Good Morning Mr Hill, how can I help you today!

Hello DaveSo I moved house a few months ago and I’ve been really slow at updating my address details with all those organisations that have wheedled their way into my life – I am suffering from the well known condition called ‘Post Office redirection service’ apathy.

(i.e. once you’ve got a 6 month redirection arrangement in place, you forget about it!)

I finally got around to attempting some address changes…which meant that I had to interact with organisations back in my land of birth (England). I naively thought that this would give me a feel for where ‘state of the art’ customer ‘centricity’ had got to!

So, off I set: I pick my UK pension company as the place to start my address changing chores. I find some paperwork in my filing cabinet and, yippee, it indicates that they’ve got an online presence. A further dig around and my paperwork shows that I registered for their online service a few years back – excellent, this should be easy!

Next, I go to the website. After a few wild guesses at my online sign-in details, I finally crack the code and I’m in!

Yep, there’s the ‘My details’ section and yep, there’s my old address…now to change it….oh, I can’t…eh?…oh, right, go to that tab that says I can and…no, the function is there but it doesn’t appear to be activated for me…apparently I have to ring them!!

So, I ring them.

I get a weird sounding computerised voice straight away:

Computer lady thing: “In a few words, please explain what you would like us to help you with”

Me: I look around the room. I feel somewhat silly holding a conversation with a machine and I wonder how good ‘she’ is at understanding me…so I speak slowly and clearly: “CHANGE  (pause)  ADDRESS”

Computer lady thing: “Can you tell us whether you are an employer, trustee, financial advisor or plan holder?”  

Me: Erm, I’ve got no idea whether ‘she’ understood my answer to the 1st question! She’s moved straight on without comment. I wait for what I think is an appropriate time and provide an answer to the 2nd question: “PLAN (pause) HOLDER”

Computer lady thing: “Can you tell us your plan number”

Me: And so, after what I think is a reasonable pause, I do, with clear enunciation on each letter and number…I’ve still got no idea how well she’s doing at getting what I have said so far – she’s not complained so I assume all is good.

Computer lady thing: “Please tell us your surname”

 Me: I wait, and then say my surname loud and clear

Computer lady thing: “Please tell us your date of birth. Please say it like the following example –  23rd March 1972”

Me: I wait and then provide my date of birth in the format requested.

Computer lady thing: “I’m sorry I didn’t understand that. Please tell us your date of birth”

Me: Aha, I think, that shows that ‘she’ must be getting everything else I’ve said so far! I provide my date of birth again but slower and, hopefully, even clearer!

Computer lady thing: “Thank you. A customer service agent will be with you as soon as they can.”

I then wait, wait, wait…yes! I now get to speak to a human.

 Call handler: “Good Morning Mr Hill, how can I help you today” said in a very smiley (empathetic) way

Me: “Eh? I’m not Mr Hill!”

 Call handler: “Ah, sorry sir, can I take your details”

…and so I am asked for all of my details again by a human with a brain.

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Worse than useless

ChocTeapotI’ve recently got back from visiting family in the UK. Whilst there, I noticed things that had changed since I left 7 years ago. This post is about one particular change in service businesses that stood out to me.

During my visit I travelled the length and breadth of England, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and buying items in shops – my credit card took a real hammering!

It struck me that many of these service businesses have put in place some very unhealthy practices around asking customers for feedback.

Let me explain with an example:

The hotel

We stayed a few nights in a (budget chain) hotel on the edge of London – nothing flash: A basic family room for four, breakfast included and parking for our hire car.

Overall the place was pretty good – well worth the price we had paid. However, during this stay there were the odd things that we noticed that could have been better. For instance:

  • The onsite parking was rather confusing: we had pre-paid on the internet but it wasn’t easy to show this. It took a few phone calls and some explaining to partially satisfy us that we weren’t going to get towed away for non-payment;
  • My boys complained to us that the sheets on the extra beds put into the room for them were cheap and scratchy…which they really didn’t like. I told them to ‘take a concrete pill’; and
  • The scrambled eggs at breakfast had clearly sat around at the buffet for far too long and had become a bit ‘plastic’, dare I say chewy.

At the end of our stay we went to reception to hand in our room key. A very nice chap behind reception thanked us for our stay and then told us that we would be receiving an email with a link to a survey asking us to rate our stay using scores from 1 – 10. He went on to quietly inform us (as if it was secretive information) that:

  • if we scored 9s or 10s then these counted as a positive for them;
  • if we scored 8s, these were neutral – no good to them; but
  • all scores of less than 8 would count against them. He gave us the clear impression that this would be in monetary terms (i.e. affecting their rating and therefore bonuses for this month)

Some very clever manager at head office (who had probably been to ‘management school’) had tied the collection of customer feedback with contingent rewards for the workers. Clearly a believer in the brilliance of extrinsic motivators.

Now, before I go any further, if you are a fan of contingent rewards you may cry out that the employee shouldn’t have told the customer about the scoring and its effects! But think about that for a minute – do you really expect your employees not to engage in the games that you are playing on them?

As Goldratt wrote: “Tell me how you will measure me, and I will [show] you how I will behave.”

Further, let’s just assume that the employee hadn’t told me about the scoring system: Management have shown no understanding of the variation in customer demand (one person’s 5 is another person’s 9) – meeting these targets is a lottery that the employee is, understandably, trying to influence in his favour by confiding in us.

So what do you think this scoring knowledge does to the customer, and for the company?

I can tell you three things it does to me:

  • First, given that I am a human being, it makes me feel a little bit sorry for the really nice chap behind reception who established a rapport with us and served us excellently. We understand that he probably has very little ability to improve our stay any further…and so we want to give him a good score, an 8 or 9 so that it doesn’t count against him*.

 But this isn’t what we really feel. I was thinking of a 6 or 7…along the lines of ‘it was all right but not mind-blowing’.

So the company collects distorted information telling it that it is doing better than it is…and will draw incorrect conclusions accordingly. 

  • Second, I also feel a bit used by the employee telling us about the scoring and the likely outcome. So I now think worse of the company for putting in place such a system which has ended up manipulating me. I almost feel dirty for being involved in this subterfuge!

 So I am now turned off this company for making me feel this way by their management practices. 

  • Third, I walk away without providing any verbal qualitative feedback on my stay.

So the people who need to know have gained no understanding of my three highly useful pieces of qualitative feedback (the parking, scratchy sheets and plastic eggs)

I can almost picture the confusion at the senior management team meeting where the CEO is asking his Executive team:

“But how can we be performing so poorly when our average customer feedback score at each of our hotels is 8.27?!”

In summary, the company:

  • has collected a score for my stay that is likely incorrect and misleading;
  • has annoyed me because I feel manipulated…which may lead me to look elsewhere next time (and tell my friends the same);

yet (most importantly)

  • the employees are totally blind as to what could have been better and hence cannot improve.

The customer feedback score is worse than useless!

The knowledge required to meaningfully improve is in each and every piece of qualitative customer feedback…it is not in a monthly average score.

* This behaviour has been reported in many other similar service situations. My hotel experience is but one example. Put in general terms: the employee quietly tells the customer that their feedback score will be ‘used on them’ by their company and pleads for the customer to be kind. As humans we can’t help but want to help them out yet also feel annoyed about this manipulation of us.

Just in case you hadn’t got the picture at the top: it is of a chocolate teapot…which is worse than useless…a bit like linking contingent rewards to customer feedback.

The Spice of Life

spices-442726_640Variety is the spice of life. If everything were the same it would be rather boring. Happily, there is natural variety in everything.

Let me use an example to explain:

I was thinking about this as I was walking the dog the other day. I use the same route, along the beach each day, and it takes me roughly the same time – about 30 minutes.

If I actually timed myself each and every day (and didn’t let this fact change my behaviour) then I would find that the walk might take me on average 30 minutes but it could range anywhere between, say, 26 and 37 minutes.

I think you would agree with me that it would be somewhat bizarre if it always took me, say, exactly 29 minutes and 41 seconds to walk the dog – that would just be weird!

You understand that there are all sorts of reasons as to why the time would vary slightly, such as:

  • how I am feeling (was it a late night last night?);
  • what the weather is doing, whether the tide is up or down, and even perhaps what season it is;
  • who I meet on the way and their desired level of interaction (i.e. they have some juicy gossip vs. they are in a hurry);
  • what the dog is interested in sniffing…which (I presume) depends on what other dogs have been passed recently;
  • if the dog needs to ‘down load’ or not and, if so, how long this will take today!
  • …and so on.

There are, likely, many thousands of little reasons that would cause variation. None of these have anything special about them – they are just the variables that exist within that process, the majority of which I have little or no control over.

Now, I might have timed myself as taking 30 mins. and 20 seconds yesterday, but taken only 29 mins. and 12 seconds today. Is this better? Have I improved? Against what purpose?

Here’s 3 weeks of imaginary dog walking data in a control chart:

Untitled

A few things to note:

  • You can now easily see the variation within and that it took between 26 and 37 minutes and, on average, 30 mins. Understanding of this variation is hidden until you visualise it;
  • The red lines refer to upper and lower control limits: they are mathematically worked out from the data…you don’t need to worry about how but they signify the range within the data. The important bit is that all of the times sit within these two red lines and this shows that my dog walking is ‘in control’ (stable) and therefore the time range that it will take tomorrow can be predicted with a high degree of confidence!*
  • If a particular walk had taken a time that sits outside of the two red lines, then I can say with a high degree of confidence that something ‘special’ happened – perhaps the dog had a limp, or I met up with a long lost friend or…..
  • Any movement within the two red lines is likely to just be noise and, as such, I shouldn’t be surprised about it at all. Anything outside of the red lines is what we would call a signal, in that it is likely that something quite different occurred.

* This is actually quite profound. It’s worth considering that I cannot predict if I just have a binary comparison (two pieces of data). Knowing that it took 30 mins 20 secs. yesterday and 29 mins 12 secs. today is what is referred to as driving by looking in the rear view mirror. It doesn’t help me look forward.

Back to the world of work

The above example can equally be applied to all our processes at work…yet we ignore this reality. In fact, worse than ignoring it, we act like this isn’t so! We seem to love making binary comparisons (e.g. this week vs. last week), deriving a supposed reason for the difference and then:

  • congratulating people for ‘improvements’; or
  • chastising people for ‘slipping backwards’ whilst coming up with supposed solutions to do something about it (which is in actual fact merely tampering)

So, hopefully you are happy with my walking the dog scenario….here’s a work-related example:

  • Bob, Jim and Jane have each been tasked with handling incoming calls*. They have each been given a daily target of handling 80 calls a day as a motivator!

(* you can substitute any sort of activity here instead of handling calls: such as sell something, make something, perform something….)

  • In reality there is so much about a call that the ‘call agent’ cannot control. Using Professor Frances Frei’s 5 types of service demand variation, we can see the following:
    • Arrival variability: when/ whether calls come in. If no calls are coming in at a point in time, the call agent can’t handle one!
    • Request variability: what the customer is asking for. This could be simple or complex to properly handle
    • Capability variability: how much the customer understands. Are they knowledgeable about their need or do they need a great deal explaining?
    • Effort variability: how much help the customer wants. Are they happy to do things for themselves, or do they want the call agent to do it all for them?
    • Subjective preference variability: different customers have different opinions on things e.g. are they happy just to accept the price or are they price sensitive and want the call agent to break it down into all its parts and explain the rationale for each?

Now, the above could cause a huge difference in call length and hence how many calls can be handled…but there’s not a great deal about the above that Bob, Jim and Jane can do much about – and nor should they try to!. It is pure chance (a lottery) as to which calls they are asked to handle.

As a result, we can expect natural variation as to the number of calls they can handle in a given day. If we were to plot it on a control chart we might see something very similar to the dog walking control chart….something like this:

Control chart 2

We can see that:

  • the process appears to be under control and that, assuming we don’t change the system, the predictable range of calls that a call agent can handle in a day is between 60 and 100;
  • it would be daft to congratulate, say, Bob one day for achieving 95 and then chastise him the next for ‘only’ achieving 77…yet this is what we usually do!

Targets are worse than useless

Let’s go back to that (motivational?!) target of 80 calls a day. From the diagram we can see that:

  • if I set the target at 60 or below then the call agents can almost guarantee that they will achieve it every day;
  • conversely, if I set the target at 100 or above, they will virtually never be able to achieve it;
  • finally, if I set the target anywhere between 60 or 100, it becomes a daily lottery as to whether they will achieve it or not.

….but, without this knowledge, we think that targets are doing important things.

What they actually do is cause our process performers to do things which go against the purpose of the system. I’ve written about the things people understandably do in an earlier post titled The trouble with targets.

What should we actually want?

We shouldn’t be pressuring our call agents (or any of our process performers) to achieve a target for each individual unit (or for an average of a group of units). We should be considering how we can change the system itself (e.g. the process) so that we shift and/or tighten the range of what it can achieve.

So, hopefully you now have an understanding of:

  • variation: that it is a natural occurrence…which we would do well to understand;
  • binary comparisons and that these can’t help us predict;
  • targets and why they are worse than useless; and
  • system, and why we should be trying to improve its capability (i.e. for all units going through it), rather than trying to force individual units through it quicker.

Once we understand the variation within our system we now have a useful measure (NOT target) to consider what our system is capable of, why this variation exists and whether any changes we make are in fact improvements.

Going back to Purpose

You might say to me “but Steve, you could set a target for your dog walks, say 30 mins, and you could do things to make it!”

I would say that, yes, I could and it would change my behaviours…but the crucial point is this: What is the purpose of the dog walk?

  • It isn’t to get it done in a certain time
  • It’s about me and the dog getting what we need out of it!

The same comparison can be said for a customer call: Our purpose should be to properly and fully assist that particular customer, not meet a target. We should expect much failure demand and rework to be created from behaviours caused by targets.

Do you understand the variation within your processes? Do you rely on binary comparisons and judge people accordingly? Do you understand the behaviours that your targets cause?

Demand, demand everywhere…but not a drop of value to drink!

PhoneScream…so I contact a (world renowned) bank about opening an account, but it’s not a basic request:

The comedy begins:

  • I look up the bank’s internet site to find a number to ring for my specific need. I can’t find anything that fits. The best I find is a ‘contact us’ email form, so I fill it in, explaining my need and asking for the right contact number.
  • I get an email back providing me with a contact number and instructions as to which IVR selections to make when I ring it (‘press 2 for blah, then 1 for blah, then 3 for blah’).
  • I ring the number. The IVR is nothing like the instructions. I listen to the (long list of) options. None fit my need so I wait for someone to pick up.
  • I explain my need to the agent that picks up and am told that “oh no, we don’t deal with that. You need to speak with ‘abc’ department. Would you like me to pass you through to them?” I say that, yes, I surely would.
  • I am ‘cold passed’ to this 2nd queue and therefore have to wait in line and then re-explain my need to the agent. They say “No, they shouldn’t have passed you through to us. You need ‘xyz’ department. I’ll put you through.”
  • Once again, I am ‘cold passed’ through to a 3rd queue, wait in line and re-explain. They say “We don’t deal with that. You need to speak with ‘blah’ department”
  • I listen to the original bloody IVR again! I’m really annoyed now. I think about hanging up, but I really want to talk to someone about my need. I decide to wait.
  • I get another agent and explain about what has just happened to me…this took time and I was clearly exhibiting signs of annoyance (funny that!). I asked them to PLEASE listen to my actual need and spend time with me to figure out if they can assist and then who can. They say that they need to transfer me to someone who can help. I pleadingly ask them to ‘warm transfer’ me over to that person so that I don’t start the merry-go-round again!
  • I was cold transferred to another number!!! After waiting for an agent, guess what, they couldn’t help and would need to transfer me to…..I hung up.
  • I went back on to the website, found the ‘contact us’ email address and wrote what I shall describe as a ‘strong email’….I am yet to receive a response.

Now, whilst the above is (verging on) humorous for those not involved, sadly I bet most of you reading it have examples of similar ‘service’ experiences to have happened to you.

To summarise the above:

  • there was 1 ‘white marble’ of value demand, the actual need for which the bank is there for;
  • there were 6 ‘blue marbles’ of failure demand (so far!), each of which the bank had to handle*, as if it were a valid unit of production;
    • * for each unit of demand they had to: plan and roster staff; handle the queue; handle the call (welcome, understand need, action, closure); record in their systems; performance review the agent as to how the call was ‘handled’….etc
  • each silo within the bank experienced their vertical unit of activity and probably met each target they set themselves: call answering time, average handling time, call resolution rate….and probably celebrated their success, perhaps with some awards, even some contingent rewards! ;
  • the bank is oblivious to the horizontal flow that I experienced;
  • and, worst of all, my need remained unresolved!
    • simply and clearly explaining to me that they can’t do what I was asking (if this were the case) would have resolved my value demand.

To use a current buzz phrase, there is nothing ‘customer-centric’ about this experience.

Why does the bank have this problem?

Because it bought into the economies of scale mantra of ‘standardise, specialise, centralise.’

Because it believed that what has been seen/ heard about in manufacturing can simply be applied to service.

Because it bought into technology as an automator of service provision.

What does this cause?

Silo’d thinking, in which effort is put into the efficiency of each vertical activity…at the expense of the effectiveness of the horizontal flow of value, from customer demand through to its satisfaction.

Massive waste that is unseen (though paid for) by the business yet is acutely felt by the customer.

“Cost is in flow, not activity….economies come from flow, not scale.” (John Seddon)

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” (Peter Drucker)

Now you might laugh at this, and think “wow, daft bank!” but, before we dismiss this as not something that could happen to us, I could equally have written about a similar experience I had from ringing an internal helpline at the company I work for. I didn’t (and won’t) write about this internal example because the point is to think about the problem and its causes, not to get caught by the error of blame.

The reason for the madness is the system (and management’s beliefs and behaviours), not the people within it.

None of the ‘customer service agents’ will have enjoyed handling my units of demand – there was no satisfaction to be had in helping me with my need. Each will have been left hollow by their inability to assist…and then they will have moved on to their next call….safe in the knowledge that they cannot change their reality whilst they work within their ‘command and control’ paradigm.

The Devil Incarnate

the devilThe scene: 

We’d been talking about it all week – that ‘big game’ banter. It’s an important year, it’s an important game, it’s a massive rivalry and a cauldron of passion and emotion….and we had die hard supporters of both sides – this was going to be massive! Even better, it was a Friday night game meaning it was a 9 a.m. kick off in New Zealand, live on Sky 1. Get in! Thank you (wo)man in the Sky!

What on earth am I writing about? I’m talking about Wales vs. England in a sell out Millennium Stadium to open up the Six Nations Rugby Tournament in 2015 England World Cup year.

We’d got it all worked out. Four families all going round to Stu’s (biggest screen – obvious choice!). Mostly England fans but pockets of Welsh resistance within.

We were going to do a full English* Breakfast fry up at the end, and the shopping list had been divided up and bought. It was going to be an epic post match feed. (* an omen perhaps?!)

We get to Stu’s at 08:30, and stack the breakfast goodies in the kitchen – tonnes of bacon, sausages, eggs, hash browns, tins of baked beans, mushrooms to fry, bread for toast, (exotic) corn fritters….and so on. Jonesy had even remembered the HP sauce – good man!

H had already got the tea pot on for a brew.

Stu’s got the TV on and is playing with the remote.

Stu: “eh? It’s not showing on the sky listing anymore!” said in an uncertain and shaky voice “it was there the other day. What the hell’s going on?!”

Me: “perhaps it’s moved over to the Rugby channel.”

Stu: “erm, no, not on Rugby channel or ESPN”….losing his composure a bit “…what the @#$% is going on.”

Me: “Have we got the right day?”to which I receive a stern look.

In walks Paul with 5 mins. to go before kickoff. He’s a bit more ‘techy’ than Stu and I (which isn’t hard): “use ‘Sky GO’ and stream it live.”

Now, picture the scene….we’ve got:

  • Stu doing the comedy typing thing on an (allegedly) SMART TV – trying to speed type website addresses, user names, passwords etc. with a TV remote control. If you’ve ever tried it you will know how frustrating it is;
  • Jonesy texting his mates up in Auckland to see if they are having the same troubles and trying to work out alternative methods of obtaining the holy grail of live rugby;
  • Paul trying to find a number to ring Sky…looks all over website, can’t find one (why do they make it so hard to have a 2-way interaction with them!)…finds a number….on hold, clearly very busy at the movement….wonder why!!
  • Me being as much use as a chocolate fire guard….but offering lots of helpful suggestions (I thought they were). H was keeping me supplied with tea to calm my nerves;
  • The ladies in the kitchen surveying the mountain of food and wondering how on earth we’ll eat it all. (We will);
  • Loads of kids in various states: some desperate to watch the rugby, some running riot around the house.

We tried all sorts of internet sites, including Sky Go: all the genuine ones said that we couldn’t view it from New Zealand; a number of dodgy sites requested credit card details – Stu did really well and resisted. Jonesy was willing to pay with the shirt off his back but we protected him from himself.

Finally, after over an hour of trying (i.e. the 2nd half had already started) we all reached that point when, looking around the room and seeing the pain in our comrades eyes, we admitted defeat. We weren’t going to get to watch the rugby live.

But NO, Jonesy wasn’t having this…he wasn’t going to let Sky get away with this – they were playing with people’s lives….he was going to ring that number and wait to talk to someone no matter what it took! His rationale was that they needed to know how we felt, they needed to know what they had done, they needed our feedback else how can they improve.

So he rings the 0800 number…and he waits…and he waits…and he waits.

The music comes on, he puts it on loud speaker so that we can all enjoy, thanks Jonesy – all heart.

And then, after 10 minutes of waiting, it happens – the computer talks to us:

“Thank you for your patience. Because your call is important to us we have increased your priority in the queue.”

Oh man, that really set me off. If they knew there was a Steve ‘button to press’, they had found it! (I even wrote down the exact words so I could write this post).

What does their message even mean! The first sentence is okay…the second part?????

How have they increased our priority in the queue?

How is this any different to a ‘first in, first served’ priority that we should all expect as normal decency?

How do they know that we should be of a higher priority – they don’t know who we are or what we want (yet).

These words are worse than throw away…they are infuriating, treating the human being (the customer) as some low intelligence life form who is expected to be pleased, puppy-like, with the words “you are important so we’ve bumped you up the queue.”

Important? No we’re not – if we were important you would have spare capacity in your contact centre so that you could answer your calls!

Bumped up the queue? No you haven’t – we are in the exact same place as before, only now we’ve been waiting longer whilst you’ve been attempting to answer all those calls above us!

Now, just to finish this up:

  • we heard that lovely message a further four times in the 20 minutes we waited. Fat good that increase in priority did!
  • Jonesy did get to have his rant at the call centre agent: I thought Jonesy was very restrained considering. He’s a nice polite English man;
  • we turned the TV off and consoled ourselves with cooking one humungous breakfast…’comfort food’ if you will…and it was good;
  • Stu wandered around the house, dazed, a broken man, looking a shadow of his former self;
  • we all spent the day with our fingers in our ears so that no one could tell us the score…and then reconvened in the evening to watch the replay;
  • ….consolation: England won!!! (commiserations to my Welsh friends)

So, what’s the point?

There’s a couple:

  1. Any company that plays at the customer service game (i.e. that doesn’t actually get it) thinks/acts as if the customer need starts with the customer attempting to make contact with them. In reality, the customer’s need can start hours, days, even weeks earlier. So much so that when that customer hears ‘that message’ it is soooo much more than a simple computer message…it is the devil!
  2. A computer message might be helpful…but it can also be incredibly harmful! Words that sound like marketing spin or, even worse, like you think your customer is a bit dim, are very likely to wind your customer right up, so much so that the poor customer service agent then has to spend some of that precious ‘handling time’ bringing them back down again!

We should be really careful about the use of those computer thingys when attempting to serve our customers.