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.


Will Amazon Kill the Zappos Magic?

January 22, 2010

In a recent NYT interview Tony Hsieh (pronounced “shay”), CEO of Zappos, described his management priorities in this order:  culture first, service second.  This may come as a surprise to anyone who has first-hand experience with the Zappos service model, which consistently produces excellence at virtually every customer touch point.  I myself was surprised.  I’ve heard many executives talk about the need to align culture with service, but I’ve rarely heard someone describe culture as their organization’s primary purpose.

When pushed to explain what got him there, Hsieh reflected poignantly on a prior company he built and sold (for a great deal of money) that had a culture he and others hated.  He vowed never to let it happen again:

When it was starting out, when it was just 5 or 10 of us, it was like your typical dot-com. We were all really excited, working around the clock, sleeping under our desks, had no idea what day of the week it was. But we didn’t know any better and didn’t pay attention to company culture.

By the time we got to 100 people, even though we hired people with the right skill sets and experiences, I just dreaded getting out of bed in the morning…when I joined Zappos about a year later, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t make the same mistake…in terms of the company culture going downhill. So for us, at Zappos, we really view culture as our No. 1 priority. We decided that if we get the culture right, most of the stuff, like building a brand around delivering the very best customer service, will just take care of itself.

How do you “get the culture right?”  In Hsieh’s case, he and his team decided to live and die by a series of core values:

…we formalized the definition of our culture into 10 core values. We wanted to come up with committable core values, meaning that we would actually be willing to hire and fire people based on those values, regardless of their individual job performance. Given that criteria, it’s actually pretty tough to come up with core values.

I was particularly moved by his take on his own role in designing and protecting the Zappos culture, which involved a central responsibility to create an environment where other people will thrive:

Maybe an analogy is, if you think of the employees and culture as plants growing, I’m not trying to be the biggest plant for them to aspire to. I’m more trying to architect the greenhouse where they can all flourish and grow.

So what happens to the greenhouse once Amazon buys it? I wrestled with this question when I wrote about Zappos culture in a post last year, as I was getting ready to go on a case visit.  We wrote the case just as the Amazon purchase was going through (for just under a billion dollars).

Amazon has clearly indicated its respect for Zappos culture and its desire to leave the company alone to continue to deliver wold-class service.  My hope is that Amazon can resist the temptation that has tripped up so many other acquirers, the temptation to provide a bit too much help the moment the acquired misses its numbers, a tweak here, a tweak there, to improve its performance.  That kind of help can be a lethal blow to the true drivers of a company’s value.  In the case of Zappos, I’m not convinced its culture could survive this well-intentioned support.


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 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.


Because Customers Asked for It

July 28, 2009

The NYT recently did an article on the company Lululemon, which has been targeting the niche yoga market.  I had a strong reaction to the interview with the CEO, at the point where the reporter tries to understand why the company had branched out in surprising ways from yoga-related items:

O.K., but why does the chain sell, for instance, rain jackets? Customer demand, Petersen says: “They asked for it.”

At first glance, this statement should not be controversial.  The logic is straightforward:  give customers what they ask for, and your business will thrive since you get to guarantee demand before production.  This rationale is particularly attractive in markets where the cost of misjudging demand — exacted through markdowns, stock-outs, and inventory obsolescence — can make the competitive difference.

But this same strategy has also led countless companies into trouble.  Why?  Because customers typically don’t understand the operational implications of their requests.  They don’t have complete information.  Customers often know what they want, but they don’t know whether you can organize your operations to deliver it effectively.  They don’t know what else you’re doing or planning to do, or how the cost and quality of those things will react to their desires.

It is a company’s obligation to consider both customer demand and operational complexity as it decides what to offer.  If adding a product or service is straightforward given your existing operational footprint, then fulfilling requests may make sense.  But if it means expanding that footprint in significant ways, then the decision is much more complicated.

I often see operational complexity run amok in companies, particularly in difficult economic moments.  There can be an overwhelming temptation to create demand, any demand.  I have seen well-intentioned managers in virtually every industry produce what customers ask for and end up with an operating environment that is difficult to control in terms of reliably delivering excellence or profits.  The moral?  Listen to your customers, but know that they can’t save you from yourself.  Only you know the true costs of their demands.


United Breaks Guitars

July 13, 2009

United Airlines baggage handlers broke Dave Carroll’s guitar.  Google United Airlines these days and two links dominate:  United’s official site and a video of a song Carroll wrote called, “United Breaks Guitars.”  The video has been watched over a million times.

Carroll reports that he actually witnessed the instrument’s demise, when fellow passengers on his United flight looked out their windows and yelled, “they’re throwing guitars out there.”  He then began a fruitless campaign of trying to get the airline to reimburse him, a nine-month ordeal captured in the video by a parade of apathetic employees.  United’s explanation?  As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Carroll had made a procedural misstep by not filing a claim within 24 hours.  There was nothing they could do. Sorry.  And so Carroll wrote a song.

There is no question that the video is a PR problem of the worst kind.  As a friend of mine said, “I’ve seen more press about this song than actual United ads.”  Bad service and United Airlines are now powerfully linked in the minds of consumers. But United’s bigger problem is lurking in the hundreds of comments posted everywhere this story is being told, from individual blogs to pillars of the mainstream media.  These comments make a compelling case that indifference towards customers is business as usual at United.

United spokespeople now say that they’re going to use the video to help the company improve its service, and my prediction is that these efforts will fail.  The company’s language is tentative.  If Carroll’s experience illustrates a systematic pattern of failing customers — and the anecdotal evidence suggests that it does — then United’s leadership will need to do something much bigger than launch a superficial service initiative.  They will need to find the courage to return to the blueprints of the business model and take responsibility for the fact that they created a system that reliably produces mediocrity.

Having no direct experience with United’s service design, here’s my guess as to what drove the behaviors that infuriated Carroll:

1. A United call center agent in India turned down Carroll’s request for making good on the damaged guitar.  The agent was selected and trained to comply with an increasingly complex set of procedures, and he was likely measured by his ability to follow these procedures precisely and efficiently.  Did he do a good job?  The policy clearly states that claims must be filed within 24 hours, and he likely had no authority to override them.  His performance is probably also measured by the number of calls he can handle in a day and perhaps even the number of calls he can handle without passing them off.  Now put this individual —  probably the lowest paid employee at United — in a situation where customers are justified in yelling at him all day long, and it’s not difficult to predict the outcome.  In fact, the agent did his job well as the system’s architects designed it.  He followed the rules and handled the call quickly, without bothering his manager.

2. What about the baggage handler seen throwing the guitar?  It is not difficult to imagine his crew being told earlier that day that plane turnaround time is the most important driver of the airline’s success, that times had been creeping up, and that low employee effort was at least partially to blame.  What’s a reasonable response to these messages?  Getting the luggage off the cart and onto the plane as quickly as possible.  This would almost certainly require throwing bags, particularly if the time guidelines made it all but impossible to meet the turnaround goals by respecting each piece of luggage.

3. And the front-line service team on the planes and in the airports, the ones who likely fielded Carroll’s original complaint?  These teams are also responsible for all-important turnaround times, which in their case requires managing an incredible range of customer variance, from disabled passengers to families with screaming children and excessive baggage.  They probably regretted the damage to the guitar, but their jobs were on the line in a climate of declining resources to manage the problems within their direct control.  They were probably eager to return to the urgent challenge of getting passengers to their destination with fewer planes and fewer colleagues, to say nothing of fewer tools  (lunch, anyone?) to reduce the growing discomfort of  air travel today.

My point here is that if you’re committed to changing a service experience, try to understand why reasonable, well-intentioned employees are behaving in existing ways.  Only then can you expose the underlying causes of the service failure.  Most change initiatives come up short because they start with Carroll’s basic premise — that employees aren’t trying hard enough or don’t care enough.  In these situations, managers often conclude that inspiration, brow-beating and tweaks to the incentive structure will shame or motivate employees to perform better.  But employees are rarely the problem.  The problem is usually the service model in which employees are operating, which has set them up to fail systematically.

United’s leaders must take responsibility for their central role in frustrating their customers.  This means redesigning the system so that employees can succeed on a regular basis.  If the company follows Carroll’s lead and blames employees for the problem, I suspect that little will change, except the rising level of customer dissatisfaction.  For those with less musical talent than Carroll, this will mean voting with their feet not their voices.  In the absence of accountability at the top, United’s customers will desert them.


Leadership as Human Buffer

May 27, 2009

Ellison

Business Week recently described how Marvin Ellison, Home Depot’s newly-minted Executive Vice-President of U.S Stores, improved the store experience in the wake of Bob Nardelli’s infamous tenure.  Nardelli made several decisions that have been widely criticized, including some explicit cost/service tradeoffs that eroded Home Depot’s core advantage.  An earlier BW article described Nardelli’s run this way:

His military management style led to 100% turnover among his top 170 managers by the time he left the retailer in January. His cost-cutting moves replaced experienced salesclerks with low-wage students, devastating customer service and handing market share to rival Lowe’s.

Fast forward to today, where Home Depot’s service experience has been transformed by Ellison’s leadership: 

Sarah Larsen used to avoid Home Depot, having dealt for years with surly, hard-to-find employees and indifferent store managers. But about six months ago, faced with a major renovation project, the Naperville (Ill.) communications consultant gave the store another try. She immediately noticed the difference: Sales associates were friendly, helpful, and in large supply. Now, Larsen says, “it has become my go-to store.” 

Ellison made a number of crucial service plays, but I was most struck by his decision to limit the amount of communication that central managers could have with store personnel.  Essentially, Ellison told senior managers that they could communicate with him as much as they liked, and that he would be responsible for store performance.  But they could no longer communicate (read disrupt) store personnel directly.  In some cases, this meant reducing the number of daily e-mails and reports that store managers received from 200 to one.  He also gave his stores just three metrics to care about — cleaner warehouses, stocked shelves, and top customer service. 

Ellison made it crystal clear that managers’ most important constituents were the people in their stores — their customers and the employees who serve them — and not their corporate superiors pestering them from headquarters.  Ellison became a buffer between senior management and the front line, which created the time and space for his people to focus on what really mattered:    

More important, Ellison is enforcing a practice called “power hours”—weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and all day on Saturdays and Sundays—when employees are supposed to do nothing but serve customers. They can stock shelves, unload boxes, and survey inventory at other times. “We could not address customer service needs because we were too busy doing other things,” says Ellison.

The results? CEO Francis S. Blake explained Ellision’s rapid rise this way: “You could go blindfolded into two stores and know when you were in Marvin’s store.” Marvin’s stores, it turned out, had the sweet smell of success.