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Customer Experience: a personal insight into people and organisations (part III)

This third and last post regarding my experience withe UK healthcare system follows on from two earlier posts – Part I and Part II – if you have not read these posts you may want to do so.

Is the situation more important than the personality?

In our default way of being/thinking/acting in the world we make assumptions.  One such assumption is that good people do good stuff, bad people do bad stuff.  In the context of the customer experience we assume that if someone has treated as well then she is caring/good and anyone that does not treat us well we label as bad/uncaring.  Put differently, we attribute how people show up for us to the inherent (and fixed) characteristics of human beings – as individuals and even groups.

What if human behaviour is plastic?  What if the context, the situation, what has gone before plays a more powerful role in shaping/influencing/driving human behaviour than personality?  Social psychologists have shown that the social context is a powerful driver of human behaviour. Think about being a fire alarm going off.  If enough people run for the doors then so does everyone else and vice versa.  Yet, it is not just the social context the influences human behaviour.  The same person can act very differently depending on his/her state, allow me to share an example with you.

I met up with Dr P three times.   The first time she was totally present, she listened attentively, she examined me, she ordered a battery of tests, she assured me.   The second time I consulted her, to follow up on the same matter, she showed up pretty much the same way.  On both of these occasions I walked away grateful.  So how is it that on the third visit, I left with the feeling that Dr P had not really listened to me, was not really present and the consultation occurred as wasted time, a disappointment?  What was the difference?  On this third occasion Dr P was ‘tied up in knots’, was wrestling with her ‘own demons’ and so simply went through the motions with me.  How do I know?  I saw her run after a patient whilst this patient walked out of her surgery telling Dr P that she felt that she was not being taken seriously by Dr P.  And Dr P started my consultation by apologising for keeping me waiting for 30 minutes and mentioned that she had a difficult patient to deal with.

My broader observation is that the people who showed up as being the most caring were the people who showed up as not ‘running around having lots of stuff to do at the same time’ and those who were ‘happy in themselves’ and the ‘task that they were engaged in’.  The implication is clear:

  • if you want your people to take good care of your customers then you have to take good care of your people; and
  • before you leap to conclusion on the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of a member of staff, or a group of employees, take a good look of the context (the broader situation including the environment) that gives rise to the being/doing of these folks.

There is world of difference between efficiency and cost-cutting

There is relentless demand on the UK’s healthcare system.  That is simply what is so. To deal with the costs associated with this demand the UK government has resorted to ‘making efficiencies’.  To make a system efficient is a really difficult task, it requires intimate knowledge of the system and the context in which this system is embedded.  This means that the most productive approach is for the right outsiders to work with broad range of people on the inside of the system to identify ‘waste’ and let go of the practices that generate this waste and to come up with smarter ways of doing the value added work.  It even requires grappling with the what really constitutes ‘value added’ and ‘waste’ – from multiple perspectives.

So it is no surprise that ‘making efficiencies’ within the healthcare system is code for ‘cost cutting’.  This is the kind of thinking where each departmental head gets told to make an x% cut in the budget.  In the UK healthcare system this seems to involve cutting the number of beds, replacing experienced people with less experienced people, splitting work that was one done by one role into multiple roles, outsourcing to the cheapest supplier……..  And importantly, it means that the customers and people on the front lines pay the price.

The customer pays the price in numerous ways.  Some of the burden is shifted on to the customer e.g. lack of beds means that customers are expected to find relatives/friends to take them hope and look after them when they should be in hospital.  Hospitals outsource their car parks to companies and the cost of car parking keeps rising.  When you are in pain waiting to be treated do you, the customer, really want to / are in a position to worry about finding the change to pay for the parking meter and so forth.  It simply takes more effort and more time to get things done…….

The front line staff pay the price of this ‘shifting of the burden’ onto fewer people.  How?  It is these front line people (nurses, doctors) who are under the strain of customer unfriendly policies, poor staffing practices, insufficient resources, fragmentation……  If you have studied systems and systems thinking then you will find that ‘shifting the burden’ is one of the classic/core systems archetypes.

In the long run cost-cutting is wasteful.  The ‘savings’ and/or ‘profits’ of today have to be paid for tomorrow – just thinking about the banks and the financial crisis.  What makes sense at the local level rarely makes sense at the level of the entire system.  What makes sense in the short-term rarely makes sense in the longer term.  Unfortunately, to be human is to be biassed, by default, to the local and to the short-term.  So we deliberately put in practices that penalise local and short-term, reward holistic and long term orientation, or we pay the price of our ‘stupidity’.

Fragmentation leads to a poor customer experience and higher costs

The central issue with the healthcare system is that if you were designing it from scratch you would not put in place that which is in place.  The whole system is riddled with fragmentation and the ‘waste’ that occurs as a result of fragmentation.  Let me give you just one example. When I woke up from my endoscopy I had three questions:

  • What did you find?
  • What is the ‘disease’ and how serious is it, what implications does it have for me?
  • What can you do about it?

I did not get these answers.  I did not get an opportunity to speak with the Consultant.  Instead the nurse told me that I was bleeding on the inside, that some part of my colon was inflamed and that a piece of it had been taken and would be sent for testing.  And finally, that I would get a follow up appointment within 4 weeks.    The two page document that summarised the procedure and findings that the nurse handed me was written in ‘medicalese.  What did I do?  I ended up going to seem my GP to get answers. Was she able to give me the answers?  No. The two page document was no clearer to her than it was to me.  This is just one example of where the hospital looking after its own interests has shifted the burden (and cost) to another part of the healthcare system.

And finally

The lever to make a fundamental impact on the system at hand usually lies outside of the system.  The most powerful way of reducing costs and driving up efficiency is to to do the following:

  • study the demand in detail – what drives it, what is ‘failure demand’, what form does it take….?
  • reduce the ‘failure demand’ – demand falling on the system because one or more parts of the system failed the customers;
  • reduce demand through policies and practices that encourage better health in the population;
  • find smarter ways of doing what needs (‘value demand’) to be done including involving/making use of customer – this means thinking in terms of the whole (as opposed to the parts) and of flow (as opposed to unit costs.

And that in turn requires leadership.  It occurs to me that whilst there is an abundance of manager and management there is a dearth of leadership within the UK healthcare system. A key facet of leadership  is to unleash the potential/passion of people to co-create a future that moves-touches-inspires-uplifts us.  Does the same issue plague the business world?  I’ll let you decide.

How do you transform customer service? 7 lessons from Undercover Boss: npower

npower is supplies gas and/or electricity to some 6.5 million residential and business customers based in the UK.  It is a well know brand.  It is also a brand that is known for over charging customers and is facing fines of up to £2m if it does not comply with Ofcom’s order to stop silent and abandoned calls.  And according to the Undercover Boss that I watched this evening it has (or had) the worst customer satisfaction score according to Which?

In this post I simply want to share with you the stuff that struck me as being noteworthy as a result of yesterdays Undercover Boss programme that was shown on UK tv.

“Perfect for getting that insight that I just would not have seen in any other way”

Kevin McCullough, the COO of npower, who went undercover to work in and experience some of the key customer touchpoints (call centre, replacing meters, boiler services) and work in one of the coal-fired power stations made the following statement at the end of undercover stint: “This has been perfect for getting that insight that I just would not have seen in any other way”.

This is key insight and one that is not acted upon by most executives for most of the time.  Data and reports can be useful if they are used correctly yet too often they are used incorrectly.  Take the instance where Kevin accidentally deleted the customer record.  How would that experience be captured in a report?  That experience had the impact that it did have because Kevin experienced it – he lived it: he did not simply read about. What is likely to have happened if he had read about it?  It would probably have gone through one ear and immediately out of the other ear.  It might even have been coated with a particular attitude: people in the call centre whining again / they just don’t know how to use the system.

Lesson 1:  there is no substitute for walking in the shoes of your employees and customers.  Data and reports can be used to complement that experience yet they can never replace it.  Looking at the world of the customer and the employee simply through the data lens is like trying to capture a 360 panoramic view with a 35mm lens.  If you are a photographer you know exactly what I mean.

“Human element to it all”

When Kevin, the COO, was talking about decision making in Head Office and specifically about when the management team will close the coal fired power stations he because made the statement that the senior management tend to forget that there is “a human element to it all”.  Business is game between people: a game between flesh and blood human beings who have hopes, ambitions, fears, hardships, frustrations…..  And if organisations are going to be customer-centred or simply customer-friendly then these senior executives and all the managers who report into them need to get (at an experiential level) that customers are human beings.  And their staff – front office and back office – are human beings too.  Why?

If you fail to take into account this simple fact then you tend to do all kinds of dumb stuff like treating human beings as objects.  And this has consequences.  It means that most employees do the minimum they need to do.  It also means that customers do not feel any connection with the company because connection is an emotional bond.  And that is the very thing that executives are not present to because they live in a world of  ‘management by Excel’ where emotions are forbidden.

Lesson 2: the ‘age of the customer’ is the age of ‘human centred business’ – they are one and the same.  If you don’t  get that or that fills you with dread then you are better of playing a different game perhaps cost reduction or the next killer product.

“Impressed by the people”

In summing up his undercover experience the npower COO said that he was “Impressed by the people”.  He was impressed by the lady in the Complaints dept that was getting one call after another, day after day, from upset and emotionally charged customers.  Let me blunt – many of the customers are frustrated and angry and the dump that on the call centre staff.  You and I struggle if one person dumps on us.  Yet the Complaints folks experience endless dumping. Yet they are not responsible and in fact can only do so much to fix the problem.

Lesson 3: most employees want to do a good job even a great job – they want to matter, to make a difference.  If your employees are not doing that then take a good hard look at the management style and environment you have created.  Behaviour is a function of the context in which people are embedded.  And the strongest influence on that context is management style. Deming made this point brilliantly when he separated the performance of the worker from the structure of the system in which the worker worked.

Lesson 4: most failures in performance are the failures of senior management not employees.  As the npower COO said “I have seen it, I have lived it. It is my job to put anything wrong right.”  So stop looking toward customer facing staff as convenient scapegoats and take a good hard look at management practices and their impact on employees and customers.

“Most customers need a hero”

The npower chap who was replacing old meters with new meters made a great statement “Most customers need a hero”.  Most of us most of the time take our world for granted: it is a black box and that is fine because it works.  However when it does breakdown then we not only experience the breakdown as a disruption we also experience being powerless.  That puts us in a vulnerable position and we look for help: we look for a hero.

Lesson 5: most executive suites, despite the customer rhetoric, do not get (or do not care) that when customers are ringing customer service or waiting for the field service guys to arrive are looking for a hero – a competent and compassionate human being that will help them out with their problem so that the ‘glitch in the matrix’ can be fixed and everyday life restored.  Oddly enough, many employees on the front line do get that – at least before they reach the stage of ‘learned helplessness’.

Call centres are a key touchpoint and ‘failure’ is built into these call centres

The lady in Complaints (call centre) made three interesting comments.  Firstly, that one experienced (knowledgeable) person is worth hundreds of novices.  Second, that one of the most frustrating things for her was knowing what needed to be done to fix customer problems but not having the authority to do so.  Third, the customer care IT system had a glitch – badly designed.

This fits in with my experience.  Most call centres are staffed with people who have the absolute bare minimum knowledge/expertise.  Companies pay the bare minimum and there is a high turnover of staff.  Because there is a high turnover of staff call centre management do not invest in training.  After all why invest if the agents will be leaving you.  Furthermore classroom based training is not enough – most of the knowledge and skills you need come from on the job experience and you can only get that if you stay there long enough and many don’t.       The systems that call centre agents have to use are inadequate at best and woeful at worst.  In any case they are often a hindrance rather than help to the time pressed call centre agent who is being monitored on AHT.  Finally, you would be amazed at how much the call centre agents actually have on what matters to customers and what stuff is broken in the enterprise – from a customer perspective.  Yet, this knowledge is rarely tapped by the senior management suite.

Lesson 6: if you really want to improve the customer experience then take a radical look at one of your critical touchpoints – the call centre.  Don’t change what you are doing instead completely rethink and transform this focal touchpoint. 

Unrealistic performance targets

One of the points that became clear was that the boiler service guys were given some 45 minutes to do the job.  Yet even a simple job took over an hour.  Furthermore, travelling a distance of some two miles could take well over an hour due to the London traffic.  Yet, this reality clearly had not been factored in by the managers who had set up the 45 minute performance target.

Over 20+ years have experience have taught me that the vast majority of performance targets are ‘pie in the sky’ or ‘aspirational’ – choose whichever term you like.  The reality is the same: people who have to live with these targets either ignore them like the field engineer was doing as he was putting quality and safety first or people game the system.  When customer facing staff game the system then the person that suffers is the customer and if he is like me then he terminates the contract and looks for another supplier: The curse of the functional-activity-efficiency mindset: my British Gas experience

Lesson 7: the functional-efficiency orientated metrics are one of the key drivers of poor customer experience.  There is world of difference between efficiency and effectiveness: too many performance metrics drive efficiency (doing things right) and in the process drive out effectiveness (doing things right).  The impact is felt by the customer and incentivizes him to find another supplier – one that cares (more) about the customer.

What you are failing to do is much more important than what you are doing?

There are two kinds of errors that you can make: errors of commission and errors of omission.  An error of commission involves doing something that you should not have done.  A good example of this is the money that large companies invested in implementing complex CRM systems on the assumption that these would engender customer loyalty and drive revenues and profitability.  Closing down Napster and thus allowing the likes of BitTorrent to rise was an error of commission made by the music labels.  If you take a look at mergers & acquisitions you find that the research shows that these almost always destroy value and are not a good idea: the AOL and Time Warner merger is the one that sticks out for me.  If you look at this at a global level then the deregulation of the financial services industry was the big mistake that has brought the western economies to their knees.  Errors of commission are easy to spot in hindsight.

Errors of omission are the more important ones.  These errors occur when you fail to do something that you should have done.  Did Nokia indulge in an error of omission in sitting on smartphone technology (insiders tell me Nokia had this technology) and not introducing it and thus letting Apple steal the show?  Did the music industry make an error of omission in not setting up online music stores allowing customers to download individual songs? Did the offline book stores make an error of omission in not embracing the internet aggressively and thus allowing Amazon the premier seat at the table?

So where is this leading?  In the Customer field there is a whole bunch of stuff that companies should be doing right now and yet they are not doing it.  As such these companies are making errors of omission.  Allow me to give you some examples.

The words have changed yet the mindset is the same.  The mindset continues to be about finding clever ways of getting customers to do what we want and reducing costs.  The mindset has not shifted to a relentless focus on creating superior value for customers and figuring out how we get a fair reward for doing; time after time I hear something to the effect “How do we make more money out of our customer base or reduce the cost of servicing our customers?”  I rarely hear “How do we create more value for your customers?”.  Yes, it really does matter which comes first because what comes first determines the whole context for what happens.  It requires one kind of mind, one kind of organisation, to ‘extract’ value and grow this years financials.  It requires a fundamentally different mind and organisation to create value for customers, cultivate relationships and secure a lifetime income stream.

Effectiveness is doing the right things.  Efficiency is doing things right.  To cultivate long term relationships organisations have to focus on effectiveness: doing the right things as viewed from the customer perspective.  Yet the organisational focus continues to be on efficiency.  The relentless focus on efficiency means that I had to spend ten minutes or so hunting around for a telephone number to contact Sky.  It is also the reason that after four phone calls to BMI I was not able to pay my bill because my call was important to them yet they could not answer it even after five minutes.  It also means that human-human encounters are being replaced by human-technology interactions and so the opportunity to build emotional bonds is being sacrificed.  As a famous systems practitioner pointed out “The righter you do the wrong things the wronger you become!”

The organisational design is the same.  The functional organisational design and the associated management system was and is designed for a manufacturing centred organisation operating within a command and control operating system.  To be a customer centred organisation requires a fundamental change to the way that the organisation is designed.  It requires recognising that the front line people (those interacting with customers) are the most important actors in the organisation and the role of managers is to support these ‘actors’ in putting on the best performance they possibly can.  If you take segmentation seriously then it requires operational changes and not just sending some communications via email, others through SMS and the rest via direct mail.

I could go on and on and I am sure that if you put your thinking hats on then you can complete the list yourself.

Is your organisational focus on errors of commission?  Then who is looking out for errors of omission?  Please remember that the errors of commission rarely kill you.  Yet, errors of omission do exactly that even if it takes a little while for the results to show up.

Putting people back into the customer experience equation

One of the biggest issues that I have with the customer experience movement is that the process, technology, efficiency and standardisation mindset that is appropriate in the manufacturing environment is being applied to the services industries and the service environment. And in the process the very best of what people have to offer (the human touch, flexibility, improvisation, creativity…..) is being taken out of the picture:  the opportunity to create that emotional bond is sacrified for efficiency.

At the same time, today, I have not been able to do much today (back is playing up) and so I spent some time re-reading an old book (published in 1999) and called “Market Leadership Strategies for Service Companies”.  As I have spent the bulk of my life working in, delivering and advising companies with a heavy service orientation the following passages speak to me and I want to share them with you:

Employees are not the problem, management is the problem

” Over-engineered employees desperately need to once again pursue the most personally satisfying work goal: doing things that make a difference in the eyes of customers.  Employees intuitively know that their core mission should be to provide the kind of help to customers that is truly needed …..Their company’s seeming indifference to being perceived by customers as unique frustrates them……..The net effect is that millions of employees feel robotic in their daily execution of quality, cycle time reduction, re-engineering and a host of other operational activities that perpetuate rather than improve the company….”

Employees are incredibly important and yet misunderstood, under-utilized and over-structured

“Employees are often the most misunderstood, underutilized, and over-structured assets of a service companies.  But next to customers they are the second most valuable asset that companies have.  The problem lies in the perception of the role that employees play in the customer experience.  Many service companies view their employees simply as part of a process that produces an end output – a physical product to be delivered to a customer.  If a customer’s primary focus is on functional performance of the physical product, the employees generally do not need to be involved with the customer experience.  But with services the situation is different.  In fact, in service companies the employees are very involved in the customer’s experience.”

Big mistake: dehumanizing people all in the mistaken (manufacturing) view of quality

” The mistake made by well meaning and well schooled managers is to dehumanize their people – all in the name of quality control.  Service managers attempt to make employees interchangeable.  Although industrialising the service may be important and even necessary, taking the “performers” out of the equation leads to a neutered, indistinguishable experience for customers. “

Product and quality through people – not by replacing them with self-service technology, standard processes and scripts

“Productivity and quality improvement come from having people involved with customers – people who want the responsibility, can manage themselves, respond well to pressure from customers, and who are highly motivated through skills, job opportunities and pay advancements.”

My conclusion, my interpretation

People – customers, employees, contractors, suppliers, partners matter.  In fact they are critical to business success in service intensive operations and industries.  If you are worthy and you have the know how you can tap into the very best of what they can offer: energy, enthusiasm, passion, creativity, flexibility, discipline, intelligence, wisdom.  And that in itself is ultimately the source of competitive advantage, ongoing renewal, new product development, great customer experience, growth and profitability.

Yet as a very wise French teacher told me when I was about 10 years old: “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink”.  I believe that is the case with many companies, many CEOs and many management teams.  If they do not value their employees, you cannot make them value them.  Which means the door is wide open to those that get the message and are willing to blaze the trail. For example, John Lewis – who recently delivered a great set or financial results when many other retailers are struggling and blaming the weather.

The 6 Elements of Customer Engagement

I have a favourite saying which I have stolen from Barry Oshrycustomers are surviving in a world of neglect. And this neglect is becoming more so , not less, despite all the talk of customer service, customer focus, customer experience and customer centricity.

So it is with interest that I read the latest report by Razorfish: Liminal.  The report identifies 6 Engagement Elements (Valued, Efficiency, Trust, Consistency, Relevance, Control) that matter to customers.  Now the interesting thing is that these needs are fundamentally human needs – they arise out of our existence as human beings in an increasingly complex and some would say ‘inhuman’ (artificial) world.

These 6 Engagement Elements can help jumpstart customer experience efforts as they set out the lens through which all business policies, practices and platforms can be viewed and redesigned.  Now onto my take on the 6 Engagement Elements:

1. Valued (you care about me, wow!)

What is the fundamental human need?  Are you surprised to read that it is feeling valued?  This is how one person put it: “It’s something as simple as calling a person, having them listen, and talking with them.  Just feeling as though they are out there, working on your behalf, that you situation has not been discarded, you are not just another passenger. It’s the personal touch that makes the difference. “

Now I ask you how is it that companies that profess to be working on the customer experience are taking out exactly the elements that tend to make people feel valued?   Survey after survey shows that customers value caring helpful staff.  Yet, what are many organisations doing ?  They are reducing their investments in these staff – whether that is in the retail stores or the people on the end of the line in the contact centres.

Why are people (and the personal touch) being replace with technology?  During my weekly shopping I enjoy talking with the cashiers and I love the ones that smile and chat with me.  Yet, I now find that these cashiers are being replaced with self-service scanning tills.

2. Efficiency (save me time and effort)

What is one dimension of making customers valued?  Are you surprised to learn that it is a respect for the customers time and energy (physical and psychic) – promptly addressing his needs? Customer prefer to do business with companies that make it easy to do business: to get the job done easily, quickly and ideally without any thinking .

A great example of delivering on this need is the airlines.  They have put in place self-service tools that allows passengers to check in and print boarding cards at home.  And to use self-service check-in kiosks at the airport.

Banks are another great example.  By allowing customers to do many of their banking transaction over the web they have cut out the hassle of visiting the branch, waiting in the queue for 20 minutes or so to get served mainly because there are only two cashiers on duty despite the fact there are four cashier desks.

3. Trust (can I count on you?)

The need to feel secure in an uncertain world is a fundamental need – the people who have failed in this dimension do not tend to leave offspring.  So it is no surprise to hear customers say, “I need to believe that they’ll stand by what they are giving me.  If something goes wrong they will correct it.  I’ll take chances with trusting a company so long as I’m sure they are there for me to correct any problems.” Put differently, customers are more willing to walk the tightrope if they can see, feel, touch the safety net you have put below them.

What does this mean for companies?  It means that they cannot just rely on the established practice of big budget advertising to build familiarity and trust.  It means actually delivering the promise: putting in place policies, practices, processes, people and platforms that deliver what the customer expects and was promised.  Any gap between the advertising (the promise) and the delivery is soon broadcast to the whole world on the internet.

4. Consistency (no unpleasant surprises!)

If the world behaves consistently (even if we do not like the way it behaves) then we feel secure; we know what to expect and how to behave.  Inconsistency wakes us up from our slumber, it puts us on the edge because we have to figure out if danger is present.  And we do not like being disturbed from our slumber.

It is no different when it comes to customers and shopping.  Customers need to feel that the companies that they are doing business with are consistent.  Consistent in terms of the layout of the stores, the products, the staff, the attitude, product qaulity, the communication…….

5. Relevance (know me, offer me what I am interested in)

If you value me then you will only offer and engage me in stuff that I find interesting;  do not waste my time with the irrelevant. Notice, how relevance is also related to Efficiency (above):  relevance respects the customers need for Efficiency.  For example when a retailer offers personalised offers on products and services that they know are of interest to the customer.

6. Control

Razorfish write “..it is noteworthy that in “the consumer is in control” era, Control was the least important of the six Engagement Elements we identified.”  So how did they define control?  “Control is manifested when the customer can determine if, when and how a company will communicate with him or her.”  That may explain it.  Do you really need to control the communication received if you can delete it with a keystroke or put it in the bin without even opening the envelope.

Yet, the acting of inviting the customer to the conversation around control and allowing her to decide what she does and does not want to control delivers on the more fundamental needs of feeling Valued.  And it can build Trust.

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