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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Signs we love: 5 Guys Burgers & Fries

Servicescapes – the physical environments where experiences take place – give the customer cues about the service encounter about to be performed. What actions will take place, what role the customer themselves must play, and what quality they can expect. Good ones also take an intangible experience and use physical evidence to make it more tangible.

It’s not officially “burger week”, but today’s example of the service environment giving a tangible cue to the quality of the experience comes from 5 Guys Burgers & Fries.

Like In-N-Out Burger, the 5 Guys experience relies heavily on exceptional execution of a simple experience.

To communicate their simplified service model and their commitment to quality inputs, they proudly display the location the potatoes come from that will become today’s serving of fries.

Customers get a reassuring sense that 5 Guys has a simple enough service model that they both know where their ingredient inputs come from and care about their quality. That kind of volunteered accountability provides customers up-front confidence in the quality of the experience. It also makes the experience more tangible. They may not know where Shoshone, ID is, but the information creates in customers' minds vivid imagery of the life of their produce on an Idahoan potato farm.

Think about your physical environment, and what cues it provides about the quality of the experience you’re about to provide. Do you have a Mercedes experience in a Yugo wrapper? What could you do to enhance how customers perceive the quality of the experience they are about to receive? What could you do to make it more tangible? Could you, like 5 guys, promote the high-quality inputs to your experience as proof of the service quality they can expect from you?


In-N-Out Burger may not be a household name, but it's as close as possible without being a national chain.

Their business model is based on keeping everything unbelievably simple, from their supply chain, to their service operation, to their marketing.

They execute relationship marketing simply and well, having identified a base of committed, profitable customers, and focusing almost every communication on this critical group. But their core customers have been highly leveraged by In-N-Out, making them a national cult brand by spreading positive word of mouth.

What you’ll notice at In-N-Out Burger is that the experience is different for their base than it is for casual or new customers.

Where Outsiders see a small menu with few options, Insiders see familiarity. They feel trust in their adherence to a basic menu and confidence built by years of consistent service. In-N-Out has never compromised on quality ingredients, and never tried to sell their customers a pizza or a snack wrap.

For Insiders, In-N-Out provides social familiarity and the perception of special treatment provided by their “secret menu”. Like the Starbucks customers who recognize in others the ability to properly order a complex coffee beverage, In & Out customers acknolwedge an informal social circle for customers who order “animal style” or recognize a “Flying Dutchman” when they see one. The secret menu provides an experiential privilege to Insiders able to customize their experience using knowledge in a way that Outsiders who simply read the menu cannot.

In-N-Out treats their core well, and in their core returns the favor through loyalty, profit and word-of-mouth advertising. They pay nothing to market to me. In fact, they're completely absent from my market, yet they're top-of-mind as a meal destination when I travel to California because of their ability to get paying customers to be their word-of-mouth marketers.

As far as experiences go, I don’t appreciate In-N-Out to the level that their many raving fans do.
Yet I still stop every time I’m in California, mostly because of the word-of-mouth and the promise of a consistently good experience. With enough of these consistently delivered experiences, social benefits and special treatment, I too may in time become an Insider.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Kindle douses flame for sharing.

My father knew promote desired behavior through incentive. As a youngster, like many kids, I had an allowance. But Dad had always wanted me to read and be interested in books and learning. To provide incentive to acquire books (we lived in a small farming community with no public library) and read, book purchases didn't count against the allowance. Since they were "free currency", I indulged often, and a lifetime love of reading developed.

It is because of that background that while I have purchased and owned many books, I possess relatively few. When I read a book, I'm usually only a few chapters in by the time I decide whom I'll give it to when I'm finished.

Which brings me to the experience issue I’ve developed with my Kindle.

I received a Kindle a few short months ago at Christmas. I love it. I love the weight, love the readability, love the interface which makes the Amazon bookstore open to me 24/7/365, regardless of whether I'm riding my couch or riding down the actual Amazon.

(As an aside, the downside of the Amazon Kindle bookstore is that the long tail of the internet got shorter. BA (Before Amazon) I was limited by the inventory of the bookstore. If I wanted greater selection, I needed to find a bigger bookstore. Amazon gave me limitless access to every title - new, used, or out-of-print. AK (After Kindle) my selection has been reduced again, with not every title available.)

What I don't like about my Kindle experience, is that I'm no longer able to share the joy of what I read with others the way I used to. Sure, I can recommend that someone read a book, or buy them a credit or a hard copy version, but it's not the same as finishing a book and giving it away with my regards to someone I feel will appreciate it.

I'm guessing that this scenario was well evaluated by Amazon. After all, with readers not able to give away their product-based books, logic would suggest that revenue would rise as the would-be recipient of a free book has to buy one themselves. I’m skeptical, thinking it more likely that a positive reading experience from a gifted book (essentially giving away a product being the highest form of word-of-mouth advertising) leads to future purchases from the same author.

Either way, when considering a dramatic change to an experience, particularly one like the Kindle that turns a product experience into a product-service hybrid, you have to consider all possible touchpoints of the product model and where value might be added through the experience, whether it was intended or not.

An alternative? How about the ability to gift a title once? The argument against is that a grey market for digital books develops, but truthfully, this already existed when books were tangible products. The difference is that now, Amazon could use the gifting information to refine its customer-preference sensing algorithms and promote relevant product suggestions in an entirely new way.

Books & literature are turning into an exclusively paid for experience and we’re unable to either receive or create surplus value through enjoyment and learning. The economic incentive my father so ingeniously used to foster a love of books and a thirst for knowledge has been greatly diminished for those unlucky enough to have the otherwise excellent e-reader experience.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Does GEICO need a newsletter?

I’m a GEICO customer. Not because of geckos or cavemen, but because I had been referred by several other customers on the basis of what they described as exceptional service. Luckily, I haven’t ever had to experience much of it, other than bill payments and renewals.

As a customer, they send me a regular enewsletter, entitled “GEICO Connection”.

Trapped on the tarmac in between flights this week, I read it for the first time in my relationship with the company.

The content made me question whether the organization I was doing business with was as customer-centric as I had heard:

A quiz on recall of the television ads. I’ll dismiss the value of the quiz out of hand.

A new site for educating teen drivers on safety, complete with blog, YouTube channel and Facebook fan page. I can appreciate that educating teen drivers is a major factor in keeping them out of accidents, keeping GEICO expenses and my premiums as low as possible. But is this the way to promote the customer behavior they desire? How about a discount for successful completion of an online test (putting that quiz technology wasted on the gecko to good use) or a service premium for those that don’t complete it? Rather than trying to make automobile safety a hip topic for teens (I can just imagine the social pariah one becomes once their Facebook updates that they’ve just become a fan of GEICO Safe Teen Driving) appeal to the real decision maker – the parent footing the bill for insurance.

A chat with some of GEICO’s most loyal customers – 43 year policyholders that have been with GEICO so long they lack perspective on auto insurance alternatives and what makes GEICO the best alternative for them or anyone else.

A sales plug for the American Express Auto Purchase Program, a 3rd party vendor for which GEICO surely gets some referral revenue.

I’m not saying a service provider shouldn’t work to develop a dialogue, or even a relationship with me.

But spending valuable touches on activity that doesn’t create financial incentive, social / relationship, or service customization bonds with me is a waste of resources that could be better used in other retention development platforms.

If GEICO just wants to remind me that it is still around, the gecko and the caveman fill in what reminders my monthly bill leave wanting.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the service.

I took two flights today on the same airline, but the cabin crews were dramatically different service providers.

I heard an early, subtle indicator of the difference between the experiences the two teams provided.

Upon departure of the first flight, the flight attendant, while giving her standardized exit speech, concluding by saying, “Enjoy the flight”.

A completely different speech was delivered on the second flight. Almost all of the same words were used, yet it was delivered in a with feeling and humanity that told us that we would be taken care of. The only difference in verbiage between the two, was that on the second flight, the flight attendant didn’t ask us to enjoy the flight, substituting instead, “Enjoy the service.” The experience matched the early promise

It’s a small change with a dramatic difference.

No one enjoys the necessary physical act of airborne transportation - at least not commercial transportation. The in-flight service associated with it, however, can be enjoyed or not, and it’s the most significant attribute a cabin crew can control that causes travelers to choose one airline over another.

The words we use are physical evidence, every bit the cue to the coming experience as a rusty aircraft with broken seats would be. While you can only script so much before the delivery becomes impersonal rote, focus instead on how you talk about your experience internally, when no one else is around.

Are you managing flight ops, pushing tin, or are you putting care teams in operation to serve traveler guests?

Are you measuring revenue passenger miles, arguing that it's standard industry convention, or are you measuring the number of traveler guests served and their net promoter score?

They way we talk internally, when no one else around, absolutely comes through in service delivery.

It's the difference between the unlikelihood of enjoying a flight and the possibility of enjoying the service.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Welcome to the age of co-creation.

It was hardly coincidental that a 140-character message from like-minded service tweep Barry Dalton launched a post on co-creation of service experiences.

He had suggested risk in the proliferation of customer communities for products and services, in that they potentially put the message, delivery and operation of the service out of ‘corporate control’. Further, inaccurate usage information from the customer community could actually create service / product failures.

Barry’s astute observation is part of a developing shift, with both tremendous risk and opportunity, around the experience co-creation that the web in general and social media in particular has enabled.

Customer co-creation is a critical part of any experience. Whether it requires a low level of customer input or deep co-production on the part of the customer, the critical component for a service experience to work is that customers both know their role and are enabled by the service provider to perform it.

In that regard, the internet and social media is almost entirely about co-creation.

Internet channels were first used as ecommerce channels and self-service sites – simple forms of co-creation of a purchase or service experience. But co-creation has developed beyond those simple applications, with service / product user communities, on-demand video “how-to” capabilities, and deep product & service reviews assisting pre-through-post-purchase interactions. With help now everywhere, customers are developing a better understanding of their role than ever before.

At the far end of the spectrum, Twitter and Facebook enable the experience directly through their technology and the aggregation of the networks. Then they get out of the way and let the customers do the rest. Users self-align based on shared interest, debate & advance knowledge subjects self-chosen, and largely self-police the community. With a large number of social media outlets, customer co-creation is the product (service).

The result? Social Media is enabling experience co-creation in ways never before thought of. Customers are becoming higher performers through self education, peer-assisted education through vast user communities, and the proliferation of online service channels.

This shift can be scary. The company now hands a large portion of control back over to the consumers, where the product or service usage information may be incorrect. But tightly linked user communities mean that the information is fairly contained. If it isn’t self policed by other users, the opportunity still exists for the company to monitor and correct misinformation. It makes the product or service stronger to have a user community of 3rd party commentators, even if not every comment is positive.

This shift can also be liberating. Users are developing self service capabilities never dreamed of. As customers become more highly productive in their use of services, they make the company more productive. As their part in delivery increases, so too can their level of satisfaction with a successful outcome. Users have more of a direct hand in the service / product development than ever before, enabling the companies to inexpensively tap into the collective knowledge of those who care most about it.

Customers are already moving on this, so co-creation of your experience is not a choice. The only decisions companies face is how much they can enable, how productive customers can be, and what development they can take away to make the experience that much better.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mundane tasks: great opportunities to create unexpected delight.

I just finished a four-night stay at the Hilton Orlando. Overall, very good, but not spectacular. Clean rooms with modern amenities, good facilities, reasonably priced, and helpful staff - even if the concierge’s restaurant recommendations came directly out of my GPS’ index of national chains.

The remarkable thing from this stay: The bill.

Slid under my door undetected as every bill does, this one came much more elaborately than the tri-fold or single-sheet invoice. It was folded and placed inside a simple thank you card. It seems Hilton Orlando knew I was on a convention rate (good use of on-hand information to serve me better). They wanted to thank me for using the hotel and invite me to spend my own dime to stay there with my family during a 2010 holiday, offering me what I’m assuming is a modest discount to stay during a slow season for a convention-oriented property.

Every customer experience map has touchpoints that are so routine, they’re taken for granted.

“Slide invoice under door” is as mundane / routine a service task as they come.

This execution was a great reminder that by looking at all touchpoints – especially the ordinary ones – creatively, you can get much more out of them, using committed resources and processes to create an unexpected customer interaction that delights.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Punch-up in 1st class.

Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but it got close.

On my flight into Orlando last night, the crew who had been doing the Florida turn for two days informed the passengers that the flight would have moderate-to-extreme turbulence the whole way, advising travelers to use the facilities before boarding as there would likely be no in-flight service.

Great example of taking a service experience variable and setting expectations for customers, and kudos to US Airways for it.

The announcement also put passengers understandably on edge, which amplified the effect of what happened next.

A passenger missed the “turn cell phones off” cabin message and was reminded by the crew to turn his iPhone off. When he didn’t, it was apparent that he didn’t just “miss the message”, but had no intentions of complying.

Reminded again by a now-frustrated crew member, he turned the phone off and set it aside until the attendant was out of site, at which point it came on again, all while we’re taxiing toward our takeoff. Now another customer became involved, telling the man to comply with the rule. “iPhone man” was responsive, only to say that he didn’t intend to listen to another passenger, and an escalating argument broke out, involving at various stages profanity and a polite request by one party to finish the conversation in the parking lot upon arrival. Again, all happening while we’re taking off.

In stressed service environment where the experience was going to be diminished with a rough ride and a reduced service level and people already had feelings of anxiety over a natural fear of flying in bad weather, one emotionally unintelligent customer made the experience worse for several others.

The Cabin Crew missed the exchange, though I don’t know how.

What could US Airways have done to deal with a problem customer at a sensitive time?

The first step in getting the customer to play their role in effective service delivery is letting them know what it is. In this case US Airways (and every other airline over more than a decade of this announcement) has done this job adequately.

Secondly, they should let the customer know the negative impact of their noncompliance on the service experience – in this case, WHY the passenger needs to turn off his cell phone. This is a tough one, because I don’t know that anyone believes that consumer electronics interfere with airplane avionics enough to cause a negative outcome, so relying on that explanation might create more disobedience. In this case, it likely would have been enough to restate that FAA regulations require it, and therefore we’re all going to need to comply.

But, if the customer knows their role, knows the consequences of not performing their role, and still refuses to do so, then the service provider has to deal with the problem.

Given that causing an in-flight disturbance these days seems to give airlines carte blanche to do anything, up to and including restraint, removal and incarceration, US Airways had a lot of leeway here.

They could have incented the passenger to turn off the phone. “If you turn off the iPhone, I’ll bring you a Dewars & water once we’re airborne.” That might reinforce a negative customer behavior, for all of us passengers within earshot included.

They could have turned the plane around and removed the passenger from the flight. They were well within their rights, and it would send a very clear message as to appropriate behavior. The negative would be that at this point, the experience for the rest of the passengers would be substantially diminished through what would end up as hours of delay time. The airline would incur thousands in costs for delay time and added expenses. And given the general attitude of the traveler, might escalate the episode to the variety tweeted & blogged about.

Personally, I think a quick announcement from the captain that if all electronics weren’t off, we were going to give up our place in the flight line until they were, and that everyone could thank the passenger in 3D for the delay, would have worked just fine.

Public embarrassment isn’t the most mature way to create customer conformity where needed, but it’s usually effective.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

I go back to Kindergarten.

Friday was “Kindergarten Round-Up” for my 4-year old, where he and his parents began the indoctrination process into the elementary school system. It was our shared first experience in what will be decades worth of education services.

Education is a different kind of service experience, but one of the most important that we ever have.

It is also one of the most complex, requiring vast input of time, effort and money on the part of the student / customer. It demands inputs of outside parties and influencers. Much of the experience is unsupervised. The extremes of time, input and intangibility make it very difficult to evaluate success, a fact at least partially borne out through our national 'dialogue' on education.

As first experiences go, the result was mixed.

Most importantly, my son loved it – he learned something, had fun, got familiar with surroundings, met stewards of his education experience / the authority figures he’ll be involved with in a very short time, and came away unbeliveably excited about returning in a short 5 months.

As for me? I filled out forms. Forms I could have filled out online, during time that didn’t have such a premium on it.

First experiences are the best time to establish expectations. In this case: What we should each expect of the education experience. What the student’s role is. What the parent’s role is in making the student and teacher effective. How the co-production process works.

If an institution took the encounter as what it was, a critical first service experience where at least a year and as much as decades of expectations could be established, how differently would they approach it?

I’ve often heard teachers express frustration feeling that parents aren’t involved enough in the education process, don’t commit enough of themselves and act as though it is the educational system’s job to do parenting. The opportunity to properly set role expectations came and was missed while I was transcribing various personal identification numbers.

The most important service experience – that of making a child student comfortable and confident in their future education surroundings, was carried off exceptionally well.

That said, major opportunities were missed in setting expectations and enlisting the active early support of a key co-producer, the parent.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Trainers with no sense of (business) balance.

My gym has some issues managing service capacity when it comes to adequately staffing to meet the demands of their clients.

For the 3rd time in the last 6 months, I’ve been a negatively impacted guest when they’ve closed the nursery early and without advance notice. In each case, as I’ve arrived with a pair of little ones in tow, for an all-too-infrequent workout, I’ve found the nursery locked tight.

Since I’m too cheap to leave - I have one of those grandfathered monthly rates that would see me increase my exercise expense by about 200% - my options are to either deal with the inconvenience or make some suggestions to management on what they might do to overcome a severe operational shortcoming.

Fulfill existing capacity commitment. Satisfies the client base by maintaining the capacity levels needed to keep the nursery running as scheduled, and likely has negative profitability implications. It certainly would have fixed my issue with them.

Use customer understanding to change the schedule to reflect demand. This should happen anyway, but some inexpensive research to understand the clients who use the nursery, how they use it, when they use it and what they value when they do. Based on that, scheduling decisions (and other operating changes) could be made that would increase satisfaction and efficiency by matching the operation with the desired usage of the clientele.

Communicate to reset expectations. If the policy is that no kids in the nursery means they will close early, communicate that. Better, post for parent guests when the busy times and slack times are, so that we may select our service times accordingly.

Let the guests co-create the experience. Establish a network of gym member-parents whom are regular users of the gym. Using any number of electronic scheduling, the clients themselves could coordinate nursery use so that the gym seldom has excess capacity.

Flex labor to create capacity. It may horrify some to think of their personal trainer in charge of their little one for any period of time, but consider that many trainers have designs on management. Understanding how an effective nursery operates is a skill-building endeavor for trainers. Cross train some gym staff so that the nursery can flex capacity up and down as demand needs.

Increase demand to fit current capacity. This should only happen after multiple of the above have been successful, but recast the gym experience so that it becomes the destination of choice for “health-conscious families” (rather than “just something we offer because every other area gym does”) and spend the time & effort promoting the positioning to attract the segment.

Likely multiple, if not all of these solutions could be used in different measures in order to balance a critical need to fulfill on guest commitments with the need to match service-supplying capacity with demand for a specialized service within the operation.

That said, what did I miss?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Thanks for the follow!

Twitter is a service model build entirely on the strength of the relationships of the community. They’ve enabled the conversation with technology, and effectively stepped aside to let the users completely co-produce the experience. Very few companies have the courage (or the ability) to get out of the way and let clients produce the experience, and in that regard, Twitter (and social media) is revolutionary for us all.

But as with all co-creation efforts, if the co-creators have different agenda, they can subvert the experience, undermine its overall effectiveness and leave people feeling unsatisfied.

Ironically, it is the marketing people that are doing this on Twitter. The people who advocate building close, one-to-one relationships with customers, are, by their actions doing the opposite – resorting to the mindless bullhorn as an attention grabber.

When I choose to follow someone, it’s because they’ve either said something interesting or are mentioned or referenced by someone in my existing network. In other words, through direct advertising or word-of-mouth, I’m saying I’m committed to trial of what you have to contribute to my experience.

Sometimes I get followed back. Great. Reciprocity is a good thing, though it’s no loss if I’m not. Other times, I get an auto-generated direct message, something along the lines of “Thanks for following. I'm a tech blogger making money from blogging and tweeting. DM me anytime.” or, “Thanks for the follow, I look forward to Tweeting with you. Check out my website and let me know how I can help.”

That’s at least a warning sign, and depending on the message, may be enough to get me to unfollow. I haven't reported anyone yet, only because I've been too lazy to read up on the ettiquette. I'm sure I've had the opportunity.

Instead of purposefully building a relationship to contribute meaningful context in areas I’m interested in, they use automated tools to expand their reach, make themselves seem more personal than they are, and setting me up for what they're selling me next.

It’s the very behavior we rail against – marketers casting a wide enough net to live off of the trickle of relevant respondents, disregarding the flood of annoyed people who aren’t your consumers.

These people & companies treat Twitter like a popularity contest, hoping to build the biggest brand as defined by followers. But the dynamics of value creation in social media are pretty much the same as everywhere else: create your position – what value you have to contribute – and craft its message. Work at finding those people for whom that value and message is relevant, and then work at providing enough relevance to them that they find your offering compelling and engage you meaningfully.

Resorting to the bullhorn to create that trickle of relevance may seem like a shortcut, but it is counterproductive waste. It diminishes the service experience of my fellow cocreator customers, and is the sort of thin that turns people off to entire media.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Postal Service accelerates its demise.

The United States Postal Service, like many service organizations facing reduced demand in a downturn, is trying to cut costs.

Like the masses of unimaginative service businesses, their “best idea” for cost reductions is to reduce service levels. In this case, they’re considering shifting to a 5-day delivery service from the current 6-day operation, eliminating Saturday deliveries.

It’s a bad idea.

Three major service components differentiate USPS from its primary competitors, UPS and FedEx:

They’re inexpensive. Though it now known as “snail mail”, USPS is very reliable, given what are usually substantial price differences between its offering and that of the parcel carriers.

They serve outlying areas. UPS and FedEx place enormous charges on deliveries beyond their core service areas, because they lose money delivering to places without density of stops.

They deliver Saturdays. Before the recession forced the elimination of shifts, an increasing number businesses were conducting Saturday operations. With the growth of ecommerce, Saturday is looked on by many companies as needed fulfillment day.

By eliminating Saturday deliveries, USPS eliminates a key reason businesses use them. Add in that they’re considering reducing service to rural areas and increasing the prices on parcel sized shipments, and they may actually be in the process of killing all three of their service differentiators at once.

It has been suggested that the USPS should be run more like a standalone business. Some go so far as to say it should be privatized. While that idea may or may not have merit, changing core elements of the service to replicate their closest competitors – ones much more nimble and far less bureaucratic in decision making than they are – is exactly the wrong sort of service model change.