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Speaking of Service Excellence – Your “True Product”

What is Your “True Product?”

Go Undercover for the Customer!

This post is written by guest blogger Mari Pat Varga of Varga & Associates. I enjoy Mari Pat’s blog, as she offers insightful comments on customer service and organizational behavior.

This post, “Go Undercover for the Customer,” references the CBS show, Undercover Boss. Although the season is over, you can still view all of the first season episodes at http://www.cbs.com/primetime/undercover_boss/.

Mari Pat makes some excellent points about the employee experience as well as the customer experience. I hope you enjoy Mari Pat’s ideas!

Go Undercover for the Customer
By Mari Pat Varga

Many of you have seen the popular new CBS series titled, Undercover Boss.  Each episode follows a senior executive of a major corporation who is working incognito as a new entry-level hire for one week.  Through the experience they discover how the company really works.  The show is well done and sends out an important message to leaders:  You need to experience your company through the lens of the employee to truly understand what is working and what’s not.

Without fail, the undercover CXO identifies corporate policies that unfairly impact employees, costly inefficiencies and unsung heroes.  The leader also discovers how far removed he is from what happens day to day in the business.

I applaud the show’s intention and I want to suggest to the producers the next iteration for this show:  “In the Customer’s Shoes.” Viewing a business from the employee’s perspective is a crucial first step but would be incomplete without viewing the business from the customer’s perspective as well.  I started to think about this more as I viewed Sunday’s finale featuring 1 800 Flowers President and COO, Chris McCann.  I applaud Mr. McCann’s efforts to better understand his employee’s experience.  It also prompted me to recall an experience I had with 1 800 Flowers a couple of years ago that still makes my blood boil to think about it.  I have not used them since.  Following is an abbreviated version of the letter I wrote to the Head of Customer Service,  Julia Kauffman.

Dear Ms. Kauffman,

I am writing to share a very disappointing customer experience I had recently with your company.  I contacted 1 800 Flowers on Monday, October 15th to order a bouquet of flowers to be sent to my mother on her 84th birthday on October 19.  I began by going to your website and had to spend approximately 30 minutes trying to order a bouquet online but every time I attempted to pay for it my credit card was rejected.  Frustrated, I went ahead and called the 1 800 number.

This time I reached a sales rep who at best I would describe as incompetent.  I found myself repeating the same information over and over to her (her getting it wrong each time and needing to start again). I requested that the flowers be delivered on the 19th as we wanted them there for a party that would be taking place for my mother.  The rep said she could deliver them on Thursday or Saturday but not Friday.  When I asked why she simply said that was what her computer was saying to her.  She said she’d “try” to get them there on Friday.  I said, if not, Thursday would have to do.  After another 30 minutes, the transaction and order was complete.

The flowers did not arrive on Thursday, Friday or Saturday.  Despite the confirmation I received via e-mail.

When the flowers had not arrived by late Friday afternoon I called 1 800 Flowers to share my disappointment and ask for a refund.  I was told that the best they could do was credit back 20% to my account.  She shared that the only way to get a full refund was to have my mother send the flowers back on Monday.  This, of course, was not only insulting but laughable – I could just imagine my 84 year old mom packing up flowers…  As a last resort, the rep gave me your name and suggested I write a letter.

Ms. Kaufmann, as you can imagine, this is not about the money – it is about the principle.  Businesses make promises to their customers and trust is built when those promises are delivered.  I have to assume that 1 800 Flowers’ promise is that you can order flowers easily, quickly and can feel confident that they will be delivered on time and be of quality.  Do I have that right?  My flowers were not easy to order and they were not delivered on time – the quality is yet to be determined…

The end of the story is that I did not receive a refund or credit and the flowers finally arrived 5 days late.  I would’ve loved Mr. McCann to witness my experience!

At the conclusion of Undercover Boss, the CXO brings together a large group of managers to share what he/she has learned.  It is easy to see what this endeavor communicates to the employees:

  • Our CEO “gets it”
  • Our CEO cares
  • Our CEO walked a mile in our shoes
  • Our CEO is courageous

For a boss to go undercover it does communicate caring, courage and commitment.  Taking it one step further, I encourage every leader to go undercover and experience what the customer experiences.  Without the benefit of a reality television show, I can make a few suggestions:

  • Work a day in your company’s call center and hear the issues customers have
  • Work on the front line in a customer-facing position
  • Hold a customer town hall and learn directly about what’s working and what’s not
  • Track a customer’s experience from start to finish and see where it breaks down
  • Read the letters dissatisfied customers write

Follow-up on these activities with your customers through e-mail, blog postings or letters about what you discovered and what you are doing about it.  Just like the employee’s responses in Undercover Boss, your customers will recognize you “get it”, you care, and you are willing to walk a mile in their shoes – and that takes courage.

Leaders out there – get both sides of the picture.  Experience what your employees AND customers experience.  Communicating with your customers in this way will go a long way in building life-long relationships and loyalty.

Customer Service as a Growth Engine

Just wanted to send a quick recommendation for two articles in today’s Wall Street Journal (June 7, 2010).

The first, “Customer Service as a Growth Engine,” reinforces the message that as the economy rebounds (albeit slower than any of us had hoped), companies are investing in improving customer service – “Just over a quarter of the 1,405 companies surveyed by Accenture late last year said customer service would be the first area they’d increase funding for as the economy recovers. Some companies have begun that practice this year.”

The same article goes on to say that American Express is “expanding a training program started last year aimed at getting call center agents to focus less on resolving calls quickly, and more on building customer loyalty.” From personal experience I can tell immediately when a call center’s only accountability metric is call volume per agent. No warm, fuzzy feelings there.

The other recommended article in today’s WSJ is actually a review for a book written by Zappos founder and CEO, Tony Hsieh. The book (which I haven’t read yet), is titled, “Getting a Foothold Online: Delivering Happiness,” and recounts the birth and growth of the giant online shoe seller. The key lines come toward the end of the article – “He freed his reps from scripts, from mandates to sell, from having their calls timed. The reps had only one imperative: Wow customers. And they did.”

If you’re looking for ammunition to support your argument for improving customer service in your organization, check out the articles and pass them along.

BP and the Future of Customer Loyalty

The full effect of the Gulf oil disaster likely won’t be known for a long time. Already, industries such as fishing and tourism are taking the hit, and it appears to be only the beginning. Scientists and engineers are worried that Gulf currents might carry the oil around Florida and along the east coast. Pretty scary stuff.

The finger pointing is well under way, and it sounds like there’s plenty of blame to go around, but I think it’s clear that the BP brand has a long road to recovery.

While BP as an organization might deserve the consequences of the situation, I can’t help but feel compassion for the independent operators of BP gas stations. BP sold off their U.S. gas stations to independents a long time ago, and the main business relationship these operators have with BP is buying their gasoline and flying the logo. But the stigma of the disaster is naturally transferred to any entity associated with BP. Threats of boycotts are popping up everywhere.

Most of all, I feel compassion for the hourly employees working in BP gas stations. I can only imagine the comments, snide remarks, and jokes being directed at them. Though these station employees had nothing to do with causing the leak and, in fact, don’t even work for the company that caused the leak, they are an instantly available target for criticism. An already tough job has become infinitely tougher over the last few weeks.

The first priority of BP is, of course, to stop the leak and get the mess cleaned up. At the same time I hope someone in the organization is focusing on the gas station operators, updating them on the situation, providing current information, and helping them deal with station-level backlash. As a station employee I’d want the company’s help in how to respond to customer questions and comments. Few things are more frustrating than being left in the dark and having to say, “I only know what I read in the newspaper.”

I don’t think it’s unreasonable for BP’s independent operators to expect daily updates at every location so that managers can share information with their employees. As an employee, it’s the difference between feeling set up for success and feeling set up for failure. If an employee feels set up for failure he or she leaves the company, physically or emotionally. One way or the other, they leave.

Moving beyond the BP situation, I believe the lesson is this – communicating with the people who communicate with your customers, especially in times of crisis, is absolutely critical, not only for customer loyalty but also for employee loyalty.

Ask yourself, what if a BP-like situation happened in our company? (God forbid). How could we get accurate information to EVERY employee instantly? Waiting until it happens before figuring out the answers is too late.