How to cultivate strong customer relationships: focus on the “sliding door” moments and ATTUNE

Don and Martha say practice the Golden Rule

In their latest post – “Empathy, Self-Interest and Economics” – Don Peppers and Martha Rogers spell out the importance of the Golden rule.  They point out that at a behavioural level only psychopaths conform to the view of human nature taken by neo-classical economics.  To business leaders they say:

“Companies that want to earn their customers’ trust have to be willing to act in their customers’ interest—sometimes even when the customers’ interest conflicts with their own (at least in the short term). This is why i-Tunes will remind you that you already own a song you are about to purchase, for instance. And it’s why USAA won’t sell you more insurance than you really need, even if you mistakenly ask to do so.”

“The point is that having empathy for others is a critical part of human nature, and if you want your business to succeed, then you have to show empathy for customers, also. That means treating a customer the way you’d want to be treated yourself, if you were that customer.”

Is the UK utility industry listening to Don and Martha?

It doesn’t look like the Tops in utilities industry in the UK are listening to Don and Martha.  Npower has been slapped with a £2m fine by the regulator Ofgem.  Why? According to Marketing Week:

“Ofgem says Npower failed to record all details of the complaints it received and did not put in adequate processes to deal with complaints. It was also accused of not giving dissatisfied customers enough information about the Energy Ombudman’s redress service.”

Now you might be tempted to think that this is a one-off, an aberration.   Well British Gas (the major player) was fined £2.5m back in July.  Why?  Well in the words of Marketing Week:

“Ofgem’s investigation found that British Gas had failed to re-open complaints when the customer reported and unsatisfactory resolution; failed to provide customers with key details about the service provided by the Energy Ombudsman and failed to put in place adequate processes and practices for dealing with complaints from small businesses.”

And Marketing Week goes on to write EDF Energy is also currently under investigation from Ofgem over the way it handles its complaints.”

So where are we at?  Two of the six big players that dominate the gas and electricity market have been fined for mishandling customer complaints and a third player (EDF) is under investigation for the same offence.  What does Npower have to say:

“A small number of processes were not correctly adhered to. Ofgem is now satisfied that all problems have been rectified and we are fully compliant with our obligations to our customers. We have zero tolerance for this type of issue and we’ll continue to work hard to make sure our customers are put first.”

I don’t know about you but to me that sounds like a load of bull: if Npower really did have a zero tolerance for this type of issue then it would have made sure that an effective complaints management process, team, system was in place.   When you lookmore deeply at the industry you see that the structure has been designed to extract profits at the expense of customers: complex pricing, too many confusing tariffs, bills that are difficult to understand……

Making the customer relationship work: what we can learn from John Gottman

I you do operate in a competitive industry then you might be able to learn from the research of John Gottman – he is been studying what makes marriages work (or not) for over 40 years.  In a recent article he sets out the key things that he has learnt:

“What I found was that the number one most important issue that came up to these couples was trust and betrayal. I started to see their conflicts like a fan opening up, and every region of the fan was a different area of trust. Can I trust you to be there and listen to me when I’m upset? Can I trust you to choose me over your mother, over your friends? Can I trust you to work for our family? To not take drugs? Can I trust you to not cheat on me and be sexually faithful? Can I trust you to respect me? To help with things in the house? To really be involved with our children?”

“.zero-sum game.” You’ve probably all heard of the concept. It’s the idea that in an interaction, there’s a winner and a loser. And by looking at ratings like this, I came to define a “betrayal metric”: It’s the extent to which an interaction is a zero-sum game, where your partner’s gain is your loss.”

“But how do you build trust? What I’ve found through research is that trust is built in very small moments, which I call “sliding door” moments, after the movie Sliding Doors. In any interaction, there is a possibility of connecting with your partner or turning away from your partner.

In his article John provides a good illustration of such a sliding door moment when he saw the sadness on his wife’s face.  Here is what he says about that:

“I had a choice. I could sneak out of the bathroom and think, “I don’t want to deal with her sadness tonight, I want to read my novel.” But instead, because I’m a sensitive researcher of relationships, I decided to go into the bathroom. I took the brush from her hair and asked, “What’s the matter, baby?” And she told me why she was sad.  Now, at that moment, I was building trust; I was there for her. I was connecting with her rather than choosing to think only about what I wanted. These are the moments, we’ve discovered, that build trust.”

ATTUNE: how you cultivate trust and build strong relationships

John Gottman’s graduate student has taken their work on trust and broken it down into the idea of being in attuenment and has come up with an acronym (ATTUNE).  If I replace “partner” with “customer” we have:

  • Awareness of your customers’s emotion;
  • Turning toward the emotion;
  • Tolerance of two different viewpoints – yours and your customer’s;
  • trying to Understanding your customer – to look at the situation through his/her eyes;
  • Non-defensive responses to your customer;
  • and responding with Empathy.

My take on this

How you handle a complaint from a customer is a “sliding door” moment.  It is also a great opportunity to practice ATTUNE as complaints are high emotion events that you can use to build or rupture emotional connection.  Given that is so I continue to be surprised at how few companies do well in the complaints process.  If Npower and British Gas had taken such an approach (call it a customer friendly approach) to the complaints made by their customers then they could have: gotten insights into customer needs; learned where their business practices were failing customers; built a better relationship with customers; and avoided a fine.

Customer Experience: what is in unlimited demand yet in limited supply in the modern world?

The Customer Value Equation

My approach to the Customer is fundamentally one of creating superior value for the Customer.  In an earlier post I spelled out my formula for creating superior value:

Value = Benefit – Effort – Risk – Price +/- Treatment

If you want to create more value for the Customer then you can focus on any of these five levers.  In this post I want to focus upon the last one “Treatment”. Fundamentally “Treatment” is how you leave your Customer feeling.

The Values Proposition:Do Small Things With Love

In Why Is It So Hard to Be Kind? William C Taylor shares the story about how his father was treated as an economic object (“I-It” in  Buber’s terms) by his Cadillac dealer even though he had been a loyal Cadillac customer.  Then William contrasts this to the way that he was treated (“I-Thou”) by a Buick Dealer.  To cut a long story short the Buick dealer: honoured an expired loyalty certificate that the Cadillac dealer would not honour; allowed William’s father to take the car for the weekend – without being asked; and then built an amazing bond with William’s father.  How? In William’s words:

“Monday rolled around and my father found himself being rushed not to the dealer but to the hospital, with what turned out to be a medical problem that required surgery (He’s doing great now, thanks.) As he was lying in his hospital bed, thinking about whatever it is we think about in these moments, he realized that the Buick Lacrosse was sitting in his garage! So he called the dealer from the hospital and asked how he could get the car back. “Don’t worry about the car,” he said. “Just get better.” And the next morning, what should arrive at the hospital but a lovely bouquet of flowers and a nice note from the Buick dealer!

In a follow up post William shares his visit to a retinal specialist and this is what he says about his experience:

“This doctor did an utterly competent exam, explained my situation, and offered a sound course of action. So I’m fine. Yet I keep thinking back to the experience, not because of the quality of the medical care I received, which was superb, but because of how uncaring the experience felt.  As I sat in the waiting room, it seemed more like the offices of a payday lender or a bail bondsman than that of a highly credentialed surgeon. “If you arrive late, your appointment may be rescheduled,” one sign warned. “Copay is due upon arrival,” another signed explained.  My fellow patients and I were nervous, anxious, worried about our eyesight. Yet it felt like the doctor thought of us as a collection of truants, tightwads, and general layabouts.”

William goes on to write:

“There is a temptation, amidst the turmoil, for pundits to conclude that the only sensible response is to make bold bets — new business models that challenge the logic of an industry, products that aim to be “category killers” and obsolete the competition. But I’ve come to believe that a better way to respond to uncertainty is with small gestures that send big signals about what you care about and stand for. In a world defined by crisis, acts of generosity and reassurance take on outsized importance.”

“Nobody is opposed to a good bottom-line deal,” I concluded at the time. “But what we remember and what we prize are small gestures of connection and compassion that introduce a touch of humanity into the dollars-and-cents world in which we spend most of our time.

“As the value proposition gets rewritten in industry after industry, it’s organizations with an authentic VALUES PROPOSITION that rise above the chaos and connect with customers. Few of us will ever do “great things” that remake companies and reshape industries. But all of us can do small things with great feeling and an authentic sense of emotion.”

James G. Barnes said something very similar when he published his book Secrets of Customer Relationship Management.  What was the subtitle? “Its All About How You Make Them Feel

What does Frederick Richheld have to say?

In Profiting From the Golden Rule Frederick Richheld stresses the importance of the “I-Thou” orientation.  In his words:

Our system of financial accounting rewards quarterly profits, but struggles mightily to place a value on ethical behavior

“Reputation is earned through the simple, age-old concept of the Golden Rule: treat others as you yourself would want to be treated. Each time you live up to the Golden Rule, your reputation is enhanced; each time you fail, it is diminished. And the mathematics of long-term financial success — revenues, profits, cash flow — square perfectly with this scorecard.”

“We all want to be treated with honor and respect in ways, large and small, that enrich our lives. Such experiences not only make us happy, we want to share them with people we care about. By recommending an experience, we’re signaling our trust that our friends will be treated similarly. Recommendations also signal to businesses how customers view their relationship with the company. When customers feel so well treated that they enthusiastically recommend a company to friends, they are promoters. When treated so badly they recommend avoiding the company, they are detractors. Both have direct and measurable economic consequences.”

What is in unlimited demand yet is in limited supply in the modern world?

We strive to deliver something for which there is unlimited demand–being treated with honor and respect. There seems to be a very limited supply of that in today’s world.” CEO Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A (an award winning US company)

Improving the customer experience: which approach, which levers to use?

Need to improve the customer experience?

Sometimes a real world example of poor customer experience comes along that allows you to explore real world challenges in improving the customer experience.  I am thinking of the  recent report on the treatment of elderly patients in the UK hospitals which has caused quite a fuss even though relatives of elderly patients have been complaining of poor treatment for many years.

Let’s say that you want to improve the customer (patient) experience.  Where do you start?  There are all kinds of opinions on the root causes that have ‘driven’ compassion out of the failing hospitals.  If you read the papers or have listened to the radio (as I have) you will notice that the finger is being pointed at the following:

  • The nurses do not care (they do not have the aptitude) and/or are badly trained;
  • The focus of hospital staff is on filling in the forms, ticking the right boxes, processing patients and not getting into trouble with management;
  • The Top are not exercising the right kind of leadership;
  • Demand exceeds resources and so expensive nurses have been replaced by cheap Care Support Workers to balance the books;
  • The focus of the hospital leadership is on hitting targets set by Central Government rather than caring for patients;
  • Elderly patients are difficult to care for and many of them should not be in hospital but in care homes…..

So where do you start?  Which levers do you use to improve the Customer Experience?

I have developed a simple model (I do not claim that this model is the truth, it is simply a construct) that helps me to answer that question:

If you are like most organisations you take the operational approach.  This means that you make changes to the People, Process, Data and Technology dimensions.  So in the case of the NHS you work on the nurses (People) – perhaps through training and performance measures; you work on the way that work is done (Process); you might introduce some new technology to improve the process (Technology) etc…  This is the default approach and leaves the bigger picture (the context) that lays the grounds for all organisational behaviour untouched.  As a result the improvements (no matter how impressive) rarely endure and in some cases the short-term improvements turn out to be the longer term cancer that degrades performance.

The road less travelled is the strategic approach.  This is where the Tops exercise leadership and ask themselves the question: what is our contribution to the behaviour, health, performance of the system?  And then they set about shaping/nudging the levers that ultimately shape the behaviour of their organisation and its destiny.  What are these levers?  I can think of four:

  • Leadership – everything that the leaders communicate through verbal and non-verbal language.  It is worth bearing in mind that it is impossible for leaders (all of us in fact) not to communicate.
  • Culture – the taken for granted ways of thinking, feeling, talking, decision making and behaving.  What (and who) is and is not considered real, important, worth discussion.  Not only what is done (and not done) but also how it is done or not done.  I think of this as the ‘operating system’ of the organisation it determines the collective ‘performance’ of all the components of the organisation.  The Tops play a huge role in shaping culture – whether by actively shaping it or by simply neglecting it.
  • Mission & Strategy – the mission (call it purpose) articulates why you exist and the strategy is the high level approach you will be using to achieve your mission.  Let’s be honest the vast majority of missions simply do not inspire anyone in the organisation or anyone dealing with the organisation.  Why?  Because the mission is simply to fulfil shareholders needs / demands.  They are the equivalent of ‘selling sugared water’ rather than putting a ‘dent in the universe’.  So the challenge is to come up with an authentic mission that makes people proud to be a part of the organisation.
  • Business Model – this is simply the configuration of elements that create value for all the stakeholders and ensure the viability and strength of your organisation.  At the heart of the business model lies the value proposition and the people (target market of customers) that this value proposition has been designed for.   How well does your business model meet the needs of the various stakeholders?  What changes need to be made in order to take into account the change in customer behaviour especially the rise in customer power?  Does your business model take into account the multiple roles that customers can play all through the value chain?

What separates the Customer Experience leaders from the rest?

As I have studied the Customer Experience leaders (Starbucks, Amazon, Apple, Zappos, Zane’s Cycles) I have been struck by the thought that all these companies did makes changes to the People, Process, Data and Technology dimensions but only as a subset of the strategic approach: Leadership, Culture, Mission & Strategy, Business Model.    That is to say any operational changes (People, Process, Technology, Data) were nested and a part of the bigger organisational context that was shaped by Mission & Strategy, Culture, Business Model and Leadership.

I have this feeling that the people who run the NHS in the UK will go for the operational levers (‘the one bad apple’ defense/approach) rather then the strategic approach.   What do you think?  What is your experience?

Reflection on society and the state of the patient experience

How do we treat the old and vulnerable in our hospitals?

To me, the mark of any civilisation is how we as a society treat the vulnerable.  How we treat the vulnerable shows how much we genuinely care for people as human beings rather than economic entities.   And when it comes to vulnerability the old folks in hospital are about as vulnerable as you can get – trust me I have spent quite some time observing how these folks and they way they are treated.  Which is why I am not at all surprised by how badly these folks are treated in the UK.  Here as some highlights from a recent piece in the Guardian newspaper:

  • “Nearly half of hospitals are failing to provide good nutrition to elderly patients while 40% do not offer dignified care..”
  • “At Alexandra hospital staff told how they sometimes had to prescribe drinking water on medication charts to “ensure people get regular drinks”
  • “Inspectors found “meals served and taken to the bedside of people who were asleep or not sitting in the right position to enable them to eat their meal”
  • “At Barnsley hospital, one patient whose nutrition was supposed to be monitored ate only a single spoonful of ice cream for lunch before their tray was cleared”

This is what the Chief Executive of the Patients Association says in this article: “Why is it that patients have to be prescribed water? Water and food are not treatments, they are a basic human right. Helping patients with food and water is not a try-to-do, it is a fundamental part of essential care”.

Ask yourself: what kind of system delivers this outcome?  Is is simply a question of not enough staff on the ward?  Or is it more: a system in which the ‘human touch’ has been driven out and replaced with stuff like targets, tasks, forms, checklists, outsourcing to reduce costs….?  Whatever you decide, it is clear that the system is not designed to care for the patient and his/her wellbeing. It is a system in which there as so many players (each player doing his thing) that no single person has the complete picture of the patient nor the feeling of responsibility for the well-being of patients.  It is a system where the people at the top claim and possibly believe that they are treating the patient/the customer well.  Whilst the people at the coal face only make the targets (set by the people at the top) by not paying attention to the needs of the patients.   Does this remind you of many commercial organisations where so many functions/people touch the customer and yet no-one owns the customer experience nor is responsible for the health of the relationship?

Are we using technology to dehumanize (one another) rather than enhance the human touch?

“For all the promise of digital media to bring people together, I still believe that the most sincere, lasting powers of human connection come from looking directly into someone else’s eyes, with no screen in between” [Howard Schultz]

As a society we are in love with technology and we are under the illusion that information technologies can and should  replace the human touch.  This is not a harmless illusion – it has a real impact on our relationships with each other: between employees; between the people in the business and the customer; between the doctors and their patients… You might have read about the research (and real life horror stories) that show that human babies shrivel up, under develop and even die in the absence of human touch.  Is it any different for adults?

Abraham Verghese spells out the importance of human touch and ritual to the well-being of patients in the following video.  I urge you to watch it as the story that he shares sheds light on the human condition and provides lessons on how we treat one another.

What are the lessons for Customer Experience?

Just in case you did not watch the video here are some of Abraham Verghese’s words and my commentary on those words:

  • “The patient in the bed has almost become an icon for the real patient who is in the computer.  I have coined a term for that entity I call it the iPatient. The iPatient has getting wonderful care all across over America, the real patient often wonders where is everyone?  When are they going to come by and explain things to me?  Who is in charge?”   There is world of difference between the real customer and what the customer’s record in the marketing database – too many marketers and organisations confuse the two.
  • “There is a real disjunction between the patients perception and our own perceptions as physicians of the best medical care.”   We live out of our own worldview and we want to think well of ourselves so we almost always have biassed view on how well we are doing in terms of looking after our customers and the relationships we have with them.  Often we confuse convenience and the repeat transactions that it drives with customer loyalty founded on an enduring emotional bond.
  • “To often rounds look like this where discussion is taking place in a room far away from the patient.   The discussion is all about images on the computer, data, and the one critical piece missing is the patient.”  I witness many discussions about customers and/or the voice of the customer and yet I notice that no customers are present and neither is there voice.   How many have set-up a dedicated platform to allow customers a voiceHow many executives actually spend time with real customers and walking in the shoes of these customers?  Numbers, analytics, can never substitute for nor provide access to that which is fundamentally human and which comes alive through human touch.  If numbers is your thing and not people then go and run an investment fund not a business: a business is all about people. 

A final thought

Would it make any difference to human relationships and the way that we conduct business if we remembered and acted on the following insight:

“You never know what is going on in people’s lives when you serve them. For all you know it could be someone’s last day on earth.”  (Onward, p187)

eBay: biassed, incompetent, indifferent or all three?

Fairness and a transparent, responsive, timely process for getting justice matter to us

There are a number of situations, events, processes that are guaranteed to generate contempt, anger, rage.  One such situation is when we perceive that we have been punished when we should not have been.  Yet, this anger arising out of our strong sense of justice, is likely to melt away if there is access to an easy to use, impartial, transparent process for dealing with complaints.  Yesterday, the UK consumer affairs tv program singled out the DVLA and  Microsoft (Xbox 360) for their tyrant like behaviour towards their customers.  Fo example Microsoft disconnected customers in mid August. Why?  Microsoft asserted that the customers had violated the terms of usage. When customers complained (including mums and their young children) what did Microsoft Customer Service say?  Something like “We are right, you are wrong. And we never make mistakes.  If you want to carry on playing XBox 360 you have to get a new console!” Does this remind you of the behaviour that Dave Carroll was subjected to by United? Then when Watchdog got involved Microsoft recanted: we made a mistake due to a software fault!  Today, I want to look at eBay and share a more personal story withyou.

eBay: biassed, incompetent, indifferent? – I’d say all three!

Imagine that you trade on eBay, it is the early part of September and you list an item (headphones) for sale.  You describe the details of the item and you set out the price.  Because you do not want to create any problems for anyone including youself  you go further on your listing: you clearly state in a large font size that the headphones will be shipped out by 24th September 2011.  Before you know it people start buying these headphones.  You are on holiday and when you can access the internet you (the seller) remind the buyers that the headphones will not be shipped out until 24th September as you are on holiday. As it happens you get back a little earlier and start posting out the headphones on the 21st September and complete the task by 23rd September – you have to pack and post some 50 packages.  And you have a proof of postage from the local post office to show exactly when and to whom you have posted the headphones.  At this point you might be feel happy as you are shipping the goods out to your customers earlier than you had promised.

Well the story did not have that happy ending because the seller did not take into account the whims of some his customers and the bias of eBay towards buyers.  Around the 21st September some of the buyers started filing complaints against the seller stating that they had not received the headphones.  You, the seller, get on the email and remind the buyers that the listing clearly stated that the headphones would not be shipped out until 24th September.  And that you have now posted the headphones – they are on the way to the buyer.  At this point you might think that everything will work out fine – you are wrong.

Whislt some of your buyers get that that you have kept your word, other buyers are not happy.  And you find yoursef unable to resolve the issue with these buyers.  How can you?  You have shipped out the headphones and you have proof of postage.  The case escalates to eBay and eBay sends you an email to let you know that they have judged in favour of the buyer.  So you appeal.  You ask eBay to look at the listing (and they will see that it clearly states the goods will not be shipped until the 24th Sept) and you spell out that you sent the goods before the 24th.  And you offer to send a copy of the proof of postage.  You might think that eBay would ask for the proof of postage, look at the eBay listing and then rule in your favour.  You would be wrong, instead you get this:

If you take a look at this notice you will find that no rationale is give for why eBay has ruled in favour of the buyer.  There is absolutely no response to your assertion that the listing clearly stated that the headphones would be shipped by the 24th Sept, the buyer bought knowing that, you shipped as promised on the listing and you are happy to send the proof of postage to eBay.  And there is no contact number – there is nobody that you can speak to.

I’d love to share the listing with you so that you can see it for yourself.  Unfortunately, eBay has suspended the sellers account and so no-one can see the listing:

One final piece of the story: you the eBay seller have contacted both eBay and PayPal to understand what is going on, to put your case forward, to provide the documentation.  What is your experience?  The eBay folks tell you that you have to contact PayPal and get this sorted out.  The PayPal folks tell you that you have to contact eBay folks and get this sorted out!  No-one at eBay or PayPal wants to stand up and work with you to sort this out.  And they cannot or will not tell you what rules you have broken!  Just that you must have broken some rules.  Does this remind you of Microsoft’s treatment of its XBox360 customers?

What can we learn?

You cannot count on your customers to read what you have written even if ask them to read it and/or display in large size fonts right there on the screen.  This is one of the issues that plagues the insurance industry, for example, people buy insurance without reading the policies to find out what is and is not covered under what circumstances.

Many customers do live up to their side of the bargain including acknowledging their mistakes (if these are pointed out gently) and apologising.

A small number of customers cannot be reasoned with as they are convinced that they are always right and if something is not working out as they’d like then it has to be your fault.

In the West we live in a world of instant gratification if you are selling online then it is best to assume that the customer is expecting delivery within the next day or so.

If you are a seller then you cannot count on eBay to treat you fairly because eBay can get away with treating you unfairly.  Buyers are more important by the simple fact that if you are not selling then someone else will happily take your place.

Power leads us to dehumanise others.  Which is why the bigger and more powerful the organisation (eBay, DVLA, Microsoft) the more likely it is to treat customers, employees, suppliers etc badly.  I wrote a post on that about a year ago.

A final word

The eBay seller is related to me which is why I know this story so intimately.

If you from eBay or PayPal: I issue you a challenge lets make the facts of the case (publish the listing, the emails, the proof of postge) clear to the world.  And let the world at large judge who is in the right and who is in the wrong.  If you are convinced of your justness then you should have no issue in taking up my challenge.