On Delivering Quality Customer Service

Customer service is a complicated design problem.  Most businesses miss the obvious. The customer is not interested in how you do it, just what you do.

Canadians have noticed that coffee shop Tim Hortons is among the most chaotic service systems in existence.  The person who takes your order gathers the parts and delivers them to a service station.  Others waiting to buy do just that, wait.  If you order anything requiring preparation, other rules apply.  They are linear and inefficient.  I recently waited 12 minutes for a toasted bagel with butter because that piece must go to the sandwich table for prep and there were many complicated orders ahead of it.  The fact that the toaster sat idle most of the time and I was willing to butter it myself, seemed not to matter to the order staff.  It is not their fault although a little common sense could have helped.  Some system designer erred and a distracted, “Sorry for the wait.” does not make it work.

Same thing with insurance forms.  Do the designers ever try to use them?  Do automotive engineers ever talk to technicians?  Do government service designers realize that 120 days to perform simple tasks is ridiculous?

Some of our insurance suppliers no longer provide the same level of service as they once did.  Time seems to have little relevance.  Any answer that has been given is good enough. Right and wrong seem not to matter.  You can get better answers eventually, but you must intervene higher in the food chain to get them. That makes our job of face-to-face service much more difficult.

The problem is a constant in any big organization.  Could be an insurer, or a bank or a government agency.  Why should that be?

Organizations have the knowledge, but they do not always own it in a useful way.  Systems and methods live on from days gone by and the information they held then was a hundredth of one percent of what is available today.  Today there are far better ways to access information, but the systems have not yet fully evolved to replace filing cabinets and libraries.

I have noticed that the front line workers in banks and government are quite effective. They do, and can do, almost everything that comes their way. It is the “almost everything” part that matters.

Their job is part of a system and the system has flaws.  All by design oversight.  Service systems are like accounting systems. They should process routine things routinely and non-routine things not at all. Non-routine should be separate. The skill needed to deal with the non-routine is well above the skills needed by the front line person and is costly to train.  Do not overtrain the front line.  Do train the supporters. 

When the support is not considered and front line workers ask for help, how do they get it? How do they know the best guess answer is right?  Who pays when it is not?

More experience is not the answer to this support function. Non-routine is a specialized job. Businesses often use front line worker like skills to deal with these and that doesn’t work. The questions are non-routine because they are unanticipated.  Understanding the question matters.  Old form, even highly experienced, doesn’t deal with that.

Without a strong system the problem grows and the back office workers become over-worked.  They begin to value their service differently. They value process instead of results. Make the pile smaller. They are working as hard and long as they can and are five days behind.  The answer that the customer needs in five minutes will be either unavailable or wrong.

They see the people asking for things as unreasonable.  Let me refer them to others. 

Or this standard. Bureaucracies deal with a problem in one of two ways.

  1. Solve the problem.  Always preferred but not always possible because the information required is unavailable or the time too short.
  2. Make the complainant go away. The telephone message should be, “Your call is important to us.  Please hold until it is no longer important to you.”

It is a design problem and the result is exactly as you would expect from people who are not facing the actual customer.  For them the problem becomes abstract. That has quality problems.  Validation of their work becomes internalized.  Organizations should look to their real customer for validation. They should organize their knowledge to be accessible and to be relevant to the external users.  They should assess results instead of effort.

It is not good enough for system and form designers to decide what is good. They should use what they create.  

Don Shaughnessy arranges life insurance for people who understand the value of a life insured estate. He can be reached at The Protectors Group, a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency in Peterborough, Ontario.  In previous careers, he has been a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business.

Please be in touch if I can help you.  don@moneyfyi.com  866-285-7772

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