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.

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.