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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The kind of physical evidence you hide.

An important but oft-overlooked aspect of experiences is the role the physical elements of the service environment play in facilitating the experience, setting expectations and providing cues as to quality, while sometimes serving as a post-experience reminder of the recent service.

Lamar’s, a popular donut chain in my hometown, has a loyalty program called the “Lamar’s Lovers for Life”. Like most frequent purchaser programs, they register repeat customers with a program number, and give them a card or key chain tag to swipe with every visit, so that customers can conveniently accumulate rewards based on purchase frequency.

A significant problem in using this common execution of the purchase card concept is the negative perception created in many users minds by owning & displaying a key tag with a giant icing & sprinkle-covered donut on it, scribed with “Lover for Life”.

Now, the good people of Lamar’s have a passion for their craft, and they make terrific donuts. But if I'm conscious of the message I send others via the brands I wear & carry with me, “Power Consumer of Donuts” is not likely one that I’m going to choose, regardless of the truth that may or may not lie behind it. As a loyalty program, Lamars’ may be the greatest on earth, (And it is pretty good) but if I’m embarrassed to have the tag, I’m not going to have it on my keychain, and so not going to use it.

Something to consider when developing loyalty programs for services with potentially negative associations is how they should be executed through the recognition, physical evidence and redemption encounters.

In this case, I would consider using a more subtle recognition mechanism. The "Lovers for Life" name should be changed, and the physical evidence downplayed or eliminated, so that we “donut lovers” don’t have to be so declarative every time our keys come out of our pockets.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Not your fault, but your failure to recover.

On a busy travel day today, the lines everywhere were longer than expected – at the parking lot, at check-in, (though Southwest reacted well by bulking up on agents to service the rush) and at security. (The TSA contractors were not responsive to the unexpected demand level)

Planes flew on time, but travelers had to hurry more than they usually would, and those that usually had time to spare found themselves rushed.

As I sat in my “cattle car” seat in row 2, one of the last exasperated travelers boarded the plane in a sour mood.

When he was greeted with a pleasant “Good Morning” by the flight attendant, he looked past her, down rows of full aisle and window seats, and grumpily replied, “It doesn’t do any good to pay for premium boarding when there’s 900 people in the security line.”

A great example of how, in service environments, the mere presence of other customers can impact the experience.

In this case, a customer played his role, paying $10 for premium boarding so that he didn’t have to check into a flight at 6:15 AM on a Sunday to get the seat he wanted.

In this case, he found himself foiled by variability of demand for the service he was using. The unexpected volume of travelers (though not quite the 900 he claimed) put him far enough behind schedule that he wasn’t able to take advantage of the premium service he asked and paid for.

This led to a negative outcome that Southwest didn’t create. Still, the customer’s perception was one of unfairness of outcome. In his eyes, he paid for something and it didn’t work.

What is a service provider to do in this case?

Most hide behind fact that their process was fair, replying to these complaints that the service success is contingent on the customer playing their part in arriving early enough. Since he was late to the gate area, they couldn’t hold the seating option he desired and proceeded with boarding. In this case, the Southwest attendant hearing the complaint didn’t react at all.

Of course, whether the process was fair or not doesn’t much matter.

The customer has a negative perception of the value of the offering, and will be less likely to use it in the future. Given that this traveler is likely a reasonably frequent traveler, this is an opportunity to create long-term loyalty (and revenue) by delighting him - recognizing that although it wasn’t the fault of Southwest, the traveler started his day with a negative perception of the experience.

Extra care & attention to his needs while en route, a book of drink tickets, heck even a 5-pack of free premium boarding upgrades – given that their cost is essentially $0 – all likely would have improved a negative perception about a service failure southwest didn’t create.

Even though your service process may create fair outcomes, remember to pay attention to how you respond to customers who have negative results – whether you caused the issue or not, these are still your customers to help recover and delight.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Are you grocery shopping, or sharing an experiential gift?

As consumers, we love giving recommendations.

Even more, we love sharing our outstanding service experiences with others, as an experiential gift, so that people who haven’t tried the services we love can experience what we do.

Of course, a shared experience changes the dynamics of the encounter completely, particularly when an expert customer is accompanied by one experiencing it for the first time.

The expectations of the expert increase as they want to show off their recommended service experience at its best. At the same time, the productivity of the expert declines as they have to explain details and nuances of the experience to the novice. Most often, however, the enjoyment level of both parties is extremely high, the expert satisfied in giving the gift of experience and the novice satisfied with a new experience.

So it was when I took my mother to Whole Foods for the 1st time this week.

Faced with the abundance of quality ingredients, in no time she had me running up and down aisles looking for obscure items for the week’s meals. I’ll admit with no shame that I had to stop mid-process for a coffee break.

She was clearly enjoying the experience, but I tensed just a little when she sent me to the butcher with the instructions, “see if they’ll bone a couple of chickens.” I love customizing the experience, and Whole Foods does it routinely and well. Yet I was anxious, given that I didn’t know whether they would or could fulfill this special request. My anxiety level increased when the butcher claimed she was willing, but had never boned a chicken in-store in 15 years of work. Still, I wanted to help Whole Foods deliver a special experience to someone I had brought to them, so we decided it was worth a try.

Of course, when I triumphantly returned with 2 two fully boned chickens, my mother proclaimed, “Impressive. At home, my butcher would never do that.”

On the way out, after an hour and a half spent on what would usually be a 20 minute trip, she declared Whole Foods to be her favorite store in the whole world.

Shared service experiences are tremendous gifts for the giver, the reciever, and the company providing the new service encounter.

What I seldom see are examples of companies effectively making customers want to share their experiences with others, making the shared experiences more productive, and creating delightful outcomes in these special, but frequent, types of encounters.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Big companies should learn to fail like the little guys.

In hurry between work and an evening engagement, I called my favorite local pizzeria and ordered pizza from my car. The order was taken, customized when I was asked whether I wanted thin crust, double dough, or pan, and I was given a 30-minute pick-up time.

Arriving roughly 30 minutes later, I met with the counter server and had the following exchange:

“Are you Chris?”

“Yes I am.”

“Just pulled your pizza out, realized it was thin crust when you ordered double-dough. I’m sorry about the mistake. I knocked $5 off the order, but I can get them to fire you another one if you don’t mind waiting.”

“No thanks, that will work.”

There was a service failure, but it was effectively recovered when the provider handled it by:

• Identifying the problem himself, rather than waiting for me to discover it.

• Offering an apology.

• Proactively providing service recovery with an outcome that exceeded my level of dissatisfaction.

• Despite providing recovery, recognizing that I may want the initial promise made good upon, and giving me a reasonable outlet for full recovery of the initial promise.

• Displaying an attitude that made the interaction, though a failure, a pleasant one.

In less than 50 words of dialogue, he took full ownership for the failure and provided a fair outcome and a clear process for full remedy, all before the failed service ever became an issue.

Small service businesses have an advantage over larger ones. They’re closer to the customers they serve, smarter about what commitments they make to whom and enable front line providers to keep the service promises they’ve made.

If big business was able to execute on the 5 simple components of recovery my pizza guy did, they’d spend less on service, less on recovery, and less on replacement of revenue from lost customers.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Form follows function, even for experiences.

The service environment plays a lot of roles, giving tangible cues about the experience about to occur. In the most effective environments, the servicescape facilitates the experience itself, contributing to successful service outcomes.

I was at my semi-frequent local sandwich stop to pick up some lunch on the go. They make great sandwiches, and as part of the experience, have given them pithy names based on geographic origin.

A large menu board and several smaller signs provided the name of each sandwich and identified the ingredients in them. But they recently changed the signage, leaving the sandwich names but removing the ingredient listings.

It’s a bad idea, unless your products are universally known to the market you serve.

We’ve all developed enough familiarity with the Big Mac that you seldom hear someone standing at the McDonald’s counter ask what’s in one. But until you’ve sold a billion of them, list the ingredients.

Worse than just a marketing problem, in a service environment, lack of product awareness adversely affects the interaction.

Before the removal of the descriptions, I could order my sandwich, have the order taken, prepared, pay for it and be on my way.

Now in the same interaction, I ask the server the ingredients because I can’t remember whether a “Siciliano” or a “Toscano” should rightfully have pepperoncinis. The server spends extra time explaining the sandwiches, and gets visibly frustrated with the added step to the process, a product explanation that she seldom had to conduct when the signage did the work for her.

Marketers fall in love with their products, want them have a recognizable name. More important than universal recognition is to use names to facilitate the service experience, describe to customers what they should expect, how it should work and how they should feel using it.

Likewise, the signage and other environmental aspects should be looked at not only for what they add to the ambiance, but more importantly how they can be used to facilitate the service encounter and make it operate more smoothly, remove steps, or improve quality.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Evaluating experiences beyond "I know it when I see it."

I’m in the middle of an awful service experience with my local Volkswagen service location, one that has left me without my main mode of transportation for the last seven days and counting.

Though it hasn’t yet concluded, I’m taking a few minutes to go frame-by-frame through the experience in preparation for a debrief with the service provider. As I’m doing so, It’s obvious that if they were simply better at keeping me informed on the status of the ongoing experience, my perception of the entire engagement would be dramatically improved.

Quality of the services we produce and consume is difficult for all parties involved to measure.

Because of their intangible, emotional nature, consumers often use the “I know it when I see it” method to judge whether their experience was a good one or a bad one. Regardless of whether the evaluation was conscious or not, they’re evaluating their experiences on five service quality dimensions companies also need pay attention to:

• Assurance: the ability of the company / provider / experience to inspire trust in the consumer

• Empathy: the emotional labor, or caring, behind the actions of the service or its provider

• Reliability: the ability to perform the promised experience accurately and consistently

• Responsiveness: the willingness of service providers to help, and the availability of the offering

• Physical evidence: the appearance of the service environment and the tangible cues that the experience is adequately performed

In seven days of mistakes and omissions on the part of my Volkswagen service center, more than half of the quality deficiencies are of responsiveness. Their lack of follow-up or proactive information management eliminated any assurance I might have had, and I started evaluating everything else more critically, resulting in further failures on empathy, reliability and tangibles I might not have otherwise noticed. A failure on one dimension led to avoidable failures on the others.

Good service businesses know the relative importance of assurance, empathy, reliability, responsiveness and physical cues to their customers’ perceptions or the experience. They measure and manage performance across them, knowing that a deficiency in one leads to perceived deficiencies in others.

Friday, April 9, 2010

For service, dial the wrong number.

Ever dial the wrong number into a company looking for service only to get passed around from department to department as people who “aren’t responsible” for serving you struggle to find the individual that is?

Worse, have you ever dialed that wrong number, only to be asked to call back in, been routed back to a main service line or “accidentally” cut off?

This happened to me this week, as I called a company I do business with and ended up being transferred into the voice response dead letter office.

In most cases, it’s a telling sign of the level of service you can expect to receive from front line providers in that company.

As mentioned in this space yesterday, a front line service team will only be as good at keeping promises as the central support structure is at making the right promises and in enabling them to be kept. The mark of an organization that realizes this and fully supports their front line providers is where employees not in direct service roles know several correct paths to a service provider, or even better, are capable of owning a customer problem through resolution.

The Army makes a point in training that every soldier is an infantryman first. In your organization, is every employee a service provider first, or would most staffers look upon a customer call with confusion and embarrassment at not being able to serve them? If they don’t have direct service skills, are they oriented enough around internal service that they are capable of getting a customer problem to someone that can help in a single step?

Consumers don’t distinguish between parts of the organization that serve customers directly and parts that don’t. The company is the company is the company, and anyone should be able to address my need, answer my concern, and in return, take my money.

That is the standard that your company is being held to, whether you realize it or not. With fewer barriers than ever to “protect” internal employees from the need to interface with customers directly, companies that can’t provide service from inside will be penalized in the market for their lack of all-organization service orientation.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Employees first or customers first?

It is hotly debated whether it better business to serve customers as the company’s #1 priority or treat employees right and let them do their best work. Rather than frame debate as a conflict of service management philosophy – impossible to argue to conclusion – the timeline for executing any service experience provides the answer.

The answer is “yes” and “yes”, in that order.

A company’s ability to serve its customers is a direct reflection of the internal service those charged with providing front line service themselves receive.

Service businesses are fundamentally promise businesses.

Front line employees are in the business of fulfilling promises. But while front line providers are responsible for fulfilling promises and creating the experience, they don’t often carry the full responsibility for making service promises. These come from many sources, but they’re mostly made by the company through sales and marketing efforts.

After the promise is made, the support organization is responsible for enabling those promises to be kept by the line providers. Starting with leadership, through staff organizations in marketing / technology / service operations support / finance / human resources, and ending with line managers, all have as the primary objective (though staffers often forget this) of making it possible for line service staff to keep the right promises to the right customers.

Think about the last time you were agitated enough to raise your voice in a conversation with a front line provider who knew what to do in order to give you the service you expected, yet still wouldn’t.

It most likely wasn’t that they wouldn’t so much as they couldn’t. A lack of enablement – a failure of leadership, centralized support, line management or all three – produced that result and your reaction.

The debate will rage on about whether it is better business to make customers the #1 priority or whether it is better to treat employees best. But customers cannot be the #1 priority if the people designated to keep the promises the company is making aren’t enabled to make them #1 by world class support.