A mature process doesn't necessarily meet customer needs. A quick guide to Net Promoter Score (NPS)

Dave O'Reardon (Left) itSMF Australia Innovation of the Year award winner, and Aprill Allen (Right) - @knowledgebird
Dave O’Reardon (Left) itSMF Australia Innovation of the Year award winner, and Aprill Allen (Right) – @knowledgebird

Many IT leaders are already familiar with the kinds of surveys the common support tools send out on ticket closure. But, it turns out, we may not be going about it the best way. This year’s winner of itSMF Australia’s Innovation of the Year was Dave O’Reardon. Dave has had 25 years’ experience working in IT and his award-winning transactional Net Promoter service, CIO Pulse, provides a whole new way of looking at how IT leaders can improve their services and start creating value for the businesses and customers they support.

After I photo-bombed Dave’s official awards photos, he gracefully agreed to an interview.

Can you explain the fundamentals of Net Promoter?

Sure! Net Promoter is a proven way of improving customer loyalty, or satisfaction, with a product, company or service. And its a metric – a Net Promoter Score – for understanding your progress toward that goal and for benchmarking your performance. It is not a piece of software and it is not Intellectual Property – it’s free for anyone to use.

If you’ve ever been asked a question along the lines of “On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend us to a friend or colleague?”, then you’ve come across a company that’s using Net Promoter. This question is usually followed by one or two open-ended questions. These follow-up questions ask the reason for the score and what could be done to improve. Based on a customer’s score (in response to the first question), they are categorised as either a Promoter (they scored 9 or 10), a Passive (they scored 7 or 8), or a Detractor (they scored 6 or below). Net Promoter then recommends a number of practices that can be used to convert Detractors and Passives into Promoters.

A Net Promoter Score is simply calculated by subtracting the percentage of Detractors from the percentage of Promoters. This calculation results in a score of between -100 (all your customers are Detractors) and +100 (all your customers are Promoters).

Net Promoter is commonly used in two different ways – transactional (also called operational or bottom-up) and relationship (also called brand or top-down). Transactional NPS is used to measure and improve the customer experience following a specific interaction (e.g. after an IT support ticket has been closed). Relationship NPS is used to measure and improve overall loyalty or satisfaction with a product, brand or service, e.g. via an annual survey.

Why is it important for IT teams to use a customer service improvement approach like Net Promoter?

There’s a few reasons.  First of all, IT teams often rely too much on service level agreements, such as incident response and resolution targets. These targets are great for helping support staff determine what to work on and when, but tell you nothing about the customers’ perceptions. If you’ve ever had a wall of green traffic lights for your SLAs and yet the customer still isn’t happy, then you know what I mean.  I like to call this the Watermelon Effect – SLA performance indicators are all green, but on the inside customers are red and angry.  Traditional SLAs don’t measure the customer experience and customer perceptions, Net Promoter does.

The second reason is that process maturity assessments – formal and informal – don’t help IT teams prioritise in any way that is meaningful.  We’re at maturity level 2 for Configuration Management, so what?! And on the flipside, even mature processes can be crap and fail to meet customers’ needs. Your Request Fulfillment process might be very mature – documented, automated, measured etc – and yet customers are still frustrated that hardware provision takes so long and that Jim is always gruff when asked for an update. A mature process doesn’t necessarily meet customer needs.

Bodies of knowledge like ITIL and COBIT are stuffed full of solutions. They are great to turn to when you’ve got a service issue and you want some ideas on how to solve it.  But how do you know you’ve got a problem and how do you know which problem is the most urgent?  If you want to improve service (and if you’re in the field of Service Management and you don’t, then you might be in the wrong field) you absolutely have to understand customer perceptions. Things such as service quality and value stem from customer’s perceptions.

Net Promoter is very widely used by consumer-facing organisations. How do you modify the typical Net Promoter format to suit internal teams like IT, HR and  so on?

That’s a great question. Net Promoter is often overlooked as an improvement methodology by internal service providers because of the first question – “How likely are you to recommend us to a friend or colleague?”. It just doesn’t make sense to an internal customer. Who’s going to tell one of their mates at the pub that their IT Service Desk is fantastic and that they should give them a call the next time they have a problem with their iPad!  The trick is just to reword the question so that it makes sense to the customer, e.g. “On a scale of 0 to 10, overall how satisfied are you with your recent support experience?”.

What’s wrong with the traditional transactional survey that we’re more familiar with?

Two things:

  1. Firstly, because internal service providers all use different surveys and different scales they can’t benchmark their performance against each other.  Their scores are calculated in different ways and so one organisation can’t tell if another organisation is doing better than them or worse. Who should get improvement ideas from who?
  2. The second thing is a bigger issue. Most organisations just don’t know what to do with the data they’re collecting. They survey, they calculate some sort of satisfaction score, and then they report on that score in a management report of some sort. But that’s all.  And that’s a terrible shame, because there’s a bunch of behaviors that the transactional survey should be driving that can result in a significant improvement in customer satisfaction. But if all you do is survey and calculate a score, don’t expect anything to improve. I call this the ‘Chasm of Lost Opportunity’ –  the powerful things that are not done between a survey being completed and a score being reported. By adopting the behaviors and activities recommended by Net Promoter – bridging the chasm – I’ve seen internal service providers make significant improvements to internal customer satisfaction in just months.

What sort of problems and improvement opportunities have you seen coming out of IT teams that start paying attention to customer feedback? Any particular areas that standout in common?

The most common feedback theme we see with transactional surveys comes down to poor communication – support calls that seem to disappear into black holes, customers not having their expectations managed re fulfillment/resolution timeframes, and tickets being closed without the customer first verifying that they’re happy that the solution has worked.

When it comes to the relationship surveys, every client is unique.  We see everything from issues with network speed, being forced to use old PCs, poor system availability, inadequate engagement of the business in IT projects, releases introducing too many defects, service desk hours that don’t work for the business.  Pretty much everything.  And that’s why the top-down relationship survey is so important. When Net Promoter is used for periodically surveying internal customers, it provides really rich information on what the customer sees as IT’s strengths and weaknesses. The results often come as a surprise to IT management, which is a good thing, because, without that information they were in danger of investing limited improvement resources in areas that just aren’t important to the customer.

If you could distill all the experience you’ve had with transforming IT teams, is there one high-impact tip you could suggest?

Yes, but it’s more of a way of thinking than a tip per se.  And that is – don’t dismiss customer feedback as something fluffy and unimportant. If you’re in the business of delivering service to a customer, then understanding customer perceptions is very very important. Dismiss customer feedback as fluffy and unimportant at your peril! Quality and value are both the result of perceptions, not objective measures like availability percentages and average response times.

Net Promoter-based transactional surveys are a great way to drive continual improvement in the Service Desk and IT support functions – improving the way IT is perceived by the large majority of its customers. And Net Promoter-based relationship surveys provide a valuable source of input to IT strategy, ensuring that IT is investing in the areas that are truly important to the business, not just because Gartner says so.

When IT teams don’t understand, and actively seek to improve, customer perceptions of IT, the end result is sad and predictable – IT is managed like a cost-centre, budgets are cut, functions are outsourced, and IT leaders are replaced.  And at pubs and dinner parties, no matter what job we do in IT, our friends grumble at us because where they work, their IT department is crap.

Dave helps IT teams, and other internal service providers, adopt Net Promoter and provide better customer service, improve their reputation and increase internal customer satisfaction. He’s worked in IT for 25 years and is the CEO and founder of:

  • Silversix.com.au – a management consultancy that helps IT teams measure and improve internal customer satisfaction)
  • and cio-pulse.com (a transactional Net Promoter service that kicks the ass of the survey modules of ITSM tools).

Support Provision & the Changing Landscape of the Service Desk

Graph With Stacks Of CoinsService desk teams provide support and service to company employees, helping them to make the most of the IT assets that the company provides. At least, that was always the role that IT Service Management teams saw themselves providing. The overall goal may not have altered, but how this is fulfilled has been changing.

The traditional methods that service desk teams use to demonstrate their value don’t effectively capture all that the ITSM function can deliver. At the same time, new initiatives like Bring Your Own Device, cloud applications and self-service portals are entering business IT. This means that key performance indicators (KPIs) have to be changed. However, are we changing our approaches to keep up, or are we being forced into this? As the service desk landscape changes, how can we take back control and demonstrate more value?

 

Where are we today?

Many service desk teams will still use first-time fix as their number one demonstration of value. However, while this metric is still valid, it’s very quantitative, and only one step above looking at the overall volume of calls being handled. Service desks today have to deal with a larger number of channels than before, so how calls are categorised is a good place to start thinking differently.

The key questions to ask here are: “How do my customers want to interact with me? Are they happy with more traditional email and phone requests, or would they like more options such as chat?” For many teams, answering these questions can be difficult, as options are grafted on over time rather than being thought through strategically.

For a service desk manager looking at all the different traffic coming in, it can be difficult to assign weighting on the requests that come in. Should social media or chat interaction be counted in the same way as a phone request? A lot of this will depend on the process that customers go through as their incidents are handled. This will also affect how success is measured in the future as well.

 

Where do we go from here?

There are two avenues open to the service desk manager here – one is prescriptive, and one is to allow more freedom in how incidents are handled. The first approach would be based on mapping out all the most common problems that are encountered by users, and then looking at the workflow for those incidents across different communication methods.

This can work well when you have a large number of service desk operatives and need to get consistency on customer support experience. Putting this together would provide both guidance on how to handle requests that come through, and also ensure quality of service.

However, there is one issue with this approach, it takes away a lot of the flexibility that service desk professionals can have in solving problems and ensuring that the customer is happy at the end of the call or interaction. Now, for regulated industries where security and compliance are important, this is something that will just have to be accepted but for other businesses, allowing more leeway on how calls and requests are handled can be both better for the customer and for the service desk personnel. Allowing service desk staff to help customers in the way that best suits them – and the customers that make the request – can help to provide better service, both in terms of quality and service levels.

 

Looking at a bigger picture

Thinking about specific targets for the service desk team also involves looking at how ITSM is incorporated into the overall business or organisational goals. Is the service team delivery part of external-facing, “paying customer” work, or more around internal customer or employee satisfaction and keeping users productive? Building up metrics around customer retention and satisfaction leads to a very different set of KPIs compared to this internal service delivery, where efficiency is paramount.

Setting out new KPIs involves looking at what the customer expectations are around service, as well as what the company or organisation wants to deliver. This is a very different approach to the quantitative approach that many service desks are used to. Instead, it has to be more qualitative. Often, there will be larger company goals that will help frame KPIs in the right way.

As an example, your company may provide a product with premium branding. Service delivery around this should therefore match that perception. Creating a measurement KPI around delivering “five star service,” with personnel encouraged to go the extra mile, would be more effective than simply looking at how many calls or requests were handled. Conversely, companies that pride themselves in efficiency would want the same approach to be reflected in their service strategy.

For public sector organisations, efficiency and call handling will still be important metrics to track as well. However, the growth of online and digital service delivery means that requests that might previously have been calls can be answered either through information on websites or email/chat requests. This will leave more personal interaction time for staff, providing a better quality of care for those that really need it.

Alongside these changes in KPIs, the way that service desk teams manage themselves may have to change as well. For too long, the tiered service desk approach has been less about dealing with front line problems and more about managing how skilled professionals can provide support where it is needed. The change from solely supporting phone and email over to using multiple channels should be seen as an opportunity to increase skills for everyone.

 

Managing service interactions more efficiently

It’s also worth considering how sessions are handled. For requests that have a technical or specialist knowledge requirement, playing telephone tag and having the customer explain their issues multiple times can be a painful process. Instead, it should be possible to use those with specialist knowledge in a more efficient way through collaborative sessions.

This approach involves letting third parties join calls securely – particularly if there is a remote access session involved. Rather than depending on the third party and customer to get connected, the service desk can manage this themselves, cutting down on time taken and providing a better experience for the customer. Bringing together assets in this way does mean that the front-line staff have to be aware of what challenges they may face that are intricate or require outside help, but that does not mean that they have to hand a call straight over to someone else.

The growth of online support and services is only going to go up, as more people prefer to work directly through chat or social channels rather than more traditional phone systems. The make-up of the workforce is changing as well. In the higher education sector, research by the Service Desk Institute found that 76 per cent of students preferred using the web form for raising a request rather than picking up the phone or emailing directly, while 37 per cent were happy to use social media channels to contact the service desk.

As these students move from university and enter the workforce, their expectations of support will be very different to what has gone before. Maintaining a consistency of approach when trying to keep all these options open is a real challenge, but it can be delivered by thinking through the problems that are due to come up.

Rethinking your KPIs so they are more aligned with the needs of the business is a good first step. From this, you can then look at how to work more closely with line of business teams, too. Ultimately, the service desk can start to think about changing the perception it has within the organisation, from one of only being there when things go wrong to providing more guidance about how to make things go right in the first place.

There seem to be as many choices on how to manage interaction with customers as there are service desks, particularly as customers want to interact in new ways. However many channels you have to support, the important distinction is around customer service, not just IT support. ITSM teams have to look beyond their role as IT professionals and think about displaying their acumen around other areas, too.

Setting out KPIs is one way to achieve this aim. By linking the aim of the business to the quality of service that is delivered, ITSM teams can look to demonstrate more of the value that they create for the business every day.

 

Image Credit

How to use rapid communications to meet customer service goals using SLAs

teonphotolarge (1)
Teon Rosandic

This article has been contributed by Teon Rosandic, VP EMEA at xMatters.

IT leaders and engineers certainly have their hands full with ever more sophisticated internal customers who are more empowered and easily disappointed than ever.  They are placing greater demands to “get it right” and deliver immediate access to information, products and services.

End users want to know not just that a service or product will meet their expectations, but that IT will deliver first-class, instant customer service.

At the enterprise level, Service License Agreements (SLAs) have long acted as these guarantees of service among businesses – between IT departments and their internal customers or between IT departments and the technology service providers with whom they contract.  Conceptually, SLAs focus on accountability and liability, and over time communication about issues and outages has become the norm.  As issues in IT or service providers become more immediate and directly impact end users, timely communication and transparency is as critical as the service license itself.

It’s a different environment out there now, one where always-on and always-connected businesses depend on cloud-based services. This environment also translates to internal customers in the IT organisation, where such expectations are at an all time high. Imagine your corporate Internet connection went down. Employees would be without email, the web and all the services they rely on, including CRM, marketing automation, financial tracking and much more.

One-third of Service Provider Customers report that just a five-minute outage would cause a large percentage of employees to be unproductive, according to a Cloud VPS  Hosting report.

The scramble to remain productive during an outage would certainly lead to an avalanche of questions, notifications and complaints from employees – exactly the sort of activity that prevents IT from taking action more than helps it.  A more proactive approach that sent notifications from IT to employees would both give IT more time to devote to resolving issues and create better relations between IT and the company at large.

You can’t send after-the-fact communications about down or unavailable services anymore because employees experience these outages immediately and in every area of their work.  They want immediate answers; and if you don’t send them, you’ll get the avalanche.

Upping the Communications Ante

If your employees are hyper-connected now, just wait for the future. Virtually everyone has a smart phone and most have tablets, but by 2020, networks will host more than 30 billion wirelessly connected devices, according to ABI Research.  But a smart phone is one person’s lifeline and another person’s albatross.  It’s not enough to just communicate.  You have to communicate to the devices your audience checks.

With more devices linked to the cloud, employee expectations for superior customer service and SLA-level speed of issue resolution will sky rocket.  IT will have to answer to this demand. It is telling that 82%of consumers count rapid response as the number one attribute of great customer service, according to a study by LivePerson. For clients of the IT organization, time to resolution is even more important because that’s when they can be productive again.

Rapid Communication to the Rescue

Immediate, targeted notification and communication is the key to speedy resolution of IT service issues. The first step is to establish the infrastructure for automated interactions. If companies put this approach in place before any problems occur, then they can activate them instantaneously and communicate in real time during crucial moments.

The real trick to effective communication, even in a crisis, however, is to tailor the messages to specific audiences. It’s important to send the right information to the right people via the right channels. Businesses can and should follow suit, taking the initiative to target customers in the ways that suit them best and then keep them regularly informed throughout the resolution process, even if only to say the solution is a work in progress.

The targeting should be much more specific than just preferred devices. Depending on the situation, maybe not everyone needs to be notified.  So it is a good practice to targeted recipients as well. Targeting recipients will also reduce the number of responses IT is likely to receive. According to the 2014 Zendesk Global Benchmark, IT departments receive an average of 33 alerts per day – on top of routine notifications. Sending too many irrelevant alerts can make people inside and outside IT stop paying attention, a phenomenon called alert fatigue.

So if IT gets notified to fix an issue at one employee’s workstation, it makes more sense to alert the affected employee than it does to notify the entire company. As IT adopts a more strategic role in helping companies achieve strategic goals and meeting financial targets, they need to be cognizant of being more than just a fix-it shop or just keeping the lights on.

To make such SLA-type communications possible, businesses can employ communication platforms to help automate messages and distribute them thoughtfully, through multiple channels, all while monitoring continuously for network and equipment malfunctions. Having all of these functions in one place ensures companies can resolve issues quickly and uphold their promises to keep customers informed.

Executives should be asking themselves – how are my customers’ service expectations evolving in today’s uber-connected world? Is my company prepared to deliver “SLA-quality” service? How can rapid communication help me meet their productivity goals? If one or all of these answers involves the adoption of a rapid communication platform, then they are one step closer to ultimate end user satisfaction.

This article has been contributed by Teon Rosandic, VP EMEA at xMatters.

Excellent service doesn’t have to cost more

20140212_104838I have seen discussions in social media about whether service providers should aim to deliver excellent service, or just deliver the service they have agreed to.

One side of the argument says that we have more choices than we used to, and that service providers must aim to delight all their customers or they won’t survive in a modern, consumer-oriented competitive environment.

Other people argue that organizations decide what to spend and what quality of service they want to deliver, and that a company can choose to compete on cost, or some other factor, rather than on service quality. A classic example of this is low cost airlines which often treat their customers very poorly when compared to traditional carriers, but are doing very well in a highly competitive market.

I think that there is a third alternative, and I came across an excellent example of this recently, when I dropped my mobile phone, cracking the glass screen.

My experience

I researched options for repairing the phone on the internet. I could buy a replacement glass screen quite cheaply, but replacing it looked difficult, requiring me to heat the phone to a fairly exact temperature that would soften the adhesive without damaging the electronics. I asked a local phone repair shop for a quote, but they told me the glass couldn’t be replaced and it would cost nearly £200 to replace the entire screen assembly. Eventually I found a company on the internet that would replace the glass for a reasonable fee. I paid online and posted the phone to them.

On the next day I watched the tracking information to see when the phone had been delivered. Much to my delight I received an email from the company within 30 minutes of the phone arriving, confirming that they had the phone, explaining what the next steps would be, and saying that 97% of repairs would be completed the same day – but also saying what the worst case would be. They then sent another email that evening confirming that the phone had been repaired and providing a tracking number so I could check on the return delivery. I received the repaired phone the next day, and they had done a good job of replacing the glass.

While the phone was being repaired I had moved my SIM to a spare phone. When I got the phone back it wouldn’t recognise the SIM. I remembered that it had been hard to remove the SIM in the first place, and I guess I must have damaged something. Oh dear. I phoned the company to ask if they could help and they put me through to a manager who talked me through examining the SIM card holder to see the bent pins. He then offered to replace the SIM card holder for a very low price, since I was already a customer!  I sent the phone back again and had a very similar experience. This time when the phone came back they also sent the faulty part taped to a business card, so I could see that they really had replaced it.

What can we learn from this?

There are a few things about these transactions that illustrate how to deliver excellent service without it needing to cost more.

  • The email that acknowledged receipt of the phone was a template email that will have taken an hour or two to write and could then be sent to thousands of customers. Cost: Negligible, Value to customer: Enormous, Delight factor: Considerable
  • They told me that they did not always repair things in one day. They explained some of the factors that could result in a slower service, and as a customer I was very happy that they had given me good information without just trying to show the positive. Another example of negligible cost with considerable value to the customer.
  • They did repair the phone in the agreed time for the agreed cost, and made sure that I could track the returned phone all the way to my house. I have had similar transactions in the past where they simply said they have posted the package, rather than providing me with the tracking information. Cost to them? Value to me? – I will let you provide the answers this time.
  • When I had a further problem they talked to me as an intelligent human being and helped me to see for myself where I had caused the damage.
  • They included the faulty part in the box, so I could see for myself that it really had been repaired.

In summary

It is possible to provide low cost services with good customer service. Nobody is saying you must provide expensive services to people that don’t want to pay for them, but every service provider should think about things they can do to delight customers without increasing costs. That is always the right choice.

In the world of IT and IT service management this means ensuring that all your staff adopt a customer mind-set, and constantly think about what they are doing and how this might impact the ability of customers to get value from your services – even if they are tied customers with no choice of service provider. It also means making sure you communicate with your customers well, and set their expectations appropriately. Tell them what you will deliver and then do what you’ve said. Every service provider should be able to do this, even if they are delivering low cost services.

Oh, and before I finish, if you live in the UK and break the screen on your mobile phone then I highly recommend the services of www.repairworlddirect.co.uk

Customer Experience the Apple Way

geniusYou’ve probably noticed that Customer Service has become an old fashioned term.  Nowadays it’s all about the “Customer Experience” led in no small part by Apple and it’s crew of blue shirted genii poised to help with all of your purchasing and technical needs.

According to Carmine Gallo, author of The Apple Experience, there are ‘5 Steps of Service’ that every Apple Store staff member needs to work through and these should either lead to a sale, or more importantly to Apple, to build a customer for life:

A = Approach Customers with a personalized, warm welcome       

P = Probe politely to understand the customer’s needs

P = Present a solution for the customer to take home today 

L = Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns

E = End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return

He continues by saying that ‘Apple employees are not in the business of selling computers, they are in the business of enriching lives’.

Recently I’ve noticed there have been more organizations eschewing the traditional customer service model and adopting the ‘Experience’ paradigm.  Walnut Hill Medical Centre in Dallas, Texas is creating its own steps of service complete with its very own acronym (W-E-C-A-R-E = Warm welcome, Empathize, Communicate and connect, Address concerns, Resolve and reassure, End with a fond farewell) to improve relations between patients and staff, and AT&T have been using a form of Apple’s system for a number of years.

Although its early days with Walnut Hill, AT&T clearly don’t have all the answers yet as last year they were ranked last for the third year running for value, voice quality and customer support by Consumer Reports and in November 2013 Lifehacker named AT&T as the US’ least favourite cellphone carrier following a vote by readers.

How is this different to how other companies do customer service?

In mid 2013 Craig Johnson head of Customer Growth Partners suggested that ‘Apple needs to recreate and reinvent its once novel retail model, which is now not so novel,’ (source: Daily Mail).

Perhaps this is true in the US, but back here in the UK I have seen little to suggest this in my day-to-day life.  To me, for the most part, Customer Service is still the same stale old formula it’s been for years.  Things that I would expect to be a bare minimum such as smiling, politeness and a willingness to help are still missing more often than not, so to me that approach is still very novel.

I mean how many stores can you think of where you can go in and play with the merchandise?  All Mac’s, iPads and iPhones are preloaded with apps and connected to the Internet to encourage you to try them out.  This is in stark contrast to most other stores where if you move a product more than the allotted 5cm’s an alarm goes off and you get rugby tackled to the floor by security personnel.

Is it possible though to create the kind of Customer Experience that Apple strives to offer for companies that are selling more than just a few different types of products?

It’s much easier for an Apple Genius to be clued up on everything they sell when there’s, at most, a fifth of the products on offer that there are in say Curry’s PC World.  Plus when you take into consideration the massive markup on an Apple product they can afford to not only have people trained to an expert level in a chosen area but also to hire more of them.

My experience at the Apple store

Recently I had my first ever visit to an Apple store.  This might seem odd to some of you, especially the ones who are aware of my attraction to pretty shiny things, but my family hails from Yorkshire and the miser in me always won.

I’d like to start with the good in my Apple experience but frankly there wasn’t a lot of it.  I waited a good 25 minutes loitering but not entirely sure what to do or where to go. There was no ‘Help’ point and each Apple employee was surrounded by many other slightly peeved potential ‘customers for life’ circling like shoals of piranha’s.

When I did manage to flag down a blue shirt the advice I received was practically non-existent.  Rather than probing me to understand my needs it was more a case of me prompting as to what was required.

I’m led to believe by my subsequent conversations with store managers at Apple that at this point I should have been asked what kind of work I would be doing and what I would be using the product for in order for appropriate advice to be given.

However, once I had decided on my purchase things started to look up considerably.  My shiny new MacBook Air appeared within a matter of minutes and aforementioned blue shirt then produced a handheld gizmo, which appeared to be an iPhone strapped to a card reader to take payment.  This I liked…no ‘I’ve left it behind the counter madam now if you’d like to queue for another 20 minutes someone will eventually relieve you of a shed load of money and try and persuade you to buy a bag for life and two chocolate bars for a pound’.

However it wasn’t enough to save the experience and when emailing the receipt for my purchase later that evening to the boss the message had one line…

Genius my arse!’ (For those non-UK readers out there who may not have come across this before it is an exclamation of disbelief).

The Apple way was ground breaking but where is customer service/experience heading next?

It’s reported that following the departure of Ron Johnson (Head of Retail), Apple has taken a wrong turn advising its store sales advisors to forget about Customer Experience and concentrate on the business of selling.

Never mind a wrong turn this is one gigantic step backwards.

Concentrating on what is seen as the primary need of the customer has always been short sighted.

With the addition of Angela Ahrendts (credited with the turnaround of 150 year old brand Burberry) to the top team, Apple has shown its commitment to not selling technology to the masses but to being a company that can support lifestyles by providing experiences rather than just products.

There are the obvious contenders such as Zappos and Google, but recently Samsung has invested heavily following reports of “the worst customer service ever” from consumers.  Steps to improve its reputation have included launching a worldwide customer service campaign and offering a free app that provides online support that you can take anywhere.

Hotels tend to get a bad press but Hilton makes strides by outlining exactly how they’ll take care of you. For example Doubletree, a franchise owned by Hilton Worldwide where you get free yummy cookie on arrival, maintains a CARE committee within each of its hotels that includes workers from every department and exists to monitor hotel performance and ensure that guests are satisfied. With four out of every five guests reporting an “excellent” or “good” interaction this seems to be working.

And lets not forget that Apple’s ‘5 Steps…’ model was actually inspired by the ‘steps-of-service’ pioneered by the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain.

Conclusion

Creating a model or philosophy for Customer Service/Customer Experience is fantastic.  It makes sure that everyone knows what the company is trying to achieve and where they stand.

In my experience they certainly didn’t deliver what was promised in their ‘5 steps…’ but they are clearly aware of this and are taking strides back towards where they want to be.

If you are attempting to put in place your own model don’t just assume that because something works for someone else it will work for you too.  Organizational culture, company history, who your customer is and even location can play a massive part in what make you tick and these all need to be taken into account.

In reality plain old Customer Service is of a bygone age and so much more than what consumers and customers expect, even if that’s not what they get 70% of the time.  A caller on the end of the phone will remember how you treated them far longer than whether or not you resolved the issue for them.

Every company should have something in place to show that they understand what is required of them by their customers be that in a mission statement, agreed statement of values or a formal written agreement.  We’ve all been in situations where everyone’s working to what they believe is a level of good customer experience yet side by side they all vary drastically.  Don’t leave it up to interpretation.

On that same trip to the Apple store I had the usual request from my six year old to visit the Build-A-Bear Workshop.  I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve visited and the small one has wandered around in awe. We rarely buy anything as you can get teddies much cheaper from other stores and like most parents an avalanche of toys threatens me if we add anything else.

However, it’s the experience of creating something exactly as she wants it, being able to ask any question she wants about her teddy’s back story without feeling dumb and playing teddy Star Wars with the eccentric sales assistant that means that more often than not we return.

So maybe they won’t have a customer for life but I suspect it will definitely be until the end of her childhood.

Customers are not your top priority

TrainsThere is this myth that IT (or any service provider) should be utterly focused on customers; that a customer obsession is the secret sauce to IT success; and that unhappy customers mean we in service have failed.

Railroads don’t bear this out.

Railroads in the USA have fought tooth and nail with their customer base for decades.  After the Second World War, freight customers decided the railroads were screwing them. Government legislation progressively regulated and price-controlled the railroads into the ground, until the whole system was on the verge of collapse.  Only de-regulation with the Staggers Act in 1980 freed the railroads to operate economically again and put them back on track (sorry) to their currently-thriving state.

And now the customers are complaining about freight rates again…

Meeting the needs of the business

If railroads were customer-obsessed – as the modern fad would have it – then they would provide all sorts of specialised rolling stock tailored to their customers needs / wants.

It certainly didn’t start out that way.

Originally a customer could hire a boxcar, reefer (refrigerated boxcar), flatcar, gondola, hopper, or tankcar.  That was pretty much the choice: not tailored to the customer, just a choice of a few basic shapes. Was a hopper car or boxcar shaped that way because the customers wanted it?  No, they were that way because they worked best internally for the functioning of the railroad. All sorts of loads fit uncomfortably in gondolas or boxcars, but that is what the customer got regardless of any complaints. Automobiles were chained on flatcars and car parts struggled in and out of boxcars for decades before the specialised rolling stock came along.

As the 20th Century progressed, railroads built special rolling stock to meet customer needs: automobile carriers, the aircraft body-parts carriers, trailer trains.  But you still couldn’t really say they were customer-focused.

The trailer train is a case in point: the Santa Fe railroad worked closely with the Hunt trucking empire to develop “intermodal” rolling stock to meet a customer need: to transport truck-trailers cross-country on special flatcars.  But the trailer train design was about moving truck-shaped loads on a railroad, not making trucking easy.  They still needed to drive the trailers carefully onto the flatcars and chain them down (and eventually they craned the whole thing on!).

When railroads introduced covers for coal hoppers, it wasn’t about looking after the customer’s coal – it was because coal dust was destroying the rail ballast.  Until then the railroads were perfectly happy to have a percentage of the load blow away and the rest get wet and icy.

In recent years, railroads have realised the best profits are in large volumes of single loads in dedicated unit trains, instead of mixed freight, and as our societies have become bigger and more industrialised warranting those unit trains, specialised rolling stock has become more common: for coal, ethanol, automobiles, logs, and of course containers.

But in general, railroads have always built general-purpose rolling stock that best suited their purposes not the customers.  Customers had to make do, with some highly profitable exceptions.

Finally, the container took the customers challenge away by introducing a standardised unit of shipping and now both parties are (generally) happy, but that didn’t stem from any railroad initiative to please the customer.

Customers are the source of revenue not the masters of the business

Railroads spend billions on infrastructure development every year (most of which is not driven by customer).  A railroad will occasionally run a rail line up to a big customer, but most of the time lines are laid for geography first and being close to economic density second.  Individual customers need to (re)locate close to the railroad or arrange local freight.  If a customer wants a branch built up to their coal mine, power plant, or factory, they usually have to build it at their own expense.

Railways are as quick to cut services as to provide them, depending on their own interests.  Governments have to legislate to force railways to run passenger services, and have done so for half a century in most countries.

The fact is, railroads are focused on moving stuff as efficiently, economically and reliably as they can, with enough surplus to keep up the massive infrastructure investments, for maximum profit.  The customer is only there to pay for it all.

Airlines are the same.  While a few airlines like Emirates differentiate themselves by chasing the customer who wants to be cared for, most airlines today clearly regard economy passengers as “self-loading freight”.  Emirates has long been accused of all sorts of unfair government support; they burn petro-dollars as a PR flagship for a “progressive” Dubai.  Most airlines (and their governments) can’t afford those levels of service anymore and instead simply stay competitive.

Telcos are a third example, with telco customer support being legendarily bad (although New Zealand Telecom have made leaps and bounds to improve).

Customer service level is a business decision

What do all these industries have in common?  They are commodities, in a race to zero on price.

You can rave all you want about Apple or Zappos.  These are companies who have chosen to differentiate themselves on service quality.  That is a conscious decision on their part, and certainly in Apple’s case they charge like a wounded bull to pay for it (and scam on paying taxes in your country too, unless you live in Luxembourg, but that is another article).  I don’t see Google, Amazon, Samsung, Microsoft, or HTC going broke, despite the fact their support sucks.

The level of love and attention you give your customers is a business decision.  It is a dial an organisation sets from “scum” to “master” depending on the strategy and current state of the business.

The governors of your organisation make the decision as to how important customers are, hopefully for good business reasons. The executive managers decide how that translates into levels of customer care, and that translates into service policy.  It is not for any of us to decide otherwise.  If you over-service the customer you are wasting money and putting the future viability of the organisation at risk.  This is true whether you work for a commercial business, a not-for-profit, or public service.

New Zealand Telecom lifted its game because its service had become so utterly awful as a monopoly that the government decided to deregulate and break Telecom up.  They had nowhere else to go: they were universally hated and they were too bloated to compete on price or agility.  Their competitors continue with the staggeringly bad support because they know it doesn’t cost them much business (see my case study about bad customer service).

Railroads are the same.  They know they need to deliver reliably and they know they need to listen to customer’s needs.  Some of the small railroads even specialise in customer service.  But in the main it is all about cutting a hard-nosed deal on price.

Don’t get confused…

Don’t confuse listening to needs with customer love. Any canny organisation follows its market: that is pure self-interest.  Railroads built specialised automotive rolling stock only after decades of complaints about dents and dust.

Don’t confuse good service availability with customer love. The only thing customers want from railroads, airlines, and telcos is that they work reliably.  We bitch about their rudeness and uncaring attitudes but we don’t switch because in the end it all comes down to price (or lack of options).

So don’t be led astray by vendors, analysts, pundits or consultants who tell you to spend more on customer care; and don’t let anyone tell you that you are failing in your job if your customers aren’t inviting you to barbeques at home.

Our job is to meet the goals of our organisation and to protect its ongoing viability.  We do as much for our customers as we need to, as we are instructed to, in order to achieve those goals.

Image credit

Expanding Customer Service To Twitter

“Providing quick, engaging and valuable support to your customers on Twitter can build a positive brand image and reduce cost. Twitter takes less time, and money and offers your company the ability to resolve issues quickly and efficiently.”

Image originally posted on Zengage, The Zendesk Blog

Rob England: "What is Service Management?"

Tenuous link: One of Rob's passions outside of ITSM is trains. The ITSM Review offices are in sunny Swindon in the UK, home of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's workshops which powered the Great Western Railway.

Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to welcome Rob England (a.k.a The IT Skeptic) as regular columnist at The ITSM Review.

Service Management

Railways provide a useful analogy for understanding what service management is and how it works.

What is a railway for? (or “railroad” for our American readers)

If you said “to move people and/or goods” you are only partly right.  On the right track (pun intended) but not there yet.

How should it move goods and passengers?  With maximum quality?  Or at minimum cost?  The answer to that is “it depends”.  It depends on what the customer wants.

A customer is one who pays for the service of the railway.  That isn’t always the same as the one who buys the ticket or books the freight.  Many railways receive public funding, so the government or other body is effectively also a customer: they are paying for part of the service.  Not all customers are users of the services.

The railway is answerable not only to its customers.  It is also answerable to its owners and the governors they delegate authority to.  The owners may not want the same things as the customers at all.  For example, railways are often required to provide a passenger service as a requirement of gaining the right to operate.  These passenger services are often unprofitable: the money is in the freight services.  Guess how often such passenger services meet the needs of the paying ticket-holders.

So a railway exists to provide a service that moves people and/or goods to meet the needs of its governors and customers.

Your are in the service business

If you were operating a railway, what activities would you have to manage in order to ensure you meet the needs of your governors and customers?  There would be some activities that are unique to railways, such as scheduling, servicing rolling stock, dispatching trains and so on.  But the bulk of the activities involved in operating a railway are the same as operating any business: reporting, financials, HR, marketing, IT, procurement… and delivering your services.  It doesn’t matter whether an organisation’s services are transporting goods, providing accommodation, building houses or catching fish.  They all serve customers and they all perform a similar set of activities to manage that service.

Whether you build roads or map them, operate ports or use them, build houses or sell them, plan weddings or sing at them, care for kids or clothe them, sell PCs or scrap them, you are in a service business, even if you may not be in a “service industry”.

We aren’t talking about over-the-counter “may I help you?” service, how to develop the customer service interface, the experience of contact.  Service Management is about the end-to-end process of providing services.  It covers such things as:

Service management activities Rail examples
Delivering Executing a service for users Food service, engine drivers, shunters
Operating running the infrastructure that makes the services work Signaling, track maintenance, security guards
Supporting Responding to user requests for service or help, and resolving them Ticket sales, call centre, guard, repair crews
Cataloguing Providing information about what services are available Timetables, websites, brochures
Customer relations Maintaining relationships with customers Customer account managers, sales, public relations
Measuring Monitoring and reporting service metrics Punctuality, traffic volumes, profitability
Planning Proposing, choosing and strategising new services, improvements and retirements Routes, trains, schedules, freight deals, specialised cars e.g. refrigerated)
Designing How the service will work, what infrastructure it needs Developing  anew schedule, specifying new equipment
Building Creating the infrastructure, mechanisms, and processes to deliver a service Ordering or constructing new rolling stock, laying track, hiring and training staff, printing collateral
Implementing Rolling out the new service, going “live” Commissioning new rolling stock, publishing new or changed schedules, deploying staff, rolling trains
Assuring Protecting the organisation, its staff, customers and users.  Making sure the service is safe for people, compliance and profits. Track safety programmes, risk register, ticket inspection, financial and quality audits
Improving Making service better: identifying, planning and managing improvement to efficiency and effectiveness Quality programme, cost control, regular maintenance schedules
Governing Direct, monitor and evaluate the management and execution of the services Corporate vision and goals, high-level policy, risk profile, annual report

Service Management says the most important thing you do is deliver services to your customers.  Moreover, everything you do should be considered in terms of the services you provide to your customers.

‘Outside-In’ Thinking

Adopting a service management approach can have a profound affect on the way your business works and your staff think.  It takes us away from that introverted, bottom-up thinking that begins with what we have and what we do and eventually works its way up and out to what we deliver to the customer.  Instead, with service management we change our point of view from concentrating on the internal “plumbing” of our business, moving instead to a focus on what “comes out of the pipe” – what we provide.  We take an “outside-in” view.  Starting from this external perspective we then work our way top-down into the service organisation to derive what we need and what we have to do in order to provide that service.

Service management isn’t one subset of the business; it is not one activity at the end of the main supply chain.  It is a different way of seeing the whole supply chain, the whole business that produces the services, by seeing it initially from the outside, from the customer’s point of view.  Therefore any discussion of Service Management may stray into general business management topics.

Seeing our business in terms of the services it provides can’t help but make us better at providing them.

To a customer, “better” means more useful and more reliable, i.e. more valuable and better quality.  

From the service-provider’s point of view, “better” means more effective and more efficient, i.e. better results and cheaper.  

Follow along in this series of articles as we look at Service Management through the lens of railways and how they operate.  We hope it will provide a fun and useful way to understand this thing called Service Management.

© Copyright 2012 Two Hills Ltd.