Why CX professionals must unlock their problem-solving potential - and how to do itby
Effective decision-making is a vital skill for CX professionals. And with the right techniques, these problem-solving skills can help their companies thrive.
The late, great father of management Peter Drucker turned the world of business on its head. “The important and difficult job,” he said, “is never to find the right answer – it is to find the right question.”
In all strata of business, many senior executives struggle to answer questions because they are unable to ask better ones in the first place. The obvious question is frequently a poor one. A specific challenge might obscure a more general problem. If you cannot adequately frame the question in the first place, the answer you find will be suboptimal at best. It might even make the problem worse.
When my colleague Professor Arnaud Chevallier and I researched our new book Solvable, we discovered that many of the senior executives we consulted struggled to solve problems, despite problem-solving being a core part of their role. This worrying figure becomes less surprising when you discover that some 55% of the 450 top executives we surveyed reported framing issues.
The results were consistent across geographies, industries, and seniority levels. Yet by learning how to reframe problems, CX professionals can buck the trend, improving customer journeys and often saving their companies money in the process.
Imagine you are CX director at a chain of luxury department stores. A customer survey reveals a widespread frustration with an integral part of the shopping experience – the lifts. The customers report that the elevators in all five of your stores are too slow. Concerned that these basic in-store logistics are compromising what should be enjoyable retail therapy for your customers, the c-suite asks you to suggest solutions to the problem.
The obvious framing of the question is, ‘How may we speed up the lifts?’ There are several possible answers to this:
- Replacing them with high-speed models.
- Retrofitting the existing units with faster motors.
- Devising an express system whereby some lifts stop only at certain floors.
- Adding high-speed lifts to complement the existing fleet
However, none of these solutions are without significant challenges. Replacing or adding lifts would cost millions, take months, and cause huge disruption. Upgrading the existing stock might be cheaper, but your engineers say it will probably take longer than replacing them wholesale. The express option, they say, will offer a marginal gain in journey times but at the cost of confusing your customers, who are used to all lifts serving all floors.
Reframe to gain
What should you do? The lift conundrum is a classic case of the initial question constraining your options. Starting with the premise that the lifts must be accelerated leads to a series of ‘solutions’ that require large-scale, expensive, and time-consuming engineering – or a reduction in service that is likely to annoy your customers.
Try reframing the question thus, ‘How can we make our users happy with the speed of our elevators?’ Suddenly, a whole raft of potential solutions emerges, based upon making the customer experience of lift travel more enjoyable. The answers include:
- Adding televisions to the lifts that show your latest fashions on the catwalk, promoting your stock in the process.
- Installing large mirrors so your customers can admire themselves, fix their makeup and primp their hair.
- Offering newspapers and magazines to read.
- Broadcasting store radio through the lift’s speakers, entertaining the customers, and informing them of events in store that day.
The bottom line is that none of these potential resolutions would have occurred while ever the question was, ‘How may we speed up the lifts?’ By reframing the question, you introduce a plethora of exciting new avenues that could please the customers and save the retail chain a ton of money: after all, installing mirrors, audio and visual can be done at a fraction of the time and cost of refitting or replacing dozens of elevators.
The key point is that sometimes, an (in this case) engineering problem isn’t best solved with an (in this case) engineering solution. Reframing our problem can drastically improve our problem solving. Problem framing and option generation are closely interlinked. One informs the other – thus it often pays to iterate between the two as new evidence helps us gain new insights into our problem.
It’s a truism that CX professionals want to enhance – even perfect – the customer experience. The difficulty many have is that customers are often poor at telling us what they want – as Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
People lie on surveys and, even when they are being honest, customers’ proposed solutions might be too narrow and constrain your thinking.
Consider these frames from the transport and housing sectors:
1. A survey reveals that customers think the London to Newcastle train is too slow.
‘How can we speed up the London to Newcastle train?’ vs ‘How can we make customers happy with the London to Newcastle service?’
The first question ‘How can we speed up the London to Newcastle train?’ implies answers such as replacing the train, stopping at fewer stations, reducing safety standards to allow faster speeds. All of these have considerable flaws: replacing the trains is costly and time-consuming; decreasing the number of stops will anger customers en route; reducing safety standards could lead to accidents.
The second question ‘How can we make customers happy with the London to Newcastle service?’ implies a much wider and more creative mix of potential solutions. You could add free high-speed wifi throughout, so people can work effectively on the train. You could offer cinema or live sport, to keep passengers entertained. A restaurant car could be installed, so passengers could make the best use of their time by enjoying a delicious, freshly cooked meal.
2. A tenants’ group in a block of luxury flats threatens to move elsewhere unless a gym, sauna and swimming pool are added to the development.
‘How can we add a major leisure facility to the development?’ vs ‘How can we ensure tenants have easy access to great leisure facilities?’
The first frame implies major building works, lengthy consultations, and huge costs. The second opens a variety of interesting avenues – such as sharing another local development’s facilities or including luxury local gym membership in the tenants’ rental agreements.
Too often, we limit our options by failing to understand the science of decision-making, missing out on great solutions that can generate revenue or save cost while also transforming the customer experience.
In Solvable, Professor Chevallier and I outline the key steps that will help CX professionals frame problems, explore options, and decide the solutions that will make them invaluable to their organisations. Our framework is new – but it starts from a classic principle: the key to finding better answers is asking a better question.
Albrecht Enders is Professor of Strategy and Innovation at The International Institute for Management Development (IMD). His new book with co-author and IMD colleague Professor Arnaud Chevallier Solvable is out now.
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