Why implementing service excellence is so tough for technical organisations - and how it can be done

Technical customer service
istock
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Why are so many technical brands able to deliver high-quality products but also deliver low-quality service experiences? Chris Daffy explores the reasons - and how they can be overcome. 

Have you noticed how many technically-based businesses are able to make great high-quality products that are incredibly reliable, yet deliver a service experience that is disappointing or flawed?

We see this everywhere - a car that hardly ever goes wrong, but a routine service experience that’s awful; a laptop that’s fantastic, but a helpline that’s anything but helpful; or a mobile phone that’s bursting with new technology, but a support line that seems to be from the dark ages. This is something that’s interested (and irritated) me for a long while.

I think the root of the problem often lies in the way technically-based organisations traditionally approach improvement projects. They are usually highly skilled in the application of Total Quality, Lean Principles, Continuous Improvement, Six Sigma, and/or whatever other process improvement techniques they favour, so they understandably turn to them when confronted with the challenge of improving a service experience.

These approaches are undoubtedly excellent for what they were designed for, improving a manufacturing process, but they are not much good for what they were not designed for, which is improving a service experience. I have found that this process improvement approach to service improvement can create unwanted issues when used. Here are a few of them.

Heartless systems

There are two key elements in any service experience – competence and character.

Competence is the efficiency, accuracy, speed, ease of use, value for money, etc., of the product and/or transaction. Character is the friendliness, honesty, attitude, empathy, quality of relationship, etc., of the systems and people conducting the transaction. Competence is a science, based on logic; character is an art, based on emotion. Competence requires the use of your head; character requires the use of your heart. And that is the crux of this first issue.

Technical people will usually have been hired, and perhaps promoted to senior positions, because they are great at using their head for science. It’s natural to them, they love doing logic, they’ve probably studied it and have qualifications and maybe even won awards for doing it. But using their heart for an art may not come as naturally to them. It perhaps makes them feel uncomfortable and awkward, and therefore is something they would probably prefer to avoid if possible. So they tend to develop systems that are very efficient but dull, perfect but boring, slick but heartless.

Technical people will usually have been hired because they are great at using their head for science. But using their heart for an art may not come as naturally to them.

Worse still, they often assume that so long as the process is right, it doesn’t matter if the person delivering it to the customer isn’t. So they invest lots of time and effort into removing variances and/or inaccuracies from the product or process, but don’t then go on to ensure the customer service people are as ‘fit for purpose’ with a natural service ability and the training and resources to encourage and empower them to do it superbly.

So the nature, training and experience of technical people can easily make them blind to the fact that the character element of any service experience is just as important as the competence (some would argue it is more important) and therefore overlook or ignore it.

Paralysis through analysis

Engineers, scientists or accountants love numbers, formulae, measurements and analysis.  They also like to find problems to fix. So when they decide something needs improving, the first thing they naturally do is research, measure and analyse, looking for the problems and facts that prove what they should do and why they should do it.

There’s nothing basically wrong with that approach, service experience improvements benefit from good analysis, but to make a really worthwhile difference, something more is needed. That something more is imagination, creativity and experimentation, and this is the core of this second issue.

This general and understandable approach of technology-based organisations and people often leads them to over-analysis any service improvement challenge. This can result in paralysis, because the precise proof of what needs to be done often can’t be found simply through analysis of a current situation. It will probably highlight things that need fixing, but that’s all. 

The fix-and-find approach is much too narrow an approach for service improvement - it’s difficult to research and predict how customers will react to something they haven’t already experienced.

This is not the fault of the ‘analysts’, it’s simply what they’ve been trained to do. It’s their standard analyse-and-fix approach which works really well in process improvement projects. But it’s much too narrow an approach for service improvement projects, where find and fix is not enough. It’s difficult to research and predict how customers will react to something they haven’t already experienced.

The best approach is a blend of analysis, imagination and experimentation to find what customers like and prefer that will build sustainable loyalty. You should therefore be continually inventing new ideas and testing and developing new techniques if you wish to create worthwhile results.

Foreign languages

It’s really tricky (maybe impossible) to get someone to comprehend something if they don’t understand the language being used. The language service improvement people use is basically different to the language systems or process people use. There are however similarities, and this creates the third issue because we can easily then be fooled into thinking we’re talking the same language when we’re not.

For example, the phrase ‘service delivery’ can mean very different things. Service delivery to a process person usually means providing what was promised, perhaps as defined by a service level agreement or a key process indicator.

But service delivery to a customer service person means (or should mean) the total experience a customer has, which involves what any SLA or KPI says it should be (competence), but it importantly also includes the way it is delivered and how that makes the customer feel (character).

I’ve found that realising this is important, so that any foreign language issues like this can be addressed, and potential misunderstanding and problems overcome.

Straight-jacket implementation

One of the widely used process improvement techniques is Six Sigma. It was designed by Motorola to remove unwanted variation from manufacturing processes so that the outcome could be predicted and replicated. And it’s really good at doing that. So whenever there is unwanted variation in a service process, for example if the time to answer queries from customers can take anything from say minutes to days, or if invoices aren’t always accurate, then this is a good tool to use to find and permanently fix the root cause(s) of these problems.

But with service delivery there are times when we actually want variation and we should therefore not impose strict rules or routines to make all things the same every time. Those are the times when we need well chosen, well trained, well equipped and empowered front-line people to use their good judgement and do what they think is the right thing for the customer. In those circumstances all they need is simple but well-chosen guidelines. Guidelines like:

  • Act as if every customer was your one and only customer.
  • Do for your customers what you would want done if you were a customer.
  • Do what you think is right to make the customer pleased with the outcome.
  • Always act in a way that every customer will want to come back.

Guidelines like this mean that there will be variation in some aspects of the service delivery. But in the right circumstances that’s a good thing. All people and all companies are different, so all customers and all situations are different too. It therefore makes sense that some responses to customers and situations should also be different. And the best people to decide what those differences should be are those people closest to the customers and the situation. And to do that they must be well-chosen, well trained, well equipped and empowered.

Organisations that are used to implementing a ‘no variations’ approach to their business find the very thought of this uncomfortable. They feel they should know and be able to control and predict everything that happens between their organisation and their customers. But for customers to experience great service, good variation is vital, so getting used to and comfortable with it is vital too.

Leaders lack of understanding

I have found that many leaders in technical organisations are reluctant to invest their time in learning what they need to know about the core tools, techniques and language of service excellence. As I suggested earlier, it’s likely not to be something they have a natural interest in or leaning towards, so it’s not surprising they would often rather have others do it.

But how can you effectively lead something you don’t understand? And how can you inspire and encourage people to excel in a subject if you don’t know what they should be doing in order to excel?

So what works?

So if those are the challenges, here’s what have I found are the best ways to overcome them and lead success.

Create systems with heart

The goal is not to replace the science-based approach with an emotional one, it is simply to ensure that both key components of good business, competence and character, are given equal prominence.

I’ve found that in all the organisations I’ve helped, there are always some people that ‘get’ the emotional, character stuff. The key during implementation is to find these people, ensure they have equal status on the programme planning and roll-out teams, give them tools and techniques to work with that will help them find and develop the emotional customer connections and then encourage and recognise the part they are playing.

It’s also vital to include questions about the character element and/or overall experience of any service delivered in any customer research surveys. Questions like:

  • How did we make you feel as a customer?
  • What will you remember most about the experience?
  • How likely are you to recommend us to others?

Then to use the answers to guide the ongoing implementation.

Turn analysis into action

There’s nothing wrong with doing some research to measure and analyse a current situation, it’s a good way to find problems and indicate where best to focus attention. The key is to ensure that this is used as just one step towards taking some worthwhile action and doesn’t become the only action that is taken.

So as the results of any analysis start to show through, you obviously need to act on it and fix any problems it unearths. But you also need to get people thinking of as many ideas for improvements as they can over and above the problems that need fixing, and then ensure they go and test them with customers to find the ones that work best. Then you can run with the ones that work and either improve or ditch the ones that don’t and move on to others.

What’s important is to quickly find things that show success (‘quick wins’). They give a boost to morale, show the efforts are worthwhile and encourage people to carry on and perhaps start tackling the things that may be harder or take longer but will be worth the extra effort and investment in the long run.

Create a common understanding and language

In his best-selling book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, Dr Stephen Covey explained that one of those habits is to ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’. I think this is the best way to approach the ‘Foreign language’ issue. Before you have any right to expect people to speak your language, you must first make the effort to understand theirs.

Before you have any right to expect people to speak your language, you must first make the effort to understand theirs.

I therefore recommend that people throughout an organisation, and especially its leaders, do some studying of the various service improvement tools and techniques that exist. They can then find ways to blend them and the language needed to implement them with the existing process improvement techniques and language already in use in the organisation.

Decide where the line is between predictability and spontaneity

I’ve found that the best way to deal with the issue of Straight-Jacket Implementation is to agree where the dividing line should be between predictability and spontaneity. What I mean by this is to make it clear what are the predictable things that must always be the same, no matter what customer or what circumstance, and establish the rules, training, routines and monitoring for these. But also agree what are the times when good judgement is needed and create some sensible, outcome focussed, as loose as possible, guidelines for these too.

Remember that by allowing people the opportunity to make ‘judgement calls’ they may occasionally get it wrong or not do it the way you would prefer. But that should be OK so long as they had the right intentions, they quickly corrected any mistakes, they don’t try to hide them and they learn from them, so they won’t happen again.

Create a sense of urgency

I’m a big fan of the work of Professor John Kotter from Harvard Business School. His research and teachings about how to implement change in large organisations have helped many that I have worked with achieve success. He bases his suggestions on an 8-step plan and stresses that many organisations, especially large well-established ones, fail at the first of these steps, which is to create a ‘Sense of Urgency”.

The bigger the organisation, the more existing systems and processes they have, and the more used they have become to doing things certain ways, the more difficult they find it to create any urgency for change – unless of course it is to deal with an unexpected or unforeseen crisis situation. But where the change is designed to create improvement, the necessary urgency is often lacking.

Creating a sense of urgency is not just about speed. It’s about ensuring that the resources necessary for success are made available and the best people are recruited to lead and implement the programme.

Creating a sense of urgency is not just about speed, although implementing with pace is essential, it is also about making sure people throughout the organisation know that this is important, and they are expected to play their part in supporting it. It’s about ensuring that the resources necessary for success are made available and the best people are recruited to lead and implement the programme. Finally, it’s about leaders showing their support for the programme and communicating regularly how important it is to future success and why urgency is essential.

Conclusion

The opportunities for technically based organisations to use service as a source of differentiation, competitive advantage and improved business performance are I believe, immense; especially in today’s ever more competitive markets. 

It’s also a fact that in most markets, if one supplier gets a reputation for having a service experience that is substantially better than the competitors, it often leads to many other worthwhile business benefits.

I would therefore encourage all leaders in these organisations to investigate this and discover for themselves how they too could make service excellence a key element of their winning competitive strategy.

About Chris Daffy

Chris Daffy

Chris Daffy is one of the UK’s best-known customer service fanatics. He is a Companion of the Institute of Customer Service and founder of The Academy of Service Excellence. His experience and expertise has taken him all over the world as a consultant and conference speaker and enabled him to work with organisations as varied as Airbus, Air Products, AXA, BAE Systems, Brenntag, BT, DLA Piper, Dorchester Group, ING Group, JCB, Jewson, Microsoft, Pizza Express, Toyota, Watches of Switzerland and Xerox.

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08th Mar 2019 11:41

Chris, you've hit the nail on the head regarding technical brands and the challenge of influencing leaders in such organisations to invest in the customer service experience. Great article.
Best wishes, Jane (Wilson) Ainley
(we did some work together at an ed IT company in the dim and distant past!)

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