If It Weren’t for Those Pesky Customers, Mr. Dell

June 29, 2010

In the NYT’s article this week about Dell’s recent decline, what struck me most was how far Dell had strayed from its original obsession with customers.  My sense had always been that Dell’s  low-cost fanaticism was in many ways similar to Wal-Mart’s — their mission was to deliver the absolutely lowest prices, so they were willing to work like crazy, and perhaps even torment their suppliers to get there.

But the details in this article, including a cover-up of faulty motherboards and evasive maneuvering with customers, is completely at odds with that genesis.  If true — and the article makes a pretty compelling case — then Dell would be following in a long tradition of organizations that stumble when they start to view customers as obstacles to their own corporate performance.

Dell became Dell for its operational excellence in the service of customers.  The company ushered in a whole new way of serving by delivering variety, speed, and prices that had never before been seen in its industry.  It was truly revolutionary.  And truly focused on end users.  But something different, and not that uncommon, seems to have happened in recent years:  Dell began to find itself more interesting than its customers.

It’s as if companies like Dell wake up one day, excited and surprised by what they’ve become, and start suffering from the self-distraction of a teenager.  They’ve gone from boy to man, and it’s heady stuff.  And the media fawning and magazine covers make it that much more difficult to resist themselves.  Along the way they seem to forget that what made them great was their customers.  In Dell’s case, it was the relentless and creative focus on finding better ways to serve them.

But like a nagging parent, Dell’s customers were eventually treated like a drag on the company’s bright, shiny future.  My advice to Dell management — and to any other company on a similar ride — is to have some respect, remember where you came from and make customers the center of your universe again.  The correction shouldn’t be that hard for Dell.  Looking up to customers is in their corporate genes.


The Beginning of the End at AT&T

May 24, 2010

In an incredible announcement, AT&T declared that it will be raising its termination fee for iPhones and a few other devices from $175 to $325.  The company offers some explanatory chatter about handset subsidies, but the real message it’s sending is that it’s simply done trying to win over customers.  Rather than keeping us the old fashioned way, by creating and sustaining real value, AT&T is now just charging us a ransom to leave.  Imagine an AT&T that was truly confident in its ability to serve? How would it behave in the marketplace?  It would invite customers to stay only as long as we’re satisfied — and not a cell-phone minute longer.

I find this decision scandalous, particularly since I’m already a frustrated AT&T customer (I can barely make it through a phone call without it being dropped).  When a company moves towards trapping customers, the clock starts ticking on its ability to serve them.  Penalties for ending the relationship create sharp antagonism with customers — antagonism that’s disproportionately felt by front-line workers — and signals to the entire organization to forget about excellence.

This toxic combination ensures mediocrity and accelerates a company’s decline.  I get it.  Winning the cell phone game is hard, and the people behind the idea likely had the best interests of the company in mind.  But when you broadcast that you can’t convince customers to voluntarily stick around, everyone hears you loud and clear, including your employees.  Who would keep trying in a culture like this?

Sigh.  This is a sad day for AT&T.


Retention is Not the Same Thing as Satisfaction

March 21, 2010

Last year I posted about the research Dennis Campbell and I did in financial services where we found the surprising result that self-service can increase costs (the article was just published in Management Science.)  Dennis and I have been working with Ryan Buell, a fantastic doctoral student at HBS, on additional research about self-service.  This new research shows, unsurprisingly, that online customers have higher retention than customers who are exclusively offline.  The goal was to determine whether the increased retention is due to greater satisfaction (customers love being in control and using all those convenient online tools) or greater inertia (it’s too painful to re-enter all those billpay addresses).

The winner? Greater inertia — the aggravation of switching  is just too high for online customers.  Even more troubling, it turns out that online customers are less satisfied than offline customers.  So even though online customers stick around longer, they’re not at all happy about it.  Why is this a problem?  Because these customers are a ticking time bomb for banks.  Once a competitor figures out how to reduce the pain of jumping ship, they’ll be first to exit.

It’s tempting in any competitive environment to conclude that “loyal” customers must be satisfied ones.  But we’ve found that even when customers keep giving you their money, they still might be miserable.  All those familiar faces may not be placing a particularly high value on your products and services — rather, they may simply be placing a higher value on the time and energy it would take to leave you.  My advice is to start scanning the horizon for competitors who can give your customers a better experience without exacting a high price for the privilege.  Or better yet, play it safe and become that competitor yourself.


Airline Fees: A Race to the Bottom

February 28, 2010

A recent NYT article touched on the issue of charging airline passengers fees for small components of the service experience.  How close are we to the world that a Southwest commercial famously parodied, where customers have to scrounge for quarters to open up the overhead bins?  Not far, it seems.  Airlines have an emotional hurdle to charging extra for carry-on bags, but virtually everything else is fair game.

The economics of this decision are understandable.  Airlines have been losing money on ticket prices, claiming that the prices the market will bear are not enough to cover their unyielding costs.  The revenue they get from fees drops almost directly to the bottom line.  Fees translate into “pure profit” because there is very little incremental cost in, say, sitting in an aisle seat.

But as airlines chase each other down the fees rabbit hole, customer goodwill is likely to follow.  Customers hate being nickled and dimed in-flight, particularly those who fly regularly.  So why do so many airlines think they’ll prevail by giving their best customers a reason to hate them?  It feels like an entire industry is throwing in the towel.

The game is over when service executives assume that customers don’t value the difference between good and bad service. When this happens, whole industries can get stuck in a competitive death spiral where they try to get a larger and larger piece of a fixed pie they share with their customers.  This is happening with airlines today, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  Competing on service can increase the size of the pie and make everyone better off (customers, employees and owners), even in low-margin businesses.

Why is it so difficult to make this leap?  Because differentiating, by definition, requires doing things differently.  Managers with things to lose (a career in a conservative culture) have powerful incentives to keep doing the same things only harder, to run faster than their competitors rather than create a whole new game.

Most airlines are not just running the same, tired race — they’re now asking their customers and employees to do the running for them.  That’s what the proliferation of fees represents.  Rather than delivering an exceptional experience or innovating on costs, airlines are designing elaborate schemes to charge customers extra without giving them anything in return.  And then they’re throwing their frontline employees out there to deal with customers’ angry response.  My advice is to reroute the creativity from fee schemes to service.  We’re getting close to the point where most airlines have nothing to lose from trying.


Are Acquisitions Making You Soft?

February 20, 2010

Are you buying your customers or truly winning them over?  Whether you grow organically or by acquisition can matter a great deal to long-term performance.  This is not always obvious in the way we evaluate managers — growth is growth inside the culture of many organizations, and so managers on a buying spree often experience a false sense of achievement.  And if you look closely at service businesses on an acquisition binge, a clear pattern emerges:  many are delivering an increasingly inconsistent service experience.  It turns out you can get lazy if you don’t have to earn the business of individual customers.

Acquiring another company can make a lot of strategic sense, but it doesn’t mean that you’re performing better.  I’ve watched the confidence of executives soar as they manage larger and larger companies (not to mention personal wealth, which often reinforces this confidence).  That confidence should be a narrow reflection of deal-making ability, but I rarely see confidence parsed in that way.  Instead, unearned operating confidence gets in the way of realizing that service is actually deteriorating.  And this can spell real trouble when you run out of companies to buy.

Oh, and add this to the challenge — executives with a taste for consumption also tend to leave once a company runs out of acquisition targets.  This can make diagnosing and fixing a service model even harder.

In my experience, organizations fare much better when they think carefully about the impact of acquisitions on their core customer experience.  Acquired customers often have different needs from existing customers.  It’s important to understand these differences,  along with the service model that was built to address these needs.  And then some difficult choices must be made.  Will you operate two service models?  Will you pick one model (typically your own) and hope the adjustment isn’t too unpleasant for your newly acquired customers?  They used to be #1 in the hearts of their service provider, and now they have to compete for the company’s attention. This transition is rarely seamless.  Acquisitions have a reputation for being painful for customers, which can often be traced back to neglect.  This is almost never a deliberate choice, but rather a lack of careful planning and choice-making on the part of management.

My advice?  Don’t wait too long to win over your new customers.  There is only so much they’re willing to endure.  At some point, even though they look like they’re still your customers, they’re really waiting for the chance to jump to a company that will retain them the old-fashioned way:  by earning their business.


Are Your Employees Serving You or Your Customers?

February 15, 2010

I had an unfortunate service experience recently involving Boston Coach, or more specifically, a Boston Coach affiliate.  Boston Coach is a car service known for its national network of premium taxi services.  I get tremendous value out of the service when I travel for work, as I often end up in unfamiliar cities at unfortunate hours.  Knowing that there’s someone responsible for me on the other end, someone who’s accountable for my safety and knows exactly where I’m going, reduces my anxiety (and my family’s) in dramatic ways.

But things can go wrong, as they can in any service, and as they did for me with a recent Boston Coach airport pick-up.  As I stood waiting for my driver, watching the clock tick by and watching every other traveler trickle out of the building, I had plenty of time to reflect on the service failure.  The question I asked myself was whether this was bad design or bad execution, was the employee delivering ineffectively on a good service model or was the model itself broken? By the end of the encounter, more than an hour later, I concluded that it was service failure by design.  This is usually the answer.

Boston Coach has trained me to expect a driver holding a sign with my name on it when I arrive at the location they designate (typically baggage claim or a specified waiting area for car services).  When I arrived exhausted in the Corpus Christi airport, there was no sign of a driver.  I called the company, who put me on hold for ten minutes as they tried to track down the affiliate.  Another thirty minutes later someone pulled up, unconcerned about my experience and defensive about my frustration, which made the subsequent ride painful.  It turns out the driver had followed her company’s instructions to the letter, and the fact that those policies delayed, agitated and disoriented me was not her problem.  I don’t blame the driver for the poor service.  She was clearly motivated by doing her job right, but somehow her managers had made it clear that she serves the company before its customers.

This is a choice that all service organizations must make.  Who is first on your employees’ list of priorities?  You or you customers?  In the absence of a clear choice, most employees will put the company first.  It’s just human nature.  The company signs their checks every month and doles out status and other rewards most directly. An exception is models such as high-end restaurant or concierge services where customers pay a large percentage of employees’ compensation.

If you’re not running a five-star restaurant and you really want your team to put customers first (not every company does or should), then it requires very deliberate operational choice-making and alignment.  This includes creating a culture of service that puts customers at the center of organizational life.  If service excellence is part of your strategy, then your employees must observe no meaningful difference between doing their job right and serving customers well.  And they must have the tools to deliver on that observation.  Your average employee must have the training, support, flexibility and incentives to deliver an outstanding service experience.

If you’ve designed a model like that and are still delivering bad service, then go ahead, blame your people.  But they’re typically the last place I look when diagnosing service failures.  Most employees are like my driver in Corpus Christi, earnestly doing the right thing and making your customers miserable along the way.

POSTSCRIPT:

Below is the correspondence I received after the incident from Boston Coach headquarters.  In another post I’ll discuss what we’ve learned about responding to customer complaints.  For now, here is an illustration of what not to do:

I apologize for this inconvenience. I would like to offer you a voucher which would be good for $50 off of your next trip with BostonCoach. Please let me know if this is acceptable and I will email you the voucher as soon as possible.


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.