Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Getting Started On Journey To Delivering Perfect Service

I was recently asked about how a company should first embark on a path to premier customer service. My response was similar to one of my previous posts. After a blogging hiatus, I am going to resurrect the "Perfect Service" column, and hope to contribute to the excellent push by many of my Customer Experience colleagues.

Here is how one should get started:

My advice for companies looking to begin the journey toward premier service differentiation is to think boldly. Companies that dominate some niche of an industry should not be a secret. The marketplace needs to know what company is the best at customer service.

As important, is that your company's employees needs something to rally around that is clear, aspirational, and material.

So clear thought must be given to a statement that will rise above all others. One statement I have designed is the "Unconditional Satisfaction Guarantee." We have called this the "Perfect Guarantee." This guarantee boldly states that if you are unsatisfied with any aspect of our service for any reason, you do not have to pay until you are.

While there may be other statements you can make, such as the free service trial or the offer to pay for conversion to your product, the Perfect Guarantee is a bold statement of confidence that your service will please.

In his book, "Extraordinary Guarantees," Christopher Hart writes about a small building company that undertakes the strongest guarantee in its industry.

He writes: "The guarantee program did far more than attract customers. Since the inception of the program, the company has streamlined its operations, slashing costs and improving service....by offering to provide even slightly inconvenienced customers with compensation of significant value, the company was risking its own bottom line to make a statement about its commitment to satisfying the customer."

This company took a bold step by offering the guarantee in the first place. It is a statement to current and prospective customers that if you are looking for a firm that cares about service, here is one that is serious. Of course, the key is then to deliver on that promise.

But it is also a statement to the organization that you are serious about customer service. And that failure to satisfy now comes with a pricetag!

My View

When companies look for service partners with whom to do business, they want the partner to have some skin in the game. The guarantee does just that.....it puts the two companies in business together.

But it is more than just a marketing ploy or financial gamble. The Perfect Guarantee statement is transformative.

Companies are now forced to understand what is important to their customer, and then get it right. No longer can companies hide behind legal agreements about levels of quality or average speed of answer in call centers. They must understand each client's buttons, and then deliver.

The analogy that can be used here is the simple garden hose. To find where the leaks are in a garden hose, all you have to do is cap the end of the hose and turn on the water. Before long, any leaks along the way will be obvious. The Perfect Guarantee serves as the cap, and any problems in service delivery will be exposed and be painful.

So the first thing I recommend companies do when embarking on this trek is to boldly put a stake in the ground, or cap on the hose, and that will force the organization to act. The rest is plumbing.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Success of Fast Food Restaurants Starts With How Customers Order Their Food

A few years ago, I took my operations management team on a field trip in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. The destination? Fast food restaurants. The purpose? To experience how process design impacts customer experience, and ultimately the success of the establishment.

Our first stop: McDonalds. The five of us crammed into a tight crowded area, spreading out into separate lines in front of a register. The five order takers were busily moving their specific lines as fast as they could, but large complicated orders were clogging up the line, slowing the pace. While the order was being filled, people milled in front of the register waiting. And when the food arrived, people would grab napkins, stirrers and straws from containers at the register. The result: A crowded mess and unhappy customers.

Lesson learned: In that location, McDonalds probably did 75% of its overall business during lunch, yet it was clear that the lobby was just not big enough. The separate lines for each register, the lack of space for waiting customers, and the fulfillment of napkins at the same place made the purchase experience completely problematic.

Our next stop: Wendy's. When we entered the restaurant, there was a feeling of order...a single line organized with rope barriers guiding people. When a register opened, the next person in line moved to that spot. When the single line became long, a Wendy's person came out and took orders for each person in line, giving them a slip of paper to hand to the register clerk for faster ordering and payment. Once an order was given, the customer shifted to the side where condiments and napkins were available, making plenty of room for the next customer. Once the order was ready, the customer was called, and the food was given. The result: a fast and responsive system.

Lesson learned: Given that orders are not uniform, the Wendy's line systen eliminated the unlucky line selection from the process. As well, the ordering and the fulfillment process were separated so as to keep the flow moving. Lastly, when the line queued up during rush hour, Wendy's employees came out from behind the counter to take "pre-orders" so that when the customer made it to the register, the transaction was sped up dramatically.

Our last stop: Sbarro's Italian. This food setup is cafeteria-style, in that customers take a tray and single file move their way through the selections. Seeing and smelling the food was a lot different than just ordering from a board. HYowever, the speed of this process was totally dependent upon the orders of the people in front of you. If you just wanted a slice of pizza and a fountain drink, the speed of your order may be a minute if the line is short, but 10 minutes if the person in front of you ordered four calzones. The result: the potential for extreme delay.

Lesson learned: Single queues with variable service times may be the easiest of all processes to set up, but have the real potential to clog up. Here you are only as fast as the slowest order.

My View:

Commitment to service is more than just enthusiastic employees and encouraging posters. Sometimes the commitment is also in the thoughtful design of the service delivery itself.

These three restaurants were within a block of each other, competing for basically the same clientele...the business employee. The criteria--good food in quick delivery--was the same for all three. Yet, each designed its delivery differently...and according to my operation management team, with different results.

Wendy's clearly understood and designed its process to deliver. Its single line system with different areas for ordering and pickup sped up the process. Its contingency plan to take pre-orders enabled the process not to get bogged down the volumes increased.

McDonalds was poorly designed, from process to lobby space. The entire experience left the customer wanting better.

And Sbarro's restaurant, while showcasing its food, created a potential for severe bottlenecks, especially for those ordering quick items. When a slice and a Coke take 15 minutes to order, no matter how good the food is, the customer will be unhappy.

When a company makes the commitment to deliver permium service, understanding how it is delivered and the impact on satisfaction is critical. Then the company can design its processes to deliver. This is one of the themes within "Perfect Service."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Get Rid Of Automated Voice Response Systems; Let Call Center Reps Service Your Customers!

Bill Taylor, co-founder of FastCompany Magazine, recently blogged about a particular customer experience that we all face--and we all hate. That of the Automated Call Centers or Voice Response Systems. These are the mazes of telephonic options callers are forced to navigate in order to either get an answer to their query or to talk to a customer service representative.

Everyone hates them. To read his blog article:


Despite efforts to make them "human-like" or friendly, their function continues to be to try to filter away all unnecessary calls that humans are required to take. Despite their universal distaste, there is not a company in the land that does not utilize the technology. Why? The cost of an automated call is pennies compared with the dollars it takes for a human response.

Taylor believes we have it all wrong. Instead of thinking about call centers as expenses to be minimized, leading to more automation efforts, he thinks businesses should view them as business centers that are there to enhance the business through service.

"It's worth noting that some of the most successful, advanced, cutting-edge consumer brands I've gotten to know over the last few years explicitly reject the idea that that customer service is a cost to be cut rather than an strategic advantage to be honed," Taylor writes.

My View:

For years, the Automated Voice Response system has been used for two purposes: 1. To route calls to the correct location, and 2. To answer routine questions in a fast and efficient manner.

With the advent of convenient centralized toll-free 1-800 numbers, companies need to be able to get callers to their needed departments. This need still exists.

However, the second purpose, to deliver routine information, has become obsolete as the Internet is clearly a superior choice for users. Therefore, account balances, transaction statuses, trade instructions, and more are no longer needed on the telephone system. In fact, they are now negative in that call tree menus are way too long and impact customer satisfaction. My wife just called the State Department of Consumer Protection for a business matter and endured nine levels of menus before she was able to speak to the correct person. Frustrating, even though she got the answer she wanted very quickly from the person.

Moreover, Taylor and others argue that a personal conversation is an asset rather than an expense. I wholeheartedly agree. Call center customer service representatives give companies the ability to:

--reinforce the Customer Service experience through caring, expertise and efficient handling of the call;
--identify opportunities for up-selling or cross-selling the company's other offerings;
--identify issues that a customer has with the company's services or products before they leave for the competition;
--collect data about customers' satisfaction with service or product that can be used for future enhancements.

Call centers can be the best asset a company has for satisfaction, retention and growth. Why companies continue to invest in technology to prevent that conversation from happening is short-sighted.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Great At Delivering Service? The Best Strategy Is To Tell Everyone About It!

This morning I commented on a blog from the Harvard Business Review about "Understanding Customer Experience" written by Adam Richardson. He tries to define what Customer Experience is as well as to document steps to design the experience. He cites the usual suspects when describing companies that get it right--Zappos, Southwest Air, Google, etc.

This list got me thinking. Why do we always go to these companies when listing great service providers? How do companies break through to be viewed as "legendary?" I have cited Zappos, and yet I have never bought a pair of shoes from them. I have purchased numerous items from Amazon.com (Zappos new parent) and have been very impressed with them, but they rarely make the same list. Why?

Here is my comment:


I think part of the reason that Zappos, Southwest and others are consistently cited as being prime examples of delivering premier customer experience is because the companies themselves tell you that they are. It is part of their image campaign that starts at the top and cascades down the organization. Even our mentioning those companies enhances their image.

One company I worked for years ago improved its customer satisfaction scores on an industry survey by writing a timely letter to its customers reminding them of the great job our firm was doing for them. In short, we gave them the words that they then echoed on the survey. The result--improved scores.

Companies that "full body commit" to their strategy and service image are more likely to gain this reputation. Have I had the same bad experiences flying Southwest as I have had at Delta? Sure. But I give Southwest the benefit of the doubt for a bad experience or two because I am bombarded with messages telling me they are great.

I would encourage any company that commits internally to designing a premier customer experience (which is vitally important) to spend as much time thinking through the external portrayal of their services. And then to aggressively play offense. If you keep telling me that you are the best, I might believe it, and maybe even tell my friends.

--Christopher W. Myers

My View

You can read the blog here:


I think, in addition to providing great service, these companies also market themselves as service champions. When you go on the Zappos website, there are dozens of reminders that are in your face telling you about their great service. From awards to customer testimonials to bumper stickers saying "I heart Zappos.com." They tell you they are great, and then we believe them.

Then bloggers and business writers and academians pick up the torch and run with it, citing the extraordinary service.

When companies decide to make the journey to becoming a premier service provider, and commit to designing a uniquely satisfying customer experience, they also need to commit to an aggressive campaign to tell everyone about it. That is almost as important as delivering the experience.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Customer Experience Comes From Focus--Here Is One Company That Is Headed For Problems

Here is a customer service effort that is doomed to fail. Here is the project's obituary.

I was performing a competitive analysis recently on a large mutual insurance company, and came across these paragraphs in its 2009 annual report:


For many of our customers, “service” and “ease of doing business” have become key differentiators and qualities they’ve come to expect in a business relationship. During the past year, we conducted a frank assessment of how (the Company) stacked up in delivering these qualities and concluded that we can do better.

As a result, we implemented a company-wide Operational Excellence Program aimed at assuring that we achieve continuous improvement across the enterprise to enhance service and ease of doing business, while also empowering employees and eliminating wasteful activities.

Our goal is to provide the best possible experience for our customers and to operate as efficiently as possible so that we can provide the highest quality product at the lowest possible price and pass the efficiencies to our policyholders in the form of dividends.

The initial paragraph, written by the company's chairman, speaks about how the firm must strengthen its customer focus in order to maintain competitiveness. It appears that analysis shows it has fallen behind.

The problem begins in the second paragraph when the company's customer service focus begins to smell a bit like a productivity mission. I have observed many "Operational Excellence Programs" and none of them have been centered around improving the customer experience. By the end of the sentence we are introduced to the dual nature of the program--improve service and eliminate waste.

The last paragraph completely muddles the mission by stating that the goal is to provide the "highest quality product for the lowest possible price." And then to pass the financial rewards of all of this new-found efficiency onto policyholders in the form of dividends. Sigh.....

What began as a focused mission to improve customer service instead became an unfocused mess of enhancing products, eliminating waste, and, oh yes, improving service. Since the savings from this program will be passed onto policyholders, there is no question that victory will be declared as costs are slashed, and that customer satisfaction will remain at competitive disadvantage.

My View

This effort will undoubtedly fail. It is doomed from the start. The reason: a lack of focused commitment.

I have written before about a company's need to decide how it will compete, and then fully commit to that course. It is about a "full-body" effort to be the best at some aspect of its competitive landscape, and then to take advantage of that leadership to grow and profit.

It is clear that this Insurance Company is concerned that it is falling behind in its Customer Service standing. Is this bad? Only if the company is competing against other insurance companies on the basis of Service Excellence.

But what is also implied is that the company has cost concerns. Is this bad? It is, again, if the Insurance Company competes based on price and cost. Given the price wars going on in the insurance marketplace, this could be a big concern.

I am the first to believe that improving Customer Service should lead to lower overall costs over time. But to a company to want to be a competitive leader in service, cost leadership should not be the focus.
Even calling your Service Improvement Project an "Operational Excellence Program" is so internally focused that it is laughable. The project should be named "The Customer-Is-The-Center-Of-Our-Life Way of Doing Business."

Instead, the strategy should be to delight your customers so they stay at higher premiums and bring in more customers through unsolicited referenceability. It is not a short-term project that will yield efficiencies that will be available to pay out as dividends. It should be a revamping of the way of doing business. If there are any wasteful practices discovered, the funds should be reinvested in enhancing the service infrastructure to develop differentiable and lasting service leadership. Only when the business effort is successful should policyholders be paid.

That is, if the company really even cares to improve its service. My suspicion is that this is a cost cutting effort in the guise of customer service. I will be watching this company now from a different perspective.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Perfect Service Magic Comes From Wowing Current Customers

Not Related But A Funny Advertisement About Service

I am spending some time in Wisconsin these days, and I noticed an interesting phenomenon on the radio. At least 80% of the advertisements for local businesses promoted their high levels of service, their moneyback guarantees, and their industry rankings for satisfaction. All types of businesses were advertised: health insurance, roofers, car dealerships, and security firms. And most tried to position themselves as the market's service leader.

I am of two minds about this:

1. I think it is great that companies believe selling service satisfaction is a viable competitive weapon. They are counting on a sizable segment of the population to positively respond to the idea that being satisfied with the service is more important than having the lowest price or the most progressive features.

2. I worry that promotion of premium service is not over-hyped to the point of numbness. And that this is viewed as a way to get new customers, and then under-delivered. It reminds me that 80% of companies in a recent survey said they wanted to use the customer experience as a competitive differentiator, yet only 40% had any type of formal service program in place.

I hope that these offers are truly well thought out, and that when customers are attracted to the offering, the company can deliver on the promise. After all, saying you have the best service is easy to do, but much harder to deliver.

My View

While advertising for new customers is important, Perfect Service programs focus on your existing customer.
  • By delivering a premier experience to that customer, an asset is created that continues to grow. The customer will stay with you, buy more from you, and serve as a reference for future sales.

  • The customer experience is designed based on a model for a "perfect" or ideal transaction. All aspects of the delivery of that perfect transaction are measured and improved upon. The feedback is frequent and instantaneous.

  • Satisfaction is unconditionally guaranteed.

  • Client satisfaction success stories are trumpeted throughout the organization.

Only then can a company confidently go to the marketplace and tout its services. And the experience will match the promotion.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

SuperGuarantees and Angie's List Are Changing How Consumers Make "Perfect" Choices

At its core, Perfect Service is based on delighting customers through guaranteed offerings. These customers will then stay with you, buy more from you, and help attract others to you. A formula for success and growth.

One of the most important elements for establishing a "Perfect Service" program is to establish and boldly promote a "Perfect Guarantee." This one act sends a message to potential customers, as well as current clients, that your company is serious about providing satisfaction.

Another element is for your customers to promote their happiness with your services. Companies need to get creative in how they get the word out.

I am seeing a lot of work being done in both of these areas, and while I believe they are not fully developed, the trend is a good one:

SuperGuarantee Designation

Consider the Phone Directory....in recent years, these businesses have been a major victim of technology advancements with online and mobile data replacing the hefty phone book. When I need a phone number, I no longer even think about using the book or even the Phone Directory's website. I can go direct to the provider's website or query my search engine for a listing of providers. If most people this this way, why would businesses advertise in Phone Directories any more?

Lately, I have begun seeing advertisements from the Yellow Pages about a new program called the "SuperGuarantee." In short, if a consumer registers with the SuperGuarantee service and selects a service provider from the Yellow Pages listings that has a "SuperGuarantee Shield" designation, the work is guaranteed. If work is not completed satisfactorily, the service will mediate the conflict and, if still not satisfied, will pay the consumer $500 for the trouble. (Obviously lots of terms and conditions apply, but the concept is clear.)

For businesses, the SuperGuarantee "Shield" is given to companies who meet advertisement criteria of the Yellow Pages. There is no review of services, no adhering to specific business practices, etc. You pay for the advertisement, and you get the Shield at no extra charge. The Shield means that the SuperGuarantee company will guarantee the work, not the service company.

Collecting Service Reviews

Another service that is also growing is one called "Angie's List," where members can access "thousands of unbiased reports and reviews abouth service companies in your area." Again, the concept is simple: consumers report their experiences and members can review these experiences before buying a service. Should there be a problem with the service, Angie's List members also have access to a "conflict resolution team" that will try to settle the dispute.

The only way for a company to be listed is to have performed a service, and have that service experience reported and rated by a member. Companies, however, are permitted to advertise discounts to members, but only if they have an A or B rating.

While there are no guarantees offered, the collection of unbiased reports assist consumers in making the right choices.

My View

When selecting service providers, consumers are constantly looking for ways to sift through all of the information available to pick the right provider. Horror stories abound about the impact of bad decisions.

Both the Yellow Pages SuperGuarantee and the unbiased reporting from
Angie's List attempt to help the consumer with this selection. Both are unique
in their approach, trying to add value to what is perceived as a high risk

SuperGuarantee spotlights service providers with its "Shield," offers provider conflict resolution services, and offers a financial guarantee if the experience fails. But service providers get listed if they advertise in the directory, not if they provide premier service--this lack of screening is a problem.

Angie's List delivers user-generated reviews on service providers, offers provider conflict resolution services, and has some membership benefits like discounts to services reviewed. But the consumer is powerless should the provider not perform, other than the power of a bad review in Angie's List. I am not sure this is enough of a deterrent.

I believe, however, that both services are on the right track. Consumers need help to wade through the potential providers of service, and both get partially the way there. Perhaps, each company can take their service a step further:

  • SuperGuarantee needs to establish a filtering mechanism so that only companies that provide excellent service be permitted to advertise a Shield. The right to advertise the Shield is a premium and should be earned.
  • Angie's List should consider awarding its top companies its own version of the "Shield" to designate top providers according to its members. Then perhaps if members select companies with the "Angie Shield," Angie's List will guarantee or insure satisfaction with the work. That would make the user feedback a meaningful metric rather than just anecdotes.
I like the number of ways this area is evolving. The spotlight needs to shine brightly on companies providing top service. Keep going!