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Monday, May 31, 2010

Service Rant: “Underpromise, Overdeliver.”

Under promise, Over Deliver.

One of the most common business refrains, it often goes by its alias “undercommit, overdeliver”, which is the same thing.

I hear it all the time, as a consumer of various B2B services, as a manager of service businesses working with other service businesses, and as a customer in my personal life.

As a management philosophy that doubles as a service philosophy, I hate it.
At its best, it prevents companies from providing the kind of mind-blowing experiences their people want to. At its worst, it is a major contributor to big-corporate groupthink ruining customer service overall.

Underpsomise / overdeliver originated as a way for managers to advise their reports to manage expectations as an internal CYA, ensuring neither they nor their bosses would ever have to face the embarrassment of a missed commitment - a self-protective, “how to fulfill what is asked without failing / casting a negative light on our silo.”

But it has extended as a way to manage customer relationships, and service promises. External application of the credo is as big a mistake as it is internally.

The problem is that the first part of the equation gets fulfilled. Under committing is easy – it just means that you don’t promise to do as much as you know you’re capable of. But faced with someone not complaining about the level of care they receive, they forget to over deliver. Conserve resources. Get satisfied (lazy) delivering what is “good enough”. Ride the self-created perception of satisfaction rather than putting forth the extra effort to delight & surpass what the customer is expecting.

As they deliver a level of service best described as “tolerable enough not to complain” these providers tout how they “exceed expectations”, when they’re truthfully only exceeding adequacy.

The entire premise of under commit / over deliver has become a source of pervasive mediocrity. It’s why 80% of companies believe they provide an superior service experience, yet only 8% of their customers agree.

The solution:

Invest – time, effort and money – in understanding what the customer expects, and how different that is from what he / she truly desires. Start by committing to no less that what they expect. (it shames me to say that in many cases, businesses commit to less than base expectations) Deliver. Use the learnings to improve. Commit more. Deliver on that promise. Repeat the cycle until you’re delivering in the neighborhood of customer desires, stated or unstated. Maybe even beyond desires.

There are other ways to get there, but undercommitting provides no path to exceptional.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Is Zappos the Anti-United?

Both companies have had service experience foul-ups that became publicly visible throughout the social media sphere.

United involved a single case of a damaged guitar handled poorly, but that spawned a video since played virally over 8 million times and chronicled as a case study by Harvard Business Review.

Zappos involved thousands of customers impacted by an incorrect implementation of a pricing change and ultimately the temporary shutdown of the site.

In recovering service, providing a fair outcome for the customer is the key, but almost as important is the speed with which the company reacts, usually driven by the ability of employees to make good on their service promise after it has initially failed.

United is literally a case study in how not to approach service recovery. By refusing to pay $3,000 for the damage to Dave Carroll’s guitar because he failed to file the damage claim within 24 hours, the company provided no fairness of outcome. They acted slowly, hiding behind process & red tape, hoping the customer would eventually tire of the claim process and simply give up. Along the way, they repeatedly showed their insensitivity through employees not empowered to act on the behalf of the customer.

Zappos, on the other hand, handled its service encounter miscue with fairness, honoring the purchase price of all items at $49.95, regardless of what they were supposed to sell at – a move that instantly cost the company $1.6M. They acted quickly in doing so, announcing within hours of the occurrence that they had made a mistake, that the mistake had been corrected, and that the purchase prices on the transactions would be honored. One could argue that as the CEO, of course Tony Hsieh is always empowered to make decisions. But part of empowerment is the ability for the line to make critical issues visible to leadership, so that they can act quickly and appropriately. (It’s likely that an organization without that kind of upward information unempowerment is the culprit behind the millions of gallons of oil still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.)

If you ever wanted to draw attention to your fledgling luxury site, there are worse ways to do it than spending $1.6M in what amounts to free advertising that reinforces the offering, the service integrity, and the brand. On the other hand, while the ultimate cost of United’s flawed customer service wasn’t likely the 10% of market cap claimed by The Times, it probably cost them more than Zappo’s $1.6M in negative reinforcement.

We often speak about the power of word of mouth. With over 8M hits and an HBR case study, the negative WOM is evident. I still feel like we’re a viral video short here, but “Zappo’s Honors its Purchase Prices” is harder to fit to a rhyme.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Pearl Jam: better service marketers than most.

A problem service providers have with their good experiences is that they are, by nature, intangible. After it is over, you have no product to hold and often nothing remains but the memory of the event.

The challenge is to extend the emotion & feeling of the experience after it has ended. Often, this can be done through creative use of physical evidence – a tangible good the service provider gives or sells the customer that serves as a reminder of the experience and – in the best cases – a driver of desire for a repeat engagement.

Having attended one of their shows earlier this month, alt-rock pioneers Pearl Jam grasp this concept fully.

The Pearl Jam experience starts with value. They played 26 songs themselves, providing almost 4 hours of entertainment, counting the opening act – much more than you get at a typical concert.

They added tons of local customization to the experience, including hometown / Midwest nods to the Kansas City Royals, a local Iraq war veteran, and capped by Curt Tomasevicz, Nebraska native and member of the 4-man US Olympic Bobsled team joining the band for the final song in the ultimate fan dream fulfillment.

As an intimate, customized entertainment experience, I found myself almost immediately wanting to relive it. Fortunately, Pearl Jam knows this and makes it possible, through the production and release of every one of their concerts on an official concert “bootleg” endorsed by the band. I just picked mine up. Of course, I had to wait a couple of weeks for file processing & printing, but really, it’s a very quick turn on providing a quality live recording as memorable physical evidence of the experience that 20,000 people shared.

Start with value, provide customer-specific customization and extend the experience with physical evidence that helps customers relive the best part. Think of how many Fortune 500 service providers could learn from an anti-establishment rock band.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tide takes competition to the cleaners.

I love the idea of consumer packaged goods masters getting into the service arena. Long considered the worldwide leader of the consumer packaged goods industry, how would it turn out if Procter & Gamble were to package a service experience?

The Tide Cleaners slogan is “A brand you trust. Quality you’d expect. Service you’ll love.” They’re right. As a trusted product brand, expectations of a Tide-branded cleaner are high. But the execution level-of-difficulty is higher in a service environment than for the product offering. The service delivery operation is more complex, while the experience is delivered through hard-to-control intermediaries.

Fortunately for Tide Cleaners, they're up against some easy competition in the drycleaning services market. The cleaners I’ve used provide the same service out of nondescript locations in strip malls, usually looking more like the failed business they’ve been converted from than any concerted attempt at a service environment. It always surprises me that as far as service environments go, drycleaners are amongst the least clean – not exactly confidence instilling.

Tide takes the traditional model and gives it a much needed infusion of service and brand experience.

The environment is clean, well-lit and with a fresh, coordinated paint scheme that reflects the brand colors. Signage makes the location look professional and provides a physical separation between backstage and service areas. Service employees are consistent with the environment, similarly branded and presented in Tide orange.

You can already see what we know about P&G at work. While I’ve always assumed my drycleaning service options included “clean”, “please see if you can remove that stain” and “light starch”, Tide has branded their experience with trademarked “Spotlift”, “Freshscent”, and “Color Guard”, while offering premium drycleaning services for restoring faded clothes of all types to their original colors.

Like every other dry cleaner in the local area, Tide Cleaners also has a rewards program. Unlike every other cleaner, they tell me what I receive beyond the free drop bag and a modest discount, to include special access services, members-only promotions and a “birthday gift”.

They’ve also advanced some service innovation, with a 24 hour drop off box, and 24 hour access lockers for after hours pickups in addition to their premium cleaning services. I don’t know how many times I have wished for both of these capabilities, and I can’t wait to use them. Finally, they commit to searching out and replacing broken or missing buttons free of charge. Missing buttons have been happening on my clothes for so long that I had come to accept it as a part of the cost of having clothes professionally cleaned.

The Tide brand carries heavy expectations as to what an associated service experience should feel like. On all counts, it delivers on those expectations in a way that not only reinforces my perception of the Tide brand, but has also resets what I expect from an experience with every other cleaner I might ever come into contact with, assuming I ever need to.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Things to tell people who give you money.

My Saturday routine starts by paying bills.

Regardless of whether I pay online or send a check in the mail, the companies I give my money to are missing an opportunity to send an important message.

A bill is another customer touchpoint, but one with a unique opportunity to reinforce the value that the provider brings me on a monthly basis.

Because they represent a personal cash outflow, monthly bills are seen as necessary negatives. But because cost of the services I use is tangibly quantified, it is a great opportunity to also quantify the value I’m getting out of the experience.

Why don’t companies do this? Because they’re afraid I’ll begin to question the value I receive? Because communications dollars are spent on attraction of new customers rather than improving the experience for existing ones? Or just that the billing process isn’t within the purview of anyone responsible for reinforcing the customer experience.

There are some easy ways companies could be using the billing process to reinforce the value they’re providing me:

Tell me how you performed. If the cable / internet were up 100% of the time for the month, tell me. If it has now been 13 months since I’ve had a power outage, let me know.

Provide some comparative analytics. Power & gas companies have started to do this, but not nearly enough. Power companies should have owned the space that Microsoft Hohm now occupies in energy measurement and assessment. They could still benchmark me against the rest of my street / block, or against similar houses in my neighborhood. Tell me how I should feel about how much energy I’m using, and I’ll likely modify my behavior and start using less.

Remind me how much you’re there for me. If I made a customer service call, remind me of the usage and ask me to rate the outcome.

Reinforce my role as a customer. If something I did led to a higher cost than I might otherwise expect, reinforce the behavior you want out of me.

The monthly billing cycle is the necessary interaction by which your company makes its collective living. Use the encounter creatively and positively. You should be proud to talk about the value you provide, and equally proud to collect money for it.