Google’s Service Problem

January 15, 2010

The NYT recently described Google’s customer service supporting its new Android phone.  The article described how customers can’t call Google for help and that it may take up to 48 hours for the company to respond to email messages.  The article referenced one customer who has been trying for a week to talk to a live person. Still no luck getting through.

This article made the front page of the NYT business section because it’s a story about Google, not because it’s a particularly rare or surprising service phenomenon.  When a service model designed for one type of customer needs (e.g., using web-based adwords) is then used to serve an entirely different set of needs (e.g., after-sales service for a new type of phone), there is predictable turmoil.

The interesting part will be to watch how Google responds to the realization that it’s trying to meet wildly divergent service needs — what I call distinct operating segments — with a single operating model.  In my experience, the company has some choices to make if it wants to deliver excellent or even adequate service.  Option A is to serve one operating segment well and essentially ignore the other.  That’s not as bad as it sounds.  Southwest Airlines optimizes its service model for low-maintenance travelers. When high-maintenance travelers come along, it doesn’t turn them away, but it also doesn’t work very hard to accommodate them.  Southwest serves one segment with excellence and asks everyone else to adjust.  This is the definition of focused service.

Option B is to create a distinct service model for each operating segment.  If Southwest is an example of focused service, I call this approach multi-focused service.  To execute well on a multi-focused structure, Google must convince itself that multiple service models are better off under the same corporate roof.  I’ll talk about that more in later posts, but the key is shared services.  While shared services are often appealing at first glance, the model can be very difficult to pull off.  (Here’s a link to an HBR article where I touched on the concept of shared services briefly at the end.)

There are many examples of excellent organizations operating with either focused or multi-focused service models. But there are far more examples of organizations doing neither.  Instead, these organizations work hard not to disappoint either operating segment too much, which ensures a limit to the anger and outrage, but also ensures mediocrity.  It’s the path of least resistance because customers complain more about bad service than they do about the absence of excellence.  A hard truth about service is that you often have to disappoint some people in order to delight others.

The responses by two of Google’s employees seem to foreshadow the direction it’s taking:

Katie Watson, a Google spokeswoman, said no one was available to speak about the service problems. But in an e-mail statement, she said, “Solving customer support issues is extremely important to us.”

Andy Rubin, Google vice president for engineering in charge of Android technology, gave a similar response, indicating that its challenge was to reduce its email response time from days to a couple of hours.  These statements suggest that Google’s still committed to using its existing service model to serve an entirely new operating segment.  I’m hopeful that abandoning this fantasy is an outcome of these initial service difficulties.


The Patient Has a Soul

November 25, 2009

The title is from the opening pages of the Cleveland Clinic’s Annual Report, which quotes Dr. Rene Favaloro:  “the patient is not only an illness, he has a soul.”  I came across the quote as I watched my colleague, Ananth Raman, teach a class in our Achieving Breakthrough Service executive education program at HBS.  Ananth took the class through an incredible discussion of why a healthcare provider would need to remind employees that a patient has a soul.  His larger point was that we can get so lost in the quest for operational excellence that we lose sight of the humanity of the people we’re serving.

Ananth titled his talk “Empathy and Execution.”  One of the reasons it resonated so deeply with me is that it intersects with what I’ve been stressing in my work with executives, which is the need to set high standards for their people, but to do so with high empathy.  Getting one right with out the other is much easier than getting both right, as I explored in a previous post.

Ananth convinced me that this frame is important for customers, too.  In fact, I’m increasingly persuaded that one of the secrets to healthy organizations is a culture of compassion and excellence around all human interactions.  These values benefit everyone in the system — managers, staff, suppliers, investors and, yes, customers. I’m finding they work for my toddler, too.


Illusions of Customer Loyalty

October 3, 2009

As I read a WSJ article on the European grocer Asda’s new customer loyalty program, I was impressed to be learning about an actual loyalty program.   Most organizations create customer retention programs and then mistakenly call them loyalty programs.  This wouldn’t be a big deal, except that a mislabeled loyalty program can prevent a company from creating a real one.

Let me explain.  When companies pay customers to try out their products and services, it’s part of a customer acquisition program.  When companies pay customers to remain customers, it’s part of a customer retention program.  When companies invest in activities that increase customers’ willingness to pay, they have a customer loyalty program.  When a loyalty program works, it increases the chance that your customers will choose you over a lower-priced competitor.

European grocers have been touting their “loyalty” cards for years, with Tesco claiming the largest one.  These are effectively retention programs, where customers earn future discounts based on their current purchase behavior.  Companies like Tesco are bribing their customers to remain customers.  This is a classic retention tactic.

I was struck by the following quote in the article, which revealed that Asda might really be going after a loyalty and not retention program:

Making a dig at rivals’ customer-loyalty programs, Asda Chief Executive and President Andy Bond said he thought customer loyalty couldn’t be bought with plastic points or discount vouchers.

Asda is experimenting with a very different set of activities then its competitors.  Instead of offering discounts, it’s involving its loyal customers in strategic decisions such as which products to offer and how they should be arranged in the store.  Some customers will be given early access to products so that their opinions will have more influence.  Good customers will effectively earn the right to be a part of the company’s choice-making process. They will earn the right to co-create the value they eventually consume.

I’m intrigued by this idea because of the shared benefits of greater customer involvement — Asda’s customers make the service better, and become more devoted to the brand along the way.  Everybody wins.  And if customers turn out to be very helpful, Asda will compensate them accordingly:

…starting early next year, Asda also will reward customers who come up with the “brightest idea” that saves the business money. If the suggestion is implemented and saves Asda £2 million, a customer could be in line to receive a check for £100,000, or 5% of the first year’s saving.

Again, that line between customers and employees blurs.


Upside Down Operations: Self-Service Can Increase Labor Costs

September 29, 2009

A “self-service” play almost always has a strong cost component.  The model’s logic is that if your customers are doing more of the work, then your employees can do less of it — and can be paid less for it.    Of course, firms look for additional advantages to customers meeting their own needs such as increased retention, but the desire to drive down costs anchors most of these initiatives.  (For a dated look at these type of motivations, see this link.)

I want to share a recent research finding that upends this logic in surprising ways.  Dennis Campbell and I studied what happened to customers after they adopted online banking services, which are essentially designed to drive people away from retail branches that are costly to build, maintain and staff.   The web’s promise of low-cost, scalable self-service business models seemed like a reasonable direction for the banking industry, and so we studied the option to measure just how much companies could save.  We were then shocked to discover that the cost to serve these customers increased after they moved online.

As we investigated this phenomenon, we uncovered something interesting.  When customers move online, they become more engaged with their financial information.  They can suddenly spend hours examining each transaction, and no one is line behind them to hurry them along.  This new consumer behavior, on its own, is not problematic for the banks.  But the  heightened level of engagement can also drive customers to consume more full-service resources from the bank.  Customers now call more.  They have more to say and more to inquire about.  They even visit branches more often.

In other words, an unintended outcome of self-service is increased engagement, and a predictable outcome of increased engagement is the desire to engage even more.  The lesson I take from this research is that managers must anticipate the potential impact of self-service on their customers’ engagement.  If it seems likely that engagement will increase, make sure that the goals of a self-service model go beyond potentially elusive cost savings.  Make sure that improved service is a central part of your agenda.  Indeed, make sure that the project will be considered a success even if costs go up.

Who should pay attention to these findings?  New self-service options that make customer information more accessible are ripe for this dynamic.  Think online health records, not pumping your own gas.


The Cure for Service Complacency

September 1, 2009

The NYT described how the post office is responding to reduced demand as customers increasingly turn to alternatives for exchanging letters.  The action is late, arguably decades late, and not at all uncommon.  When organizations face limited competition (in the case of the post office, it was literally no competition), they often suffer from what I like to call service complacency.  Service complacency is the malaise that infects a culture when good service feels like a choice rather than a business necessity.

While this conclusion may seem reasonable on its surface — you have nowhere else to go, dear customer, so delighting you needn’t be my goal today — it denies an important truth.  Even if your competition is not visible today, your increasingly dissatisfied customers are a beacon for them.  And the new entrants that you can’t yet see often don’t show up in the form of direct competitors, but rather as enablers of the workarounds your customers have already resorted to using.  This is a much more serious threat since the rules of engagement aren’t immediately obvious.

In the case of the post office, customer dissatisfaction had been brewing for decades, but regulation literally gave customers no alternative.  This mix of high retention but low satisfaction was the perfect breeding ground for service complacency.  The post office’s most demanding customers started to get creative, which is often a red flag.   They started using fax machines, then e-mail, then e-mail with attachments.  When FedEx finally entered to deliver original documents quickly and reliably, the dynamics of the entire industry had already changed.  At this point, FedEx was not the post office’s biggest problem.

On the one hand, you could say this is just the march of technological innovation, and the post office could do nothing about it.  I think there’s more to the story than that.  Customers are typically slow to embrace innovation when existing solutions meet their needs.  But when an existing solution disappoints and disrespects them, which was the service experience that many post offices were delivering, then adoption of alternatives can happen at lightening speed.

How should the incumbent respond?  The are two enormous hurdles standing in its way.  First, it has to learn how to treat customers as if they have a choice.  And, second, it has to create an operational culture where controlling costs is a matter of survival.  Neither of these steps will be easy for the post office.  Competition has not forced the post office to care deeply about cost or service, and it’s hard to develop these muscles simply because Congress decides it’s time to start using them.

Today, the post office relies heavily on sending junk mail and packages that we order online.  This will not be enough to sustain it.  Unless the organization recognizes the intensity and range of its competitive threats, a fear that should show up in every single line item and every single customer interaction, then I’m not optimistic it will overcome its service complacency.


Self-Service Innovation at USAA

August 13, 2009

The NYT recently described an innovative new iPhone “app” that allows customers to use their phones to deposit a check.  Take pictures of the front and back of the check with the phone’s camera, and then use its email function to send the pictures to USAA.  Now discard the check.  No trip to the bank necessary. 

The application is a great model for self-service innovation.  USAA customers get a solution they prefer to the existing alternatives.  Instead of going to an ATM, they can now deposit a check from anywhere.  Customers get the enhanced convenience of mobile banking without having to sacrifice functionality.  In fact, the mobile deposit service increased the functionality of the traditional online banking experience, essentially overcoming the classic tradeoff between functionality and convenience.

USAA didn’t just transport the same services to a new channel — it designed new services for a new channel.  Bank of America, in contrast, created an iPhone application that only performs a limited set of transactions, all of which can be performed through its online banking program.  This type of solution is far more common and creates far less value for customers, a concession to the tradeoff between convenience and service.  USAA reminds us that great service innovation occurs when we challenge our employees (and often customers) to overcome persistent assumptions.


Lean Thinking at Starbucks

August 5, 2009

The WSJ wrote an article about the recent adoption of “lean thinking” at Starbucks.  Lean thinking is a philosophy popularized by Toyota’s famous Toyota Production System (TPS) that emphasizes rooting out waste in its many forms.  At Toyota, waste might be excess inventory.  At Starbucks, waste might be baristas taking too many steps to travel from the coffee beans to the espresso maker.  After reading the article, I’m not optimistic about the process of Starbucks trimming down.

Scott Heydon has the title Vice President of Lean Thinking at Starbucks, and two of his quotes set off alarm bells for me.  The first suggests that the impetus for the change is to free up the time and space for employees to deliver a better service experience.  The quote:

Mr Heydon says reducing waste will free up time for baristas – or “partners,” as the company calls them — to interact with customers and improve the Starbucks experience.

But Heydon follows quickly with this quote:

If Starbucks can reduce the time each employee spends making a drink, the company could make more drinks with the same number of workers or have fewer workers.

At first glance, this may not sound like an impending disaster.  After all, who doesn’t want better service and lower costs?  The danger lies in the ambivalent framing of the initiative, which is often good enough for the C Suite, but doesn’t fly on the front lines.  If the objective is to enhance the service experience, then a set of activities will reinforce that goal, and the definition of success will be fairly straightforward.  Alternatively, if the objective is to reduce costs, then a different set of activities will be required.  Eventually, these activities will be at odds with each other, and employees will get caught in the tension.

This is a well-worn path that can easily lower performance and increase employee cynicism.  The typical sequence of events is as follows: A manager sets out to make changes with the stated intention of improving the service experience.  Compelling rationale is used, invoking the experience as a driver of premium pricing.  Then, under the banner of improved service, the same manager starts talking about the efficiency gains of the changes.  You’re a barista with more time on your hands? Serve more customers!  Say good-bye to your colleagues!

This is dangerous for two reasons.  First, if your employees believe your commitment to service and then watch you measure productivity gains, you sacrifice focus and trust.  Not only do you breed confusion, but as clarity emerges, employee cynicism is not far behind.  Second, when senior executives begin to prioritize labor productivity over service, they often start to erode the competitive distinction that led to the premium pricing.  It’s one thing to purposefully pivot away from a premium position.  It’s another to creep away from it without making a clear strategic choice.

To be clear, I have seen companies achieve great success through cost-cutting initiatives.  But they were internally branded as cost-cutting initiatives, as a competitive rallying cry for employees and sometimes even customers.  Similarly, I have seen spectacular success when companies commit to enhancing their service experiences — again, internally branded commitments with the requisite decisions and activities in alignment.  I have even seen success with initiatives designed to improve both cost and service.  These typically work when a company is performing poorly compared to its peers and can make improvements on both dimensions, or when a company is in an innovative phase and looking for breakthrough ways to do things.

The problem is the disingenuous internal framing.  By far the most common approach is to try to dress up cost-cutting initiatives as service improvements, which breeds disappointment among employees, customers and owners.  And a tell-tale sign of this charade is shifts in messaging, particularly for multiple audiences.  Starbucks contradicted itself within minutes for the WSJ, which doesn’t make me optimistic that they’ll be an exception to the rule that these initiatives tend to cause more harm than good.


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