Archive for category Change Management
A few months back, I remember having a good chuckle while watching a Jon Stewart parody on the Republican candidate field. The monologue poked fun at the media’s tendency, during its seemingly relentless coverage of the leading candidate on that day, to completely shift direction the moment a new contender entered the picture.In this case, Bachman was the leader du jour, the media was the dog in the Pixar movie “Up”, and the part of the squirrel was played by none other than Rick Perry, who these days appears to be succeeding only at distracting himself.
“Squirrel moments” happen all around us, and with greater frequency than we’d care to admit. As flawed human beings, it’s easy for us to get sidetracked from what we should be doing, by some urgent new distraction that seems terribly critical in the moment. Yet most of us eventually manage to refocus, once we become aware (through our own cognitive skills or because a friend or colleague points it out to us) of how badly the squirrel moment has driven us off-course. Typically it is the speed with which we are able to re-calibrate ourselves that ultimately determines the degree of damage, if any, that is caused by the distraction.
Some “squirrel moments” have far reaching impacts…
But for organizations, the challenge of refocusing after a significant distraction is far greater. Unlike individual distractions, those in organizations often require refocusing entire workgroups, business units, and processes that may have strayed far from the core focus and strategies of the business. It’s a bit like comparing a fighter jet to a large commercial airliner. While both are capable of course correction, larger aircraft don’t react “on a dime” and require a lot more time and space to maneuver. The magnitude of the corporate distraction, the breadth of areas it touches, and the duration of the distraction, are just a few of the variables that determine the organization’s ability to react and readjust quickly.
- The enormous value that Netflix had created, based on a simple and straightforward product offer embraced by scores of customers, was severely jeopardized by the company’s ill-advised decision to migrate to a more complex, two-tiered pricing model driven largely by a short-term desire to justify an overinflated stock price. The outcome was both predictable and horrific, as customers departed in droves, destroying an enormous amount of company value in very short order.
- Bank of America, arguably one of the better banks in terms of customer satisfaction and experience, watched much of that brand value evaporate following announcement of a pricing move (its now infamous $5 charge for debit card use) that evoked a similar customer outrage. While perhaps necessitated by financial realities (debatable), its positioning, execution, and ultimate response were painful to watch play out.
- Research in Motion, maker of the Blackberry, whose loyal business following was predicated on its operational and reliability advantages, suffered a huge blow to its value on the heels of a long and poorly managed network outage—a network on which it had based much of its service differentiation.
- Berkshire Hathaway, a company whose entire business is based on the prudent, sober, and wise investing of its founder, ended up the subject of one of 2011’s stories of financial impropriety–an insider trading scandal the likes of which we’ve come to expect from the industry, just not from these guys.
- HP announced another redirection of its product portfolio, and yet another shift in its leadership team–a true “squirrel moment” with a healthy dose of “been there, done that.”
S*** Happens! You just have to manage it…
Sure, one might argue, “bad things happen to good companies”, and in these and a myriad of other examples from 2011 there is certainly some truth to that. Sometimes, these blunders cannot always be attributed to bad strategies or failure to stick with a good one. Sometimes, it’s the tactical decisions that are “far removed” from the C-suite and its strategic decision making. Sometimes these decisions, as we saw above, are undertaken because of a financial necessity that in the short term might trump a marketing strategy.
But, by the same token, those seemingly small disconnects may, in fact, be symptomatic of the problem itself. While management may not be able to control ALL of the drivers that lead to negative consequences, effective development and MANAGEMENT of strategy can not only limit the damage caused by veering off course, but can play a very important role in course correction after the fact. For many companies the words “MANAGEMENT” and “STRATEGY” connote different, and often conflicting, disciplines. But for those successful at avoiding and responding to distractions, these are highly related and often inseparable competencies.
Great strategy management is about the WHAT and the HOW…
So, how can you ensure that corporate distractions are kept to a minimum, and effectively refocus and re-center the business when they invariably do occur?
- Define and clarify your business strategy — This sounds like motherhood and apple pie. It always does. But it remains the preeminent cause of breakdowns during times of distraction, because the strategy is either too complex to begin with, or it lacks sufficient clarity to engender the necessary alignment and commitment to continue keeping the firm focused in times of distraction. Your strategy is more than simply a restatement of a vision or broad ambition. It is a specific answer to a specific question: What do we need to do to ensure success within your existing business environment? One of Apple’s most effective demonstrations of strategic clarity was Steve Jobs’ insistence on collapsing their previously expansive product portfolio into four clear product families that would redefine its future. Clear, compelling, with an easily-understood line of sight to renewing the value of the business.
- Do more than just communicate it — Management 101 preaches “communicate your strategy.” But communication alone is insufficient to create the alignment necessary to avoid distractions. One of the most rewarding aspects of this job is watching clients challenge ideas and recommendations (even from yours truly) based on an automatic and often deeply-felt narrative of how the suggested change(s) might conflict with their core strategy. For them, it’s more than just “talking points.” It’s a compelling narrative they have embodied through words and examples. Sure, these too can be misinterpreted occasionally, but just like a pilot who is expected to react with some degree of muscle memory, we must develop and nurture that level of alignment as a first line of defense against corporate distraction. Vision, values, and strategies. They all need to be seamlessly integrated within a crisp, clear, and compelling narrative.
- Build and use the right navigation systems — When NASA launches a probe to Mars, it must travel undistracted for about nine months in order to hit a fast-moving and very small target (the red planet). Even the slightest and briefest of external forces can cause the probe to miss the planet by millions of miles. Having the right navigation systems and a network of alerts and course-correction mechanisms is crucial to a mission like this, and it is just as critical to a business like yours. In business, such technologies and processes comprise your integrated performance management system, and they should include the KPI’s of the business, the network of leading and lagging business metrics we must monitor, and a clear understanding of the relationships between them.
- Scenario and contingency planning — Made popular by companies like Shell years ago, the discipline to do this, and do it well, has fallen out of vogue. Not sure why, other than what I heard from a client a few years back…that it “forced us to admit that we might have the wrong strategy”, or that it “would distract us from adhering to that strategy”. That’s as much hogwash today as it was when I first heard it, and failure to implement a rigorous scenario planning process is, as ever, tantamount to sticking your head in the sand. If subjecting your strategic plans to that level of scrutiny adversely affects your ability to execute the strategy as designed, while being agile enough to react and learn from mistakes, then you either have the wrong strategy, the wrong leadership, or both.
- The ability and agility to recover from distractions — Unlike the dogs in “UP”, we don’t have masters to yank our collars or order us back into focus. (unless we work in a purely autocratic environment). What we do have is the ability to learn and react. It helps if we have a contingency plan with automatic responses. But we must also have the ability to recognize when something is not working, and the agility to put that learning in motion quickly and effectively.
2011 wasn’t the first time we’ve seen these types of blunders. And it most certainly won’t be the last.
We all remember the Tylenol scare of many years ago. Drug companies like J&J, who exist largely at the mercy of safety protocols and regulations, can easily be crushed by such events. But J&J’s ability to identify and react to the crisis with agility prevented what could have been an historic business failure. Their “distraction,” which arguably could have been anticipated, was kept fairly well contained.
Others weren’t so fortunate. The Exxon-Valdez and BP-Macondo debacles are two great examples of this. Safety, which should be a core strategic underpinning for any company, but particularly those in this industry, in large measure fell victim to distraction. But, in both cases, it was the lack of a coherent, actionable response strategy that kept business value flowing out of the pipeline/tanker as fast as the oil.
If we have the right blueprint for managing strategy, we can limit the number of distractions, identify and react appropriately when they do occur, and respond with agility and effectiveness to keep adverse consequences to a minimum.
Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience with primary emphasis on Customer Operations in the global energy and utilities sector. Bob has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at email@example.com
Brian Kenneth Swain is a Principal with onVector Consulting Group. Brian has over 25 years of experience in Marketing, Product Management, and Customer Operations. He has managed organizations in highly competitive product environments, and has consulted for numerous companies across the globe. Brian is an alumnus of McKinsey & Company, Bell Laboratories, and Reliant Energy, and is a graduate of Columbia University and the Wharton Business School. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most of my posts on this blog are focused on how to improve business processes, especially those that influence customers directly. We talk extensively here about the importance of tracking the right KPIs, effective measurement and analysis of performance results, and how these insights can catalyze creative and innovative solutions to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of our business and operational activities. Done right, these can lead to dramatic improvements through streamlining workflows and rethinking the very nature of of our operating processes. And the value that derives from this can be enormous.
But without great products, you’re swimming upstream…
Truth be told, most of the time we are focused on improving our existing business processes (i.e., the way we currently interact and transact with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders). In fact, the very core of process change — be it the Michael Hammer approach to re-engineering, or the latest in Six Sigma and Lean strategies — is based on understanding the world as it exists today and then systematically reinventing delivery processes to better meet the underlying objectives of the process. That, of course, is an oversimplification of what these disciplines offer, but when you look at the intricacies of concepts like D-M-A-I-C, which is at the core of many process improvement methodologies, they invariably begin with an assessment of current state and a progression though the systematic steps of business improvement.
But there is another side to business improvement that often gets lost when we explore current operational and delivery processes. As we’ve discussed here before, true customer satisfaction is a function of both product excellence AND delivery excellence. Have a great product and screw up the delivery, and you’ve got a recipe for captive customers itching to defect the moment someone else offers anything close to your innovative solution. Conversely, providing great service in support of a mediocre product only delays the inevitable. Great products and great service, taken together, are the winning recipe for success. Pretty intuitive right? Well, if it’s so intuitive, ask yourself why so many of our improvement efforts focus only on downstream delivery versus upstream innovation?
I am a big fan of systematic business improvement of our delivery processes. And goodness knows, there is no shortage of broken delivery and service processes. There are some pretty good products and solutions out there that are only achieving a fraction of their market potential because of the service environment in which they operate. But at the same time, there are some pretty good service organizations out there that are severely handicapped by their company’s lack of any significant product innovation.
Myth Busted: Product Innovation DOES NOT start with better research
There is no better example of a company that has achieved both Product and Service excellence than Apple. In all of the Steve Job’s eulogizing that is occurring out there, there is one characteristic that I find particularly noteworthy and relevant to this discussion. It was mentioned by the Wall Street Journal a few days before his death, discussed in a number of interviews, and is a theme that has re-emerged in Isaacson’s biography that hit the shelves yesterday.
A bold ‘call-out’ in an article that accompanied the iPhone 4S release stated simply: Apple doesn’t ask customers what they want.” I must admit, what I heard at first didn’t match what was written. What my ears “heard” was that “Apple doesn’t care what its customers think”. Incidentally, I showed the article to three people and when I heard them share the story with colleagues later in the day, it was evident that they had heard the same thing. Yet clearly the article wasn’t saying anything close to that. The call-out said they don’t ASK customers what they WANT, not that they don’t care what they need.
What they ARE saying is that the key to innovation is not gobs and gobs of market research and consulting fees to ask customers what they want, but a recognition that customers don’t typically know what they want. I realize this sounds a little condescending, but try this interpretation on for size — “It’s not the customer’s JOB to figure out what the product should be, how it should be designed, and what value it should deliver”. In fact, that’s from Steve Job’s own mouth. When you look at it like that, it shows up as a deep, intense respect for customers and their time, as well as a declaration of what the accountability of innovators should be!
When our companies design products, most of us don’t live in that same universe. Rather, we spend lots of time and money asking customers for opinions about things they have no idea about, and which opinions is it not their responsibility to provide in the fist place. Great product developers, on the other hand, inspire customers by giving them something they didn’t know they wanted but which, once they have it, they can’t imagine having lived without.
Redesigning the product aspect of our offers is critical to providing high levels of sustainable satisfaction, yet improving the product design process is altogether different from what we do on the operational side of things. In operations we must start with the “as is”. In the product space, we must frequently ignore the “as is” insofar as creating new solutions are concerned. In operations, we strive to avoid waste and unnecessary mistakes. On the product side, we want to encourage mistakes and perhaps even encourage failures. In operations, we base our solutions on in-depth analysis of past problems. In the product space, we base our solutions on a vision of an inspired customer at some point in the future.
Getting the Product Right
If we look at what companies like Apple do right when it comes to product development, is boils down to both WHAT they do, and the ORDER in which they do it. Let’s look at these one by one.
1. Innovate — Most companies start with research that tells them what customers want — focus groups, surveys, etc. That’s essentially a recipe for a better mouse-trap, but not one one that will create visionary leadership and reveal new market opportunities that will inspire and rally your end users. The first step in product development is to push your team to challenge existing market parameters, barriers, and paradigms, rather than passively accepting them as necessary constraints to their thinking. Are we developing around the boundary of our existing offers (yawn!) or are we redefining what the boundaries are?
2. Integrate — As you begin to define new boundaries and push yourself toward innovation, remember that great products not only exist independently, but also demonstrate their innovation through the offer it is positioned within. Great product companies put as much effort into the paradigm and business model in which their products exist as they do the products themselves. For example, Apple once had dozens of products from Printers to a wide variety of peripherals and product models. One of the first things Jobs did was draw the infamous 2 by 2 matrices- Professional/Personal; Laptop/Desktop. The vision was for each quadrant to have one product, effectively driving the product portfolio from 50 down to 4. Sure, there ultimately evolved more than a handful of products, but the final number was a heck of a lot closer to 4 than to 50. And it’s not hard to figure out which product (iPad, iPhone, iPod, iMac, etc…) fits where, is it?
3. Assimilate — The third step is assimilating it into the market. If you are bold enough to innovate rather than respond, then it will be necessary to help educate and perhaps even overcome the skepticism of customers. It’s a necessary investment when you aspire to redefine a market. But by the same token, this education and informational value can actually be part of the customer experience, and sometimes even drive further levels of delight. Apple storefronts, for example, are as much of an experience in and of themselves as they are outlets for education and assimilation. And at +$40k of sales per square foot of retail space, it’s a pretty cost-effective sales channel!
4. Evaluate — Earlier, I said Apple doesn’t focus on Market Research like other organizations. But that doesn’t mean they don’t do it. They spend money just like every other company does on research, but it’s usually after the fact and not designed to tell them what the customer needs but rather if Apple has hit the mark in its innovative journey. And while some would say it helps validate their success, those inside Apple would say it helps accelerate things, both in terms of further successes, and miscues. Great innovators find ways to accelerate and learn from failures.
So where are your strengths today?
Is it the creativity of your product portfolio? Or is it your ability to overcome product weaknesses and failures through stellar customer service?
If we get the product mix right, then service becomes not a means of correcting or recovering, but rather a way of enhancing and augmenting the customer experience so that the total package does not ask the customer to trade off one dimension of the experience versus another, but, rather, allows them to enjoy the rare combination of exemplary performance in both dimensions.
Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at email@example.com
We’ve all been there. The cancelled flight. The lengthy power outage. The inconvenient disruption in internet communications. Higher than normal dropped cell calls. You’d think that whoever is calling the shots on the weather patterns lately would know the magnitude of chaos they are creating in our lives. It’s enough to drive you nuts!
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…
Hurricane Irene, though relatively tame to a gulf coast native like myself, once again forced me to reflect on how storms like this can disrupt life’s little conveniences. On the one hand, it’s quite amazing how stressed and freaked out we (including yours truly) get with what are, in the end, minor inconveniences–many of which would be regarded as luxuries elsewhere on the planet.
Let’s face it, we’re all human, and while we get as frustrated as the next person when inconvenienced, we all are capable of realizing and accepting that certain events simply fall into the category of “S**T HAPPENS”. While nobody likes to wait on hold for two hours to talk to an airline, most of us “bite our tongue” when talking to the agent because we know they are probably as stressed, if not more so, than we are because of what they’ve had to endure during the time we were on hold.
…and the wisdom to identify idiocy!
On the other hand, it is equally amazing, given the advances in service capabilities and technology, that we are unable to avoid, or at least help customers to tolerate, the downstream impact of these events. Consider the following examples from last weekend’s flight mess caused by multiple airport closures in the Northeast.
- Text message informing a passenger of a canceled flight fifteen minutes after the last alternate departure
- Text message instructing the passenger to CALL the airline for additional information, exponentially amplifying an already uncontrollable workload/call volume
- Call-in number with an automatic message that says essentially, “we have too many incoming calls, call back later.” Really? A six-billion-dollar Fortune 100 company in 2011 with a message like THIS?
- Call queues (for airlines who, under normal circumstances, pride themselves on differentiating between “tiers” of frequent fliers”) that suddenly lose all such distinctions in the midst of a crisis–with hold times from two to three hours throughout the weekend
- A website containing little if any useful information on the situation at hand, self-help suggestions for what I could do in the meantime, or anything else that might have alleviated the stress
- Complete absence of any visible “behind the scenes” or back office process to re-book flights automatically (my reservation was essentially cancelled leaving me to re-book myself with no apparent prioritization for my loyalty status
- A workforce that, despite all their effort and hard work, (and I do mean hard work because they had 200 reps working what I estimate to be at least 300,000-500,000 displaced passengers), did what???
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about “Moments of Truth” (“MOTs”) when it comes to service interactions. We often think about MOTs from a transaction standpoint, e.g.,when a customer calls to connect service, ask a billing question, get updated about a service interruption, or simply to complain about an inconvenience. For me, though, the real MOT is what happens in a true moment of chaos or crisis–when the customer’s daily life is truly interrupted, i.e., when they actually expect things to suck. It’s at that moment, when natural optimists become pessimists, that one of three things happens:
- Customers’ bad expectations are realized, either creating or reinforcing a perception that when unforeseen events occur, things will inevitably become hopeless, i.e., a feeling of general resignation.
- Lowered expectations become their worst fears…and you become recognized as the company that falls apart rather than shining in the face of adversity.
- They are completely “WOWED” by the significant, yet counter-intuitive, responses they see from you at a moment when they have every expectation in the book for not doing so.
For most of us, it’s typically the first experience, and we move on with our lives, disappointed but not surprised. We remain only marginally engaged, and perhaps, when the next opportunity presents itself to switch to another supplier, that new supplier may have the proverbial “edge”. But for companies who really understand these dynamics and strive for true loyalty, they know the power of the third outcome above, and the value that small, but memorable, responses can have in these real MOTs.
…I had received a text message telling me that an adverse weather situation was unfolding and that by responding “helpme” to their text, they would search for available options and contact me to see if I wanted to initiate any of these two or three alternative plans? What if the message I heard when I called (instead of “We’re busy. Call back later.”) had directed me to a website that contained actual useful information (even if nothing more than “We’re at the mercy of the weather and the airport, and we won’t know anything until tomorrow at 2 p.m.”)? What if instead of my reservation being cancelled, they had proactively re-booked me on another flight? And what if (perhaps for only their million-mile customers) they had actually offered me some REAL solutions, like, for example, flying on a different airline or going through an unconventional (perhaps even inconvenient and uneconomic) routing.
Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result…
We all understand crises and uncontrollable events. We all know that we cannot blame an airline or a power company for things like earthquakes, weather, some mechanical failures, and the like. And we know, as well, how inappropriate it is to blame the people who are doing their best in a bad situation. But I would argue that in a time and era where margins are thin and everyone is looking for new ways to differentiate themselves…and particularly in a time when customers have been conditioned to expect the WORST from us…that is the perfect time to step up and offer creative and inspiring solutions.
Some of these may be BIG things–the kind of heroics you hear about in commercials, performances that border on the uneconomic and, perhaps, unrealistic–solutions that would drive a company to the poorhouse if they were truly institutionalized (Can anyone forget the FEDEX driver who couldn’t get the drop box open, so he lifted the entire multi-hundred-pound box into the back of his truck?). But I would contend that it’s the little things that mean the most–the things that show you’ve had the FORESIGHT to understand how a customer is truly affected in a crisis. ANTICIPATE your customers’ most likely state of mind in these situations, and develop small solutions that can, in fact, be INSTITUTIONALIZED.
Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nearly three decades after benchmarking came on the scene, companies still claim it to be an integral part of their internal performance improvement processes. But few would argue that its value to the business is now well below where it once was. And sometimes, it actually gets in the way of identifying improvements and driving change.
There is not a client I work with who doesn’t have their shelves lined with volumes of benchmarking studies and reports. Nearly every industry group produces some kind of comparative metrics report for its members. And every industry has those companies that we might consider to be “benchmarking addicts” — those who participate in nearly every study they can in the spirit of demonstrating their performance improvement “commitment” and “prowess” around driving change. Ironically though, it is rarely these companies that define the top tier of their respective industries in terms of real performance.
Here are some inherent flaws with benchmarking today:
- Benchmarking is largely “point-in-time” driven and retrospective in nature. While this can be useful in “stress testing” targets and defining high-level gaps (“low-hanging fruit” or “quick wins”), it largely ignores the trends or shifts in metrics that are far more critical to identifying and driving course corrections.
- Comparative studies almost always focus on lagging versus leading indicators. This often leads to a culture of “managing through the rear-view mirror”. It also fixates the organization on measuring things for the sake of comparisons, when some of those metrics may have have become irrelevant or even obsolete.
- Benchmarking focuses on “common metrics” versus those that may be critical to you, but perhaps not everyone. It’s okay to have a few metrics you routinely measure for the sake of comparison, but when these metrics begin to define your scorecard, it’s time to recognize when the “tail is actually wagging the dog”.
- Comparisons are done for many reasons, not all of which are performance driven. More often than not, benchmarks are used to identify strengths for the sake of communicating to shareholders, regulators, or sometimes even internal Executives. They’re sometimes even a vehicle for rationalizing and justifying poor performance, often confusing the organization and sending all the wrong messages.
- Benchmarking often leads to “group think”. We look for commonalities and like to follow the “herd”. Let’s face it — It lowers our risk to say, “if company x is doing such and such, then we should be doing it too.” But it’s sometimes the anomalies in the data that can show us where real innovation is happening. And in the benchmarking world, anomalies are often dismissed as outliers and suggestive of data problems rather than solutions.
- Realize that benchmarking is about you, and not about others. It’s fine to use comparisons to help you better understand yourself and your performance weaknesses and perhaps “stress test” your targets, but when you start using benchmarks to rationalize and justify existing performance and actions, it’s time to refocus your thinking on you and your company’s improvement goals and the learning benchmarking can provide.
- Determine where benchmarking fits into your overall performance management process, and use it that way. In cases where benchmarking is done for some other reason, like communicating to stakeholders or regulators, call it what it is and keep it at arms length from the game of real performance improvement.
- Focus your benchmarking on the measures that matter to YOU rather than a consultant’s peer group or client base. More often than not, it may be better to do a small internal project to gather that competitive intelligence, than it would to consume resources to force-fit yourself into a large peer group.
- Orient your benchmarking around learning and innovation, rather than simply “following the herd.” This will sometimes cause you to look at different metrics, and look at them differently. Anomalies will become a source of new innovation rather than simply a data problem to discount.
- An appliance repairman or cable television technician shows up with just ten minutes remaining in his four-hour schedule window and we’re relieved.
- A waitress makes no mistakes in our dinner order and we reward her exemplary service with an above-average tip.
- We laboriously type our social security number and credit card information into an automated IVR system and then are unsurprised when asked to repeat it all again to the agent who answers the phone.
- We stand in line at the grocery store, watching as the cashier leaves her station and walks back into the store to check a price.
- We wait patiently at the hotel registration desk as the clerk takes a phone call even though she’s in the middle of checking us in.
What do all of these mind-numbingly familiar scenarios have in common? Several things actually. First, they are all examples of stunningly poor customer service, so commonplace that we scarcely bother to even remark about them to friends and families. Second, we, for the most part, allow them to happen without comment, recourse, or even recognition. We don’t get upset, switch away from the offending service providers, or even suggest alternatives. More insidiously, though, it has come to be what we expect. We have reached a point where we’ve concluded that nothing better is possible. We have lowered the bar so far on service providers that we frequently find ourselves in the ironic position of rewarding mediocrity.
Exhibit A for these diminished expectations is restaurant service. Our culture is one in which we expect to pay a fifteen-percent gratuity to wait staff who simply show up for work. The server who actually gets our order correct (i.e., who does their job) is thought to be astonishing and expects to receive more than this nominal amount. And we happily pay it.
Companies, almost without exception, will tell you that the reason for diminished customer service is cost containment. You can’t get an agent on the phone quickly because agents are expensive. You have to sit at home all day waiting on the technician because gas and trucks are expensive. Sorry, that’s just how things are these days.
But it isn’t really about cost at all. It’s about managing to the level of service that customers expect, and going no further. As a consequence, our expectations today are so minimal that on those rare occasions when we phone a business and a person answers instead of a machine, we’re momentarily stunned into silence while thinking of what to say. We feel guilty giving only ten percent to the waitress who gave us surly, inaccurate service at lunch.
It is not the purpose of this brief treatise to propose service solutions; these are addressed in plenty of other places. Rather, the point here is to simply acknowledge and make explicit the low (and falling) expectations we’ve all come to accept, the hope being that recognition of this fundamental state of affairs will, as consumers, make us just a little more willing to demand something better from those who provide us with service, or, as service providers, to rise to these heightened expectations. In a society where everyone settles, there is no incentive to improve.
But what are we, as service providers, to do? Most importantly, expect customers to expect more. Rather than benchmark our service performance against what the competition offers, evaluate it against what’s possible. This, in turn, requires an aspirational mindset that is not terribly common in American business.
On the flip side, we are all not only business people but consumers as well. Adopt the mindset that you deserve more than you’re currently getting from your service providers. The worst that can happen is that you get a reputation as someone who doesn’t settle. That certainly can’t be a bad thing.
Ultimately it becomes a virtuous circle. Heightened service expectations beget improved service. This, in turn, makes us expect even more. Heck, before you know it, that technician might show up at your house at exactly the time you want him there!
Guest Author: Brian Kenneth Swain is a Consultant with onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Brian has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted for numerous companies across a wide range of industries and geographies. Brian can be contacted at email@example.com.
Using the “nightmare scenario” to catalyze change…
Since I started my career 22 years ago, I’ve always been intrigued by the use of the proverbial “burning platform” as a motivational tactic for catalyzing and effecting change within organizations. Originally, the “burning platform” was simply a metaphor used for a looming crisis that required a change in organizational thinking and behavior. More and more, however, these “burning platforms” are becoming more literal, making the consequence of “status quo” even more real and threatening to those who are on it.
There is no shortage of cases in which the threat of REALLY BIG negative consequences turned out to be an effective means of initiating major change within organizations, cultures, and individuals who were otherwise operating myopically, blind to many of the realities around them. We saw it in the 1960’s as MLK used present inequities among races, and what the future would look like if left unattended, to inspire what would become a successful civil rights movement that would change US and global principles, policies, legislation, and ultimately cultural behaviors themselves. Auto companies used the threat of overseas domination as a way to improve productivity and quality, and continue to use it as a way to sustain performance.
“Burning Platform” examples: Past and present…
We are also seeing it quite literally now, as nuclear companies have used past examples of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now the as-yet-unresolved crisis at Fukushima, as a way to renew the industry’s focus on safety. And of course, all major oil companies are using the consequences of the BP spill of 2010 as a catalyst for driving major improvements in operational safety. The latter is a particularly good example, as on the day of the explosion itself, the company was celebrating a long string of days without a recordable safety event!
Late last year, Nokia’s new CEO Stephan Elop used the same tactic to catalyze the need for some dramatic new thinking within his organization. To amplify the importance of responding quickly to what appears to be a competitive nightmare scenario, he sent a memo to the organization comparing its circumstances to that of a “burning platform” surrounded by the “icy waters” of the North Sea. In this case, survival meant risking both a fall and survival of icy waters in order to avoid the certain death of being consumed by fire. Talk about a wake up call!!!
Even humanity in general uses the “burning platform” as a way to inspire vigilance and action around things like spirituality and lifestyle. Most are aware of Harold Camping’s prophesies around the projected May 21st “Rapture” of Christians worldwide and the October 21st end of the world as we know it (Sorry if that puts a damper on anyone’s springtime plans :), but hey, I’m just the messenger!). Regardless of your religious background, or whether you “buy into” this or the myriad of other “end of days” proclamations, prophesies like this one certainly get our attention, and remind us of the importance of staying in close touch with our maker–lest we risk the ultimate in “burning platforms.”
Nevertheless, most of the successful uses of the “burning platform” tactic of motivation, particularly those in business, are based in fear–fear of losing customers, fear of losing market share, fear of financial collapse, and the myriad of other risks associated with not responding fast enough, or with enough magnitude to avert otherwise disastrous consequences. And while most leaders, like myself, would prefer to use more positive oriented motivation and reinforcement to accomplish our vision, the “burning platform” (threat of crisis) often has a more pronounced catalyzing effect, and as a leader, it is highly likely that you will be forced into using it at some point in your career, assuming you haven’t already.
Guidelines for developing your “burning platform”…
If you are going to use the “burning platform” tactic effectively, I believe there are a number of factors that should influence and guide your approach:
- Make sure the platform you choose is real, credible, and significant. — Focus on specific threats or risks to your business that cannot be dealt with or averted using existing processes, practices, or people (e.g., a specific safety risk that if unmanaged would sink the company, or a productivity gap that is 40% worse than your top competitor, is better than a repeated message that sales are down, costs are up, and profits are hurting).
- Make sure you offer a “roadmap” or “pathway” for success that is achievable (assuming one exists)— Everyone has heard the adage “accept the things you cannot change…change the things you can …and have the wisdom to know the difference.” There are two implications of this in creating your burning platform. First, there is nothing worse than a dismal scenario that has no way of being averted, as that is a sure path to apathy and hopelessness. Assuming there is one (if there is not, you may want to think about jumping ship), make sure that you help your staff see it. None of us are capable of changing the “end of days” scenario described above (should it prove out), but we can change our behaviors, approach to relationships, and other facets of our life.
- The “burning platform” doesn’t always have to be apocalyptic in nature. — You can be just as successful defining a future scenario that might open possibilities for you or your organization to “break out” or leapfrog competitors. Our visit to the moon was a good example of where we used external forces and opportunities to inspire a very positive outcome.
- A “compelling narrative” is essential. Almost every good example of a “burning platform” tactic being successful begins with the ability of a leader to clearly and compellingly state the case for change. At its basic level, this is the ability to be a good storyteller, in a way that vividly paints the picture of the crisis at hand, shows the vision for success, and clearly identifies what must change, all while respecting the history and past successes of the organization.
- Track and report progress/establish consequences — If you do a good job of identifying a real and credible threat to the business, and articulating a pathway to averting or navigating the risk, then you should be able to establish some good metrics for reporting success. Think of these as milestones or way-points on your journey. Report these frequently so that they enable critical course corrections. You’ll want to make sure you hold yourself and those on your team accountable. Again, if you’ve done a good job of defining the threats, risks, and path for success, then improvement in the business should allow for ample rewarding of those who contributed the most.
- Don’t overuse the tactic. — There is nothing worse than a leader who constantly “cries wolf”. All of us have had bosses who live in a constant narrative of “the sky is falling.” They repeatedly send the same message over and over again, and when subordinates stop listening, they ascribe it to their staff “simply “not getting it”, when in fact what has happened is that they have become so “numb” to the message that it has the reverse effect, i.e., of creating complacency.
A “burning platform” can be a very effective strategy for managing change within an organization, regardless of the business type. But doing it incorrectly can create hopelessness and a feeling of apathy across the team and put the organization in worse shape than when it started.
A Little “Customer Voyeurism”…
Last week, my family and I took a vacation to visit some of my in-laws in California. For those of you who know me, you’ll appreciate the fact that any trip for me is an opportunity for a little “customer voyeurism.” That is, I very much enjoy watching exchanges between customers and service providers, whether I am engaged in the transaction or not, largely because they provide me with a wealth of perspectives that serve to validate and augment the many years of performance data, benchmarks and trends I’ve collected in my research and client engagements. So, while spending part of my vacation documenting the customer experiences of myself and others may seem a little weird to some of you, I was not about to miss the insights that would undoubtedly be generated by this seven-day excursion into the depths of airline, restaurant, amusement park, golf course, and taxicab servicing processes.
Like most, this trip did not disappoint (as far as the volume of insights and “take-aways” go). While there was no shortage of examples on both the good and bad aspects of the customer experience (too many to share in one post), I decided to zero-in on what I am finding to be an interesting phenomenon, i.e., the apparent implication of company size on customer satisfaction, engagement, and perception.
Here’s what the data from my little informal research gig told me:
- The vast majority of transactions (experiences) appeared to be “issue neutral”- apparently meeting expectations of the customer (deduced through a lack of a visible change in emotion on either side)…Note that I use the word expectations deliberately since I believe many customer’s expectations are considerably lower than in past years. Hence, delivering against a “bar” that is set very low is not likely to produce a lot of emotion other than resignation or apathy.
- While they were few and far between, there were failures and successes on “the fringes” of the distribution. I’ve shown a simple example of what I mean, although I believe actual research on a broader set of experiences would probably show that the distribution is anything but “normal” /gaussian (i.e. these days it is likely skewed to the left assuming customers still have some semblance of expectation (hope) of good service, which of course, is debatable (I’ll leave that for another post).
That notwithstanding, If we were plotting this data, we’d be talking about a data distribution with some range of values that characterize the majority of observations, and a small number of significant negative (small in number, but “intense” as far as generating negative emotion…and what our lean or six sigma brethren would call “failures”), and significant positive experiences (pure, but perhaps unexpected, delight- or what my friend Stan Phelp’s at “9 Inch Marketing” (no relationship to the title of this post!!!) likes to call “Lagniappe” in his “purple goldfish” project), at the “tails” of the distribution.
In my experience on this trip, the above distribution was more in line with my observations in that there were probably an equal number of positive and negative experiences on each side of the norm, along with a similar proportion of significant negative and positive experiences on the fringes. The following however, was particularly noteworthy.Most
- (90%+) of the really poor exchanges (generating a fairly clear display of emotion from neutral, to visibly “pissed”) occurred with what I would call larger more established companies
- Most (60%+) of the really positive exchanges (generating what we might refer to as “delight”, or as Stan Phelps likes to refer to it, “customer lagniappe”) occurred with small companies (“Mom and Pops” and/ or specialty stores in cottage industries)
I’ll say again, that throughout this trip, I was only able to observe several dozen transactions between a variety of customers and service providers, including those encountered by yours truly. And while this hardly qualifies as a statistically relevant sample, and falls well shy of what I would consider a rigorous research approach, it served its purpose of identifying a subject worthy of some debate and dialogue.
Why Size Matters…
Why does the above phenomenon occur? Hard to say exactly, but my hunch would be that it has a lot to do with the history and evolution of these organizations. Clearly the smaller “niche players” have a vital need to differentiate and compete, since many lack the market size and scale to do so “naturally.” And while service is one way to accomplish that differentiation, you’d expect some real “over-achievement” in this segment. In fact, the brand identity of many of these companies is directly tied to some “exceptional” aspect of their product or service offering (e.g. the special touch in the packaging, the handwritten thank-you note, or similar gestures). It’s a necessity for these companies, and when they realize they’ve stumbled onto a differentiator (deliberately or by accident), it’s relatively easy to clone and replicate.
No so much with the larger players. Sadly, many of the companies causing the above “grief” were once viewed as nimble and leaders in CS space (think wireless providers, regional airlines, etc.). Not anymore. Sure, they all have their positive exceptions, but with these companies, many of the interactions have been routinized into their operational processes and automated systems, most of which were built on the foundation of operational and technology excellence, rather than on the basis of what differentiated their service to begin with. That leaves the only opportunity for real customer “delight” in the hands of standout employees operating “on the margin”, often operating outside of the process to either strengthen the exchange or recover from a process-inflicted problem. While scale and size should be an advantage, many of these companies have allowed it to become a disadvantage.
That is not to say that the larger companies did not generate some level of delight, and that the smaller companies didn’t generate some significant failures. For example, I did get a “call back” from a CSR after a “disconnect” from a rather large company call center, which was nice to see for a change. I also experienced what I’d call a “super save” from an airport employee to avert what could have been a significant failure. And the small companies, on occasion did generate some negative experiences. Interestingly though, my tendency was to “forget” these failures quicker, giving them the benefit of the doubt for not having all of the CRM tools and technologies that larger companies have at their disposal. But in the end, my observations were my observations, and the trends were notable.
Breaking the Trend…
Given the above reality that size does apparently influence customer experience, and recognizing that “shrinking the company” is not the desired path to breaking that trend, companies that are increasing in size and growth need to be especially vigilant in five key areas:
- How we measure success – We need to once and for all get beyond the measurement of general perception, because it tells us little about performance against real customer desires, and tells us virtually nothing about what is really happening on the margin.
- How we view risk and failure – When we think of risk and failure, we normally think of manufacturing or operational processes, not customer processes. We need to get beyond the notion that 95% satisfaction is acceptable, and into the zone of limiting the number and magnitude of breakdowns on the margin (what are now viewed as exceptions or acceptable tolerance. Think: How would a Six Sigma or Lean driven manufacturing process view this challenge?
- How we build our processes – We can start by changing from a functional to a market-driven approach to building our processes and systems. Most systems today are built to optimize cost and effectiveness at the transaction level, rather than the customer level.
- How we staff and develop our employees – It is becoming harder and harder to find retainable employees that come “hardwired” with a strong CEM mindset. Finding and retaining them in large numbers is virtually impossible these days given employee demographics and market conditions. We need to look to other industries and functions to learn how to build and clone the human capital skills to support and enable the above processes.
- How we manage and reinforce performance – In support of all of the above, we need to change what we teach, how we lead, what we observe, how we motivate, and what we elect to reward in terms of its orientation toward CEM excellence.
The old adage…think globally, act locally…seems to have some relevance here. I am firmly of the belief that the notion of large size, scale and growth can effectively co-exist with high levels of service, at the norm and the margin. It just takes work on the front end to design the right foundation to make it all work.