Every business is a service business.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

I want my “OpenTable” for appointed services.

I need a haircut. People can gauge my mood by the height of my unkempt coiffe. (If you wonder whether this is possible, ask @Brainzooming. He’s seen done it.)

It’s 10:00 on Sunday night, and I want to schedule an appointment now, not leave it until tomorrow, when I get into the swing of a busy week and forget about it until I’m sitting here again next Sunday night.

Problem is, my hair place (salon, if I must) isn’t open. Though it should be.

Why can’t I go online or use a smartphone app to schedule an appointment with my regular service professional at a time of my preference? My place has a website, and while it is good at telling me where they are and when they’re open, it has no scheduling application. Nothing that would allow me, during a time when they’re not open but that I have some time, to see my hairdresser’s schedule, pick a time that works and confirm it without having to call anyone.

While we’re at this, surely my dentist could also pick up on this need and stop giving me appointment cards that get lost in my wallet never to be seen again, or at least until call to tell me I’ve missed my appointment and they’re going to charge me for it.

A rule of business (maybe not the “first rule”, but still pretty important) is, “make it easy for customers to buy from you”. Being open online when customers are looking for you extends your ability to take orders and fill your schedule with paying customers. Better, it does so in a way that works to customer convenience. Better still, it does all this without needing an “appointment desk” to be staffed.

If you aren’t available to your customers when they want you, maybe they’ll call you when you are. Then again, maybe they’ll just find a service provider who is.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Managing service at arms-length.

This week I used Home Depot for some installation services. Of course Home Depot doesn’t come to your home, they use local companies to execute the service encounters as intermediaries.

Since the purchase was a relatively large one, I solicited some opinions before choosing. Those that had tried HD had universally good feedback, while some that hadn’t felt I might do better finding a local contractor on my own.

In the end, I chose the Home Depot brand for an intermediary-provided service for reasons most people choose brands in general. They may not have been the least expensive option, but they eliminated the search costs of finding and evaluating a set of service contractors. While I might have found a better quality through my own search, I could rely on their protection of their own service reputation and brand to ensure I would be satisfied.

They delivered on their promise.

The service was performed efficiently and well. As proof of their concern over the quality of the service encounter, I received 2 survey opportunities, 4 follow-up calls (2 from the provider, 2 from Home Depot) and a thank you letter as opportunities for me to provide my feedback on the experience.

Product companies & retailers are expanding into intermediary-fulfilled services (Turtlewax Carwashes, Scotts Lawn Service, and Tide Dry Cleaners as examples). They are often a logical extension of the brand, provide another source of revenue, and the service-based model generally carries higher margins than the product business. But managing intermediary-fulfilled services is tough. Companies lose a measure of control over the customer experience, and need to ensure that their brand isn’t compromised by an encounter they don’t provide but are accountable for.

Some might think that 7 post-transaction requests for feedback is overkill – and in fact my wife asked me when they were going to leave us alone. Home Depot is managing a service encounter, and an experience with their brand, at arms length. The cost and the fact that someone is in their customers’ home makes it a high risk / high impact experience. In addition to managing the shared service fulfillment process, solicitation of feedback on the encounter, is the best way to ensure these encounters are positive ones. For me, it also showed that they put the additional effort (and money) into ensuring the experience is a positive reflection of their otherwise strong brand.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Compete Through Service Symposium: A source for services thought leadership.

I credit two early sources for much of my perspectives on service and leadership – formative years spent as an officer in the Canadian Navy and in a program associated with the Arizona State University Center for Services Leadership.

The Navy is the sort of place that, once you leave, you really can’t go back to refresh your perspective - at least not formally.

The Center for Services Leadership, its objective in bridging the business & academic communities to compete strategically through the profitable use of services, is much more accommodating. They offer array of continuing programs, including service business webinars, cutting edge research & resources, and a series of events capped by the annual Compete Through Service Symposium.

Symposium is the venue for some of the best service content I’ve ever taken in, and year-after-year is a veritable who’s who of businesses engaging in service excellence. This year, Avnet, DuPont, Marriott, IBM, Zane’s Cycles and Zappos, and others are represented as content providers.

Symposium offers any service business great lessons with practical application for:
- Service design & innovation
- Use of technology to facilitate the service experience and service environments
- Transformation product-based companies into services oriented companies
- Creation of lasting customer loyalty
- Service process improvement by mapping the service encounter
- Service recovery
- Service culture & values
- Service differentiators for B2B

This year, I’m proud to be not just an attendee, but a contributing member of the social media team. You can look for updates on Twitter under the hashtag #CTSS, in the Center’s official blog, and in this space.

This post preaches to the converted, but I know hundreds of service business professionals that care deeply about creating customer value and want to continue to get better at their craft. Regardless of level or organizational function, the Compete Through Service Symposium has content, experts and opportunities to help any business or individual differentiate on service.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A 'free skate' on customer roles.

This weekend, I watched my 5 year-old cruise easily through skills test his first formal skating class.

I wasn’t surprised, but not because I see in my son a budding Gretzky. He enjoys skating and puts effort into the activity – in formal practices, when we skate together recreationally and on his own. (An aside, I highly recommend Talent Is Overrated for terrific reading on where "innate ability" actually comes from.)

I mention all this because skating lessons, like any form of education, represents an experience where the customer role is generally greater than the role of the service provider. It’s the extreme example that proves that while different services have varying levels of commitment, all have a role the customer must know, accept, and be willing & able to perform. Without these, the ability to create successful outcomes is substantially diminished.

Proper attention to customer role is one of the more neglected aspects of service businesses. Companies invest in employee training, employee process and employee-enabling technology, but too seldom make the same investments in customer training, productivity & quality.

The result: companies know their role exceedingly well. They execute their role in the encounter, and feel that their outcomes are generally successful. From this vantage point, when failures occur, it is usually because the customer hasn’t performed in their role correctly.

To begin understanding the gap between customer role and performance, start by asking (and getting customers to help answer) questions like:

What is the customer role in delivering a successful service experience?

How well do customers know the impact their role has to a successful outcome?

Are customers willing to perform their role?

Do they have the knowledge, tools and abilities to perform their role reliably?

Answers to these questions help guide us to decisions that make customers higher performers on the part of the encounter that they fulfill, whether it be educating customers on their role, giving them tools to fulfill it, redesigning processes to make their role simpler / smaller; or making the outcome more appealing.

My son’s skating lessons are a successful service experience because he knows his role (mainly practice) and has the tools to perform it (mostly ice time). He values the outcome highly and performs his role accordingly. Understanding customers' varying knowledge, willingness and ability to perform their service roles helps make improvements that lead to more successful encounters.