How the AA excels at delivering the perfect service experience – 11 lessons (Part II)

This post completes the conversation that I started in Part I of this post which you can find here.

11 lessons for crafting a perfect service experience

1: make it easy for your customers to get access to your contact details so that it occurs (to your customers) as no effort at all.  Yes, you can put the number on all of your existing interaction channels.  Can you go further and issue a membership card like the AA does and give the key details including the contact number on that one card? Why not build an app for that?  Yes so that the smartphone user just hits the app and the app does all the work?

2: make it easy for customers to get through to a friendly human voice.  First and foremost it means having the right number of people available to take calls.  And instead of unhelpful messages like “we are experiencing high call volumes”, “check out our website”, “your call is important to us” do something useful.  For example, let the customer know where he is in the queue and how long he is likely to have to wait.  Better still use technology to ring the customer back – when his turn comes up – so that he can do something useful with his time.  My colleagues in the customer management community tell me that the technology to do this exists.  What is missing is the will to do it.

3: use the information that is available to you to make the customer’s life easier.  For example, the AA have clearly sourced vehicle data from the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority) and so I simply had to provide the registration number rather than spell out the details of the car.  This saved us both time and the AA probably had better data on the vehicle than I would have been able to provide.  Incidentally, most organisations can a lot better in this area.

4: make specific, measurable, commitments like the AA lady did when she said that someone will be with you within 1 hour.  When you make nice sounding vague statements I, the customer, simply do not believe you.  When you make specific commitments – especially in a measured, confident tone – then you inspire my confidence in you.  What is more, you reduce my uncertainty, I know what to expect and when and so I can better manage my time, myself.  Specific commitments reduce uncertainty (and risk) in the customer’s mind replacing it with a certain piece of mind – a highly desired state.  

5: conduct a human conversation and look for opportunities to acknowledge and validate your customer.  Let’s face it most of us (if not all of us) experience a surge of joy and affinity when someone who matters to us acknowledges and validates us.  Plenty of people turn to counsellors to experience that feeling.  So imagine the emotional connection you build with your customers when you treat them that way.  Incidentally, that way of treating customers is the ultimately way of letting your customers know that you respect them. The AA lady excelled when she thanked me for offering to take a back seat if someone needed the AA more than me.  It is not just what she said it was the way that she said – genuine surprise and delight.  Incidentally, you cannot conduct a human conversation if you are keen to get them off the phone.  That has the same effect as talking with someone and noticing that he keeps looking at his watch and over your shoulder towards someone else.

6: honour your word.  No doubt you are familiar with “under promise, over deliver” – that is great if your promise is acceptable to the customer.  Yet many times it is not like the companies that quote 2 days to respond to your email when we expect a response in several hours.  The other aspect is that you can honor your word even when you cannot keep your promise.  How?  As soon as you figure out that you are not in a position to keep your word then contact your customer, explain the situation and sort out the mess.  You can only sort out the mess by asking the customer “How can I make this right by you so that we can move beyond this with no hard feelings?”    Incidentally the best way of you losing my respect is for you to repeatedly break your word – to me or to my fellows (think social media and social networks).  Incidentally, honouring your word is all or nothing affair rather like being pregnant – you cannot be half pregnant.

7: do the job that the customer has hired you to do – deliver the desired outcome.  Did I value Andy’s friendly manner?  Yes.  Did I value Andy’ s knowledge of cars? Yes. Yet neither of those attributes would have had made up for my car being stuck on the drive.  The fact is that this was a great experience because Andy got the job done.  He (and so the AA) delivered the outcome that I had hired the AA for when I had joined as a member: my car was working and I was mobile once more. 

8: take the opportunity to educate your customers.  If the customer turns to you to get a job done then it is likely that you have some knowledge that you can share that will leave the customer better off.  For example, if you are selling shoes then you can suggest tips on how the customer can best take care of those shoes.  In my case Andy told me that my car, an old Mercedes, is prone to the kind of problem I encountered if it is started and then not drive for some 10 minutes or so.  So his tip if you start the engine then leave it running for 10 minutes or so.  This is another major failing and an area in which organisations can easily improve if they put their heart into it (I will be writing on this later).

9: no matter what technical job you are doing remember that there is always a human job – to make sure that your customer feels great about doing business with you.  Too often we get wrapped up in the technical task and forget about our flesh and blood human beings.  Andy (and the AA) did not make that mistake.  Andy was wearing the right clothes, he was clean, he smiled and talked with me.  Specifically, he used my language and asked me simple questions that I could answer.  He told me what he was doing.  And most importantly he did not do anything to make me feel foolish.  Even when I felt foolish and apologised Andy reassured me and by doing so he helped shore up my self-esteem rather than diminish it.  If the “experience” bit means anything it means pay attention to the human being and his subjective experience throughout the encounter

10:  there is no substitute for genuinely caring about your customers (and your role).  When you genuinely care about your customers then that becomes part of your DNA and manifests itself in everything that you do.  In every single interaction that I have had with the AA I have been left with the experience that the AA folks care about me (their customer) and the job that they are doing.  The ultimate act of caring was the way that Andy ended the encounter: “We’re here to help you!”  I took that to mean “Don’t feel bad about calling me out over a flooded engine that I fixed in two minutes.  My job, our job, is to help you – whatever help you need big or small!”  He didn’t say that in words because he did not have to – he said it in his whole being from the moment that I met him at the door to the time that he left.  You can’t fake Being.  Yet too many companies that are embarked on the customer bandwagon are doing their best to fake it.

11: the customer facing staff can put on a beautiful show and deliver a great experience to the extent that the backstage people do their work.  One of my sons loves to sing and is in a choir that sang at the Proms (this is a major annual event in the UK) recently.  I can tell you that it took a lot of planning and practice to plan and pull of that event.  It requires a dedication to the cause such that all the details are taken care of.  Too many customer experience folks are focussing on the performers on the stage (and the play) and yet not paying the right level of attention to the backstage: the people, the propos…….As the AA has the Which? award for two years running that suggests that it has taken care of the whole package – the performers on the stage and the stuff backstage.  Who are the most important backstage people?  The people at the top (The Tops) who ultimately set direction, shape culture and management style, make investment decisions, set up KPI’s……….

“How do I sell customer experience / customer-centricity to the Tops?”

There is one question that I get asked time and again from the Middles (middle management) who buy into customer-centricity or people looking into selling customer-centricity related services such as customer experience.  This question is some version of “How do I sell customer experience / customer-centricity to the Tops?”  This question is often disguised as “How do we prove RoI?”

I am no magician and tell you straight that I do not have a magic potion/charm for you.   Yet,  I want to help and so let me share my thinking with you.  If that is of interest to you then read on.

Can anyone make anyone doing anything?

Can you get any adult to do anything that he/she does not want to do?  Yes?  If you think about this long enough you will find that you cannot.  Think back to Christians and the lions: the Christians chose to be eaten by lions – they were not willing to renounce their faith.  If you have studied the beginnings of Islam you will find something similar.  The first wave of Muslims gave up their homes, gave up their families, saw their mothers and fathers tortured to death and in some cases suffered death themselves.  No you cannot make anyone do anything.  And incidentally, you have never been made to do anything in your adult life.

Study human behaviour and you learn three things

Think deeply about human behaviour and you will notice three things. First, when people are in lots of pain they take action: they will pay almost any price and rarely wait to do an RoI calculation.  For example, when you have a head splitting toothache you go and see the dentist (no matter your fear of the dentist) and you pay the price. Why?  You just want the pain to stop!

Second, none of us have to be persuaded to do something that we really want to do.  Just reflect on the prominent men who have been caught with ‘their trousers down’.  Do you really think that these men did an RoI or listened to anyone who suggested an RoI?

Third, sometimes people are really keen on something yet they are either afraid or they simply have not been able to figure out how to do what they want to do.   Lets take a look at each of these options.

Pain: dial-up the volume, make it vivid, bring it from the future right into the present

It could be that the Tops, in your organisation, do not feel enough pain to make customer-centricity happen.  If they did then they would be yelling at you to get it done yesterday and if you were not up to the job they would fire you and find someone else.  So you have an opening here.

You can surface the anecdotes, stories, themes and facts that show the business impact of carrying on as you are.  What is the predictable future?  How many customers will you continue to lose?  How much are you going to have to spend to get new customers to replace these customers?  What is happening to your reputation and how will that impact future revenues and profits?  What are competitors up to and what impact is that likely to have?  What trends are going to become waves and suck you under?

Paint that ‘picture of pain’ and back it up with figures (where possible) to show the opportunity cost of doing nothing – pack a powerful emotional punch. You can find a simple and useful model in John Goodman’s book ‘Strategic Customer Service’.  There are more complicated models in Lior Arussy’s book ‘Customer Experience Strategy’.

What you will find is that it will be easier for you to highlight the problems (what is broken) and get the funds/support you need to get some/all of these fixed.  Net impact: you will drive less of your customers away and cut the amount of negative word of mouth.  This approach is not that great with opportunities – the unknown.

Move-touch-inspire: create a compelling vision of the future

A powerful way to move humans being is to infect their hearts with a vision of the future, or some noble purpose/mission, that is so compelling that they simply want to step into it right away and so get busy working on making it happen.  But how do you do that?

You can dig out an academic report and hand it to them.  You can spend much time and effort putting together an Excel sheet showing what the figures are likely to look like if the assumptions play out.  In my experience this tends not to work.

A much more powerful way is to rely on the principle of social influence / social proof.  Who is making a success of customer-centricity and is a person that the Tops admire?  Arrange for your Tops to get out of their offices and spend time with this person: enthusiasm, confidence, passion are infectious at a subconscious level.  What you want to do is to bypass the rational mind (the neocortex) and go straight for the limbic brain.  Remember what I said about famous men getting caught with their trousers down – that is the limbic brain in action.

Deal with the fear, uncertainty and doubt

Human beings are plagued by fear, uncertainty and doubt and yes that includes the Tops.  They do not want to ‘stain their reputation’ and the certainly do not want to look like and be remembered as fools.  They also want a ‘map’ to navigate by.  And if you want them to make the move then you have to deal with the fear and hand over the map.  There are plenty of maps out there – they are labelled ‘methodologies’.  So let’s take a look at the fear element.

When you are faced with fear it pays to deal with reality.  So imagine that you are asking someone to walk across a tightrope from one end of Niagara falls to the other end . How do you motivate this person? There are three options that I can think of:

  • you can make the destination so attractive, so compelling that the person is willing to act despite the fear. How many mothers would hesitate to walk the tightrope if they could see their baby on the other side heading for the edge and likely to fall down the Niagara Falls?
  • put a ‘safety net under them’ – in my Peppers & Rogers days we used to suggest pilot projects which were relatively small in scale and thus represented limited risk;
  • work on both the attractiveness of the destination and the ‘strength/reliability’ of the support that you have placed under them to catch them if they fall.

This will not work with everyone.  The fact is that some people are so paralysed with fear that they will not move.  If you insist on moving them they tend to get upset with you for your stupid, ill-considered, hare-brained ideas!  As one wise teacher used to say “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink!”

What would I do if I was in your position?

If you are a ‘Middle’ then let me ask you a simple question: “Why do you need to sell the Tops on customer-centricity?”  If customer-centricty was central to the Tops agenda then they would be busy selling to you in corporate videos, in town hall type meetings, in new branding etc…..And your compensation package would have been changed to ‘incentivise’ you to be customer-centric.  Get the message?  I have often said that if the CEO is not the CCO (Chief Customer Officer) then you really do not need a CCO.

If you are vendor then I have a simple message: sell ‘aspirin’ rather than ‘vitamins’ to the bulk of the ‘population’.  By all means offer and actively promote ‘vitamins’ the people who have an interest in health and ‘vitamins’ so that they can find you.  Right now we are in the early adopter phase for customer-centricity so it is going to take some time – up to another forty years – for this to take off and reach the mass market.  Mass market adoption will be drive by competitors not evangelists.

What do you think?

6 reasons why companies continue to struggle with customer centricity

I can think of six reasons why many publicly quoted companies continue to make slow, painful, progress towards customer centricity:

  • They are publicly listed enterprises and they are expected to be shareholder centric not customer centric;
  • They make a significant part of their revenues and profits at the expense of their customers and are not willing to forgo the practices that deliver these ‘bad profits’;
  • They are designed to make and sell standard products not to create and deliver customer experiences;
  • They are structured into silos and each silo has its own agenda, priorities and metrics that makes it rather difficult to play the joined up game of customer experience;
  • The Tops are totally divorced from the day to day reality of the way that the organisation works (just watch Undercover Boss); and
  • They seem to believe that customer centricity lies in the realm of the marketing function rather than a total transformation in business philosophy, corporate strategy, management mindset and organisational design.

What do you think?

Why organisations will continue to struggle to get close to their customers

I am not well, I think it is the flu.  So today I am going to keep my writing short – please excuse me if it is a little light.

I love learning especially stuff that challenges the dominant ways of thinking about stuff.   As a result I regularly visit TED and in my last visit I came across this video:

It got me thinking and I asked myself the question: is it that simple?

If you read the articles on CRM, on Customer Experience, on Social Business then time and again the writers mention the need to get commitment from the Tops, the need for leadership from the Tops, the need for cultural change – which, no surprise, needs agreement and leadership from the Tops!

Who are the Tops?  Almost always men.  The language that men speak is the language of warfare; the language of the impersonal; the language where the end often justifies the means.  And men love technology – we love our toys.  We love command and control. And in the process we make toys of human beings.  That applies to employees, it applies to suppliers and I argue that it also applies to customers.  We seek to manipulate customers adeptly as they are the more important pieces on the chessboard – yet they are just another piece on the chess board.   Can I dare assert that the men that are most adept at playing this game of chess end up at the Top?

Yet the social, relational and experience paradigms are predominantly feminine.  It is soft stuff. the stuff that has been neglected for a long time and often handed over to the HR folks.   If you are struggling with this then I have a question for you?  How is that in business we refer to getting customers as ‘conquesting’, as hunting; keeping customers is referred to as ‘farming’; and hunters are the hero’s that get the lion share of the rewards  whereas the farmers are looked down upon and get meagre rewards.

Is it that simple?  That organisations are struggling to become customer centric because this is  relationship centred paradigm which is natural for many women and unnatural for many men and especially the Top.  That the Tops prefer to play generalship (the art & science of warfare) then to play midwife to the relationship centred organisation and economy?

If it is not that simple then why is it that whilst the Tops profess customer focus and customer centricity their lieutenants claim that these very same Tops are the main obstacles to bringing customer centred initiatives to fruition?

I do not claim sole access to  ‘truth’ so do let me know what you think.

The core challenge facing the customer experience designer

From a customer point of view what matters is an ‘effective’ organisation – one that is good at anticipating and responding to the diversity of customers and their needs.  That means designing the organisation to be flexible, adaptable, versatile – this allows the organisation to absorb and effectively deal with the variety of demands that are placed on the organisation by customers.  This in turn requires the organisation to have ‘redundancy’ built into it.  That is a fancy way of saying that it needs extra resources (“fat”) to deal with and take advantages of unexpected difficulties and opportunities – to cater for the inherent unpredictability of the world.  Finally, making the parts work well together (integration) is a key requirement of effectiveness.  Think of a car it is only of value if all the components work well together.

Organisations are enmeshed in an ideology that values efficiency and structure that lends towards fragmentation.  The focus is on cutting out all the ‘fat’ so as to minimise operating costs and thus drive efficiency.   This way of thinking involves lots of efforts in up front forecasting and planning to predict and manage demand.  It also involves finding and standardising on the one best way of doing things and then striving to make customers, employees, suppliers and partners to use that one way.   This way of thinking encourages and insists that managers control the real world – at least their piece of it: to act on it so as to force it into the shape that was envisaged in the plan.

So customers want organisation to dance to their specific, individual, tunes.  Whereas organisations insist that customers fall into line – the line that reduces operating costs and thus maximises profitability.  That is how we come to the gaping hole between what customers want and what organisations deliver.

Sometimes the gaping hole gets smaller – at least for a while – when the organisation finds a way of being effective (customer perspective) by taking actions that improve efficiency.  Enter the category of self-service: ATMs, electronic banking, e-boarding card, well designed IVRs to do standard stuff like top up mobile phones come to mind.   At other times the gaping hole grows larger: sales assistants who know less about the products then the shopper, badly designed IVRs, waiting a long time to speak to a human being, call centre agents who are not in a position to help and so pass you on and then on again and so forth.

The fascinating thing about ‘social media’  is that it provides a great opportunity for organisations to be effective (from a customer perspective) whilst being firmly wedded to efficiency.  Yet, there is little movement in the direction of social media because there are a couple of things organisations are more wedded to than efficiency.  Secrecy, ownership and control – in every organisation lurks the dictator.  Again we have a divide: customers want organisations to be open, truthful, clear and collaborative.  Organisations are wedded to secrecy, spin, ambiguity, ownership and control.  And this divide explains why so few organisations have adopted social media to bring customers into the heart of the organisation.

So the challenge that falls to the customer experience designer is how to deliver the effectiveness, openness, transparency and participation that customers want whilst being embedded in an organisation that worships at the altar of efficiency, secrecy, ownership and control – sacrificing many customers in the process.  This is not an easy trick to pull off and it is why I have profound respect for all the people in organisations battling to improve the customer experience!