Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Optimizing business processes to optimize the customer experience – 1

Posted in business and convergent technologies, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on June 9, 2011

I find myself facing a fundamental conflict between professed intent on the one hand, and realized practice on the other. Many if not most businesses would agree if asked, that a satisfied customer is their most important product. A business can offer what should be viewed as best of breed products and services in their marketplace, but if their customers leave from dealing with them feeling angry and frustrated, they will not endure as a business. At the same time, an increasing number of businesses cut costs in ways that limit and damage the customer experience as a core part of their efforts to remain competitive, and focused on their core competencies.

I have written more than once in this blog about the perils of fully automated customer support systems, and of the problems of taking human contact out of a business’ interactive online offerings (see, for example Enabling Your Customers, Enabling Your Business – Building Interactive, Participatory Value.) As important as direct customer contact and support are, and with a genuine human face, this is only a part of a larger picture. And my goal in this posting is to address that larger context.

I have been writing for over a year and a half now, on the core theme of ubiquitous computing and one of the underlying threads that has run through all of that is the power and potential inherit in automation and standardization with Web 3.0 and its ever-increasing capabilities for creating smart database driven systems. As I pointed out in my earlier postings, however, automation per se cannot simply be viewed as a substitute for customer service and for building and supporting customer relationships. We are a social species and not automatons and this holds for our customers and for our potential customers in the larger marketplace too. So I step back in the posting from the specific focus on customer service to reconsider core competency and core values as a whole, that an effective business model would seek to focus on.

• If you want to optimize your business for long term market share and profitability look at all of your operational processes from the customer perspective.

Personnel expenses can be among the largest and most significant contributors to fixed operating expenses for an organization, and certainly when both payroll and direct and indirect benefits are included in. And maintaining that extra staff member on-payroll means providing them with that extra headcount’s worth of space and other physical resources that also carry incremental costs. But a race to the bottom in limiting fixed operational costs through automation for the sake of automation can also carry long term expense liabilities too – including leaving your customers feeling disconnected and unappreciated, and unsupported in their needs. And the basic issues I write of here go beyond simple automation per se, and headcount reduction.

• If our satisfied customers are in fact our most important products, and both for their capacity and willingness to come back as repeat customers, and for their help in viral marketing what we offer to the larger community, long term cost effectiveness and efficiency in our processes and operations should support them in doing this, and incentivize them to do this too.

That is the trade-off where maintaining staff for providing a human touch to customer service pays off. That is why actually having people with a pulse on your side of the phone line for your customer support phone systems makes sense. And I write this thinking of my own frustrating experiences with fully automated, soulless customer support phone systems, and form emails I get from customer support that state as part of their template, that replies back are not read or responded back to – ever.

• Look to your entire business as through the eyes of your customers, and from the perspective of your own experience as a customer. Look to all of your processes and practices, and to your basic assumptions and ask yourself where you may be creating solid customer experiences, and where you are more likely creating customer disconnects and points of potential customer frustration.

I am sure that I will be adding more to this blog on this set of issues and finish this posting with a few thoughts on one final, connected issue – exception handling. Frequently asked questions (FAQ) resources offered online, on organizational web sites are generally set up with the intention of capturing and responding to the most frequent issues that a customer or community member might seek help with. But even if these resources are very well crafted and maintained they are still only going to meet the needs of customers for some 90% to 95% of the time. This leaves a residue of 5% to 10% or more, in many real world cases that are not covered, and this residue includes a lot of things. It includes specialized questions and problems that would only arise occasionally, even if they are vexing to the customer when they do. It includes situations where a customer may know they are encountering a problem but they are not entirely sure how to express it in terms of your FAQ sheet categories. It can also include new and emerging problems that may be small in scale and impact now, but that can come to impact on large numbers of your customers – here responding to what look to be exception problems can offer an early warning system for larger scale potential problems in the making.

FAQ approaches alone, do not suffice for offering a sufficient let alone a rich and satisfying customer experience online. Fully automated phone systems that only seek to address a pre-conceived commonest issues list of customer problems work even less effectively then their online counterparts. True, automated systems will improve and with time will become sufficient for virtually all customer concern and complaint situations, but they are nowhere near that now, as of this writing. And a customer who finds an effective response in an automated system now may be the same customer who hangs up in anger and frustration the next time because your systems and processes have failed them. They will in most cases remember their bad experience a lot longer than their good one.

• Build and optimize your systems, and develop for cost-effective savings with long term customer relationships in mind, and with an acute awareness of the here and now of what your systems can and cannot do.
• And always allow for the customer who runs into a problem, issue or question that they need help with that is not going to be on your most frequent issues list.

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