.  Worse, the ROI is zero at best, but usually negative.  If internal and external customers are simply treated as customers, how can a business leader expect to build customer and employee loyalty or experience bottom-line growth?  Make time to build customer-reaffirming experiences and the bottom-line will grow.  Stop serving the customers, stop blaming the employees, stop looking for solutions in technology without knowing the business and identifying the problems.  If not, Dandira’s (2012) counsel will be the reward, organizational cancer, and organizational death.

References

Dandira, M. (2012). Dysfunctional leadership: Organizational cancer. Business Strategy Series, 13(4), 187-192. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/17515631211246267

Gitomer, J. (1998). Customer satisfaction is worthless – Customer loyalty is priceless. Atlanta, GA: Bard Press.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

 © 2016 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved

Shifting the Customer Service Paradigm – Build Loyalty, Don’t Provide Service

Capturing customer feedback without alienating the customer is more than a process, more than a few meaningless vague words, and more than simple platitudes written in the home office for self-aggrandizement. More to the point, a customer survey should not have to be “sold” to a customer, offered in the first or last seconds of a call, and should build value to the customer asked for their opinion. Customer service in many organizations has a terrible problem, service. A better way exists that can solve and rectify the problem of service. In his book, “Customer Satisfaction is Worthless – Customer Loyalty is Priceless,” Jeffery Gitomer sheds some interesting light on this subject, and along the way, gives some great advice to fixing the problem. Jeffery Gitomer lists 12.5 reasons for poor service or customer alienation, they are:

  1. Wrong Mission Statement.
  2. No “Written” principles for customer service are established.
  3. Failure to start friendly.
  4. Failure to say it in the way the customer wants to hear it.
  5. Poor examples set by upper management.
  6. Companies allow employees to be rude to customers and tell customers “No” [Emphasis Mine].
  7. We are living in an era of responsibility shirkers and blamers.
  8. Companies settle for customer satisfaction [calling this service] rather than loyalty.
  9. Low training budget priority.
  10. Concentrating on competitive issues rather than competitive advantages
  11. Companies make the fatal mistake of only providing “company training” and “policy (rules) training.”
  12. Companies train only once in a while instead of everyday.

Finally,

12.5. Failure to realize who is really in sales and service (Gitomer, 1998, pg 61-64).

Each of these steps holds its own bearing and weight upon customer alienation issues and the resulting problems and solutions for correction. Airtouch Cellular is one of the few companies that proved customer loyalty was the key to success. Friendly customer assistance representatives, training in going beyond simply satisfying the customer, allowing employees to serve the customer, and having managers back the service representatives in their decisions made all the difference, and the impression was lasting on both the employees and the customers long after the Airtouch/Verizon acquisition.

Better still, this pattern of building loyalty instead of serving a customer, can be seen in successful organizations like Quicken Loans, COSTCO, and Southwest Airlines. When buying a loaf of bread, any store will do, any brand will suffice, and yet, what drives a customer to go out of their way to shop at a specific store is more than the cost of the loaf of bread. While mortgage costs differ from company to company, what drives the customer to remain with a single mortgage provider when copycats and service providers fill the industry? When scheduling a flight, what drives a customer to choose one airline over another? Always, the answer comes back to the customer having made an emotional connection with a brand through the people representing the brand, thus leading to another question: how did this emotional connection arise? A need was experienced, and when that need was most pressing, a person provided not service, e.g., selling an airplane ticket, loaf of bread, or mortgage. The person sold loyalty by building emotionally value added experiences that met the need, then surpassed the need.

For example, while considering about becoming a COSTCO member, a friend discussed membership with the COSTCO representative. The representative walked my friend through the store, enumerating the tangible benefits of being a member while becoming familiar with my friend’s food tastes, preferences in shopping times, methods of purchase, needs for insurance, travel, and more. The COSTCO employee did not have to do anything more than place a brochure in front of the potential member; yet, by taking the path to build not customer service but customer loyalty, my friend uses COSTCO for everything and sings the praises of the brand to everyone. Hearing this tale several times, I asked my friend, “Was the employee reprimanded for taking this much time with you?” My friend met the employee’s manager during the tour, and the manager asked to join the tour and praised the employee’s knowledge and technique in helping customers. The best part of the COSTCO story is that this story is normal and similar stories are related by loyalty building customers of Quicken Loans, Southwest Airlines, Apple, and many more.

The engaged leader remembers the following axiom if they want to build a loyalty focused customer base, “A teacher is a leader, and a leader only teaches.” St. Francis of Assisi is quoted thus: “Preach the gospel, always. If necessary, use words.” The application cannot be understated. The leader, who wants customer loyalty, first exemplifies to internal customers loyalty building actions. Second, the leader then provides training and teaches how to embrace loyalty over simply giving service. Third, the leader catches their people doing something right, using their own judgment to drive the external or internal customer experience, and offers sincere and timely praise.

Quicken Loans has an “Ism.” An “Ism” is a culture-driving phrase representing an action expected by all employees, trained upon by organizational leaders, and exemplified by the entire organization, and one of these “Ism’s” is “Yes before No.” Consider how often as an external, or maybe an internal, customer you have a need, find a service provider, and the first thing you hear is “No” in some form denying you actually have a need and the other person’s refusal to meet your need. Your next step is to discontinue doing business with this person/company and then tell people how horribly you were treated. When given the chance to proclaim “Yes” and exhaust every possibility before reluctantly saying “no,” the response from customers and service providers builds that emotional connection needed to change the relationship from delivering service to building loyalty.

As a leader, focus on the people, not the result. The truth remains, people are led, data is managed, and leaders must encourage the realization that people are not data. People are not reports, numbers, statistical analysis, or obstacles to overcome. Engaging upon people remains the greatest action, regardless of medium in meeting business objectives. Hence, get out of your office, talk to people, engage in value building activities, and stop wasting valuable time and resources in simply providing service to a customer.

Reference

Gitomer, J. (1998). Customer satisfaction is worthless – Customer loyalty is priceless. Atlanta, GA: Bard Press.

© 2015 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

A Recent Customer Service Issue – Or, An Example of Why it is Past Time to Shift the Employment Paradigm

            Many sources, most of them veterans, will agree with this statement, “Dealing with the Veterans Administration is an activity fraught with hostility.”  On March 2013, I had the misfortune to experience another hostile occurrence.  Following is what happened.  The VA Hospital left a message in my voicemail alerting me that they had scheduled an appointment for me.  The message included instructions for me to call if this appointment caused scheduling difficulties, which it did.  I called the number, punched in the extension, was hung up on once, called back, and reached an appointment scheduler. The VA had scheduled my appointment for the middle of my workday, which required that I take time off my job to make the return call to discuss the scheduling conflict of the appointment.  The request was simple; please change the appointment to either early morning or late afternoon.  Although I requested no date preferences, travel and loss of work considerations were important and difficult to arrange and especially significant because I was a new employee and attendance is critical.

            The attitude of the appointment scheduler went from simple hostility to overt and active hostility at my request to move the appointment time.  The appointment scheduler reminded me in the most descriptive tones bordering, but not crossing into, profanity that it is “YOUR RESPONSIBILITY” [Emphasis his, meaning my responsibility] to keep the appointments as scheduled by the VA regardless of the inconvenience it causes me.  December 2012, before the start of my current employment, this appointment had been scheduled three times.  The VA canceled the appointment three times, and only once was the cancellation communicated to me prior to my driving to the hospital, checking in, and waiting for the appointment.  The same appointment scheduler provided the same hostile attitude in person as on the phone and made the following statements, quoted verbatim:

“Employment is NOT an excuse for moving an appointment with the VA Hospital System.” [Emphasis his]

“Moving your appointment is a privilege being extended to you that has not been earned.”

Judging by certifications on the walls of this person’s office, he is an example of award winning customer service at the VA Medical Center.  Having been a patient at several VA Medical Centers across the country, having been a customer at several of the VA Regional Offices, and having been a customer of the various VA Call Centers, unfortunately I have found this attitude typical.  This conversation was reported to the Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) for review.  I declined further follow-up as unnecessary.  The PACT team member did have a unique thought process; she continually returned with the same descriptive term for this incident, ‘not compassionate’.  I refuted this determination several times claiming unprofessional, irresponsible, and ludicrous, but the main complaint continued to be ‘not compassionate’.  The term simply does not fit the incident.  This incident was not created by a lack of compassion, but through an organizational culture gone rogue, hostile, and grown wild.

Returning to the incident, let us be clear and simple; the problem is not the workload the scheduler was quick to point out and often stated the amount of appointments scheduled in a month; it is not the individual; always the problem remains with the system, the organization, the processes and procedures, and finally the training.  This is institutional deterioration at its most egregious level.  “Juran’s rule (Tribus, n.d., pg 5) whenever there is a problem, 85% of the time it is in the system; only 15% of the time will it be the worker.”  This is very telling in this situation.  Before looking to the worker, examining the system will be the answer 85% of the time.  Organizational cultures are the “system” described by Tribus (n.d.) and Juran.  Organizational Designers will specify cultural steps for improvement, thus the PACT team, the focus on compassion, and the ultimate deception ‘customer focus’ hidden under the guise “Patient Aligned Care.”

The problem is a dual core issue, no personal responsibility for outcomes and no personal accountability for results.  This is the organizational culture feeding the hostility, the derision, and animosity found in all VA/Veteran interactions.  The front-facing customer service agent is not held accountable nor feels a responsibility towards the work he or she performs.  Because the same employee is protected in his work by the system, the system becomes a detriment to patient/customers and safeguards the individual from criticism and censure preventing the possibility of change in the individual.  The incredible amount of bureaucracy legislated, litigated, and lumped upon the VA must be exposed to the disinfectant of sunshine i.e. brought to the public attention, reduced bureaucracy in support of veterans and their families, and new solutions created to improve service.  The real solution is not focusing upon a culture grown wild, but short-circuiting the existing corporate culture to jumpstart a new culture.  It is past time, especially where all government agencies are concerned, to shift the paradigm, remove the job security, and breathe the life of freedom and true customer centered focus, i.e. the taxpayer, back into the various government and non-government organizations.

Considering the above incident, if the scheduler was an independent knowledge contractor whose contract extension rested solely upon the referrals and customer surveys of the VA’s customers, the above incident would not have occurred because accountability and responsibility would demand the patient receive higher value as a customer.  If the same accountability and responsibility were carried to the entire chain of command, to all the processes and procedures, and to the organizational hierarchies, the VA would not be the punchline before the epithet in a veteran’s story, but become respected for the work it does.  Yes, the VA has a difficult task to perform.  Yes, the workload is daunting.  Yes, as a government entity, cost constraints and budget decisions matter more than patient care.  Nevertheless, the patient should be more respected, valued, and serviced more appropriately.  By shifting the employment paradigm, an advantageous outcome to all stakeholders involved in the organization is a firmly projected possibility.

Reference

Tribus, M. (n.d.). Changing the Corporate Culture Some Rules and Tools. Retrieved December 5, 2008, from: Changing the Corporate Culture Some Rules and Tools Web site: http://deming.eng.clemson.edu/den/change_cult.pdf