Back at TYPCO there never seems to be enough time in the day. Once again, I’m flooded with emails and escalations that shouldn’t require my attention. Did I do this? Did I create this dependency syndrome with my command-and-control leadership style? What is everyone so afraid of?
The first email is from Joe going on and on about changes we recently made in Customer Service. After a minute or two of reading the email, I push myself away from the desk and stand up. Time for a little Gemba, a Japanese term I remember learning from Jordan. It essentially means get off your butt and go see for yourself what is really going on at the point of action, or crime scene. Joe is no doubt covering his butt.
Sure enough, I find Joe at his desk pecking away on the computer. So much for Gemba on his part. He looks up at me and invites me into his office to sit down. I remain standing.
“Can we take a walk?” I ask, nodding at the door.
He looks back at the computer and says as if he’s very busy, “Ah, yeah, I suppose I can do that. What’s up?”
“I want to visit our customer service department. I have a few questions.”
“Hmmm,” he mumbles, standing up. “Are you sure I’m the right one to ask about customer service? What about Mary Jo?”
I turn and head out the door. Why does his answer not surprise me? Here is my guy in charge of leading business transformation, which includes completely rethinking the way we provide service, and he suggests I talk to another manager, notably our customer service manager who barely has her head above water.
I let him catch up. “Maybe Mary Jo can help us, but chances are she’s so busy right now trying to solve problems inside the customer service box she has no idea how to change the box itself.”
“The box?” he questions.
“Yeah,” I explain, picking up our pace. “The paradigm. The belief that customer service is a bunch of people on telephones all day solving problems that never should have happened.”
“Well, we’re working on that,” he rebuts defensively. “Didn’t you see my last report? Mary Jo has developed and launched a whole new training program based on the analysis we did in Customer Service last year.”
He’s right. We spent a boatload of money on consultants who advised us to revamp our training program along with our measurement system and incentive program. Now we can handle more calls per rep per day than ever before. From an efficiency standpoint, we made an improvement. At least, that’s what Joe and the consultants think.
I stop at the end of the hallway and face Joe. “Why do you suppose our Net Promoter Score has gotten worse, Joe?” I ask quietly, doing my best to relax.
“You mean since the new training program and incentive system?”
“Yes, exactly. Wouldn’t you expect our overall customer service performance to improve after making changes like that?”
He nods his head. “Well, sometimes these things take time to take hold.”
I’m about to tear into him with some rather harsh words, when I stop. Is this another tendency? Do I fight fire with fire? Maybe I should try a different approach with him. It seems whenever I push Joe he pushes right back. It’s like that hand-pushing exercise Jordan showed me. Ego fighting ego and loving it. Pure drama. It’s just that he’s so negative and defensive and critical. It drives me nuts.
Mindfully, I decide to pull with more questions rather than push. “How much time do you think it should take, Joe?” I ask, resuming our walk at a slower pace.
“For a real culture change to take hold? Based on my experience and according to some of the consultants these things can take five or six years.”
I instantly feel my blood pressure rise. I’ve heard this number before and I remember Jordan telling me it was nonsense. He said if we believe it will take six years it will take at least that long, and it will always be perceived as a future destination. The way you change culture is by immediately modeling the desired behaviors with new systems, policies, structures and methods. It’s like Gandhi said, be the change you want to see in the world. Don’t plan on it for another day. Or another year. Demonstrate it. Now.
We did this at my former division by pulling together cross-functional teams and running kaizen events. Kaizen is a Japanese term for “good change” and a kaizen event is a rapid improvement event. Within one week, these kaizen teams were redesigning processes to eliminate unnecessary activity and accelerate flow. We would take a 100-step process down to 20 steps, reducing errors and cycle time and confusion. And then we would kaizen it again a few months later and reduce it to 10 steps. In some cases, we eliminated entire processes that were not adding value. And the teams were loving it. They weren’t putting suggestions in a box to be responded to months later, if at all. They were taking responsibility for making changes and doing it in real-time. We used to say “better, not best,” meaning don’t worry about making it perfect. Just make it better – fast! It isn’t perfect now and it won’t be perfect when we finish the kaizen event. That took a lot of fear and pressure off the teams.
“I expect to see change much sooner than that, Joe,” I reply, my voice rising with my blood pressure. “Especially in Customer Service.”
“I agree,” he says, now directing blame toward Mary Jo. “I’ve said the same thing to MJ a dozen times.”
“Even though you think it should take six years?” I challenge, my heart now racing and beads of sweat forming on my forehead.
“Well, yeah,” he replies. “And we’re already seeing improvements with some of our internal measures. For example, our reps are now on the phones for less time per call on average, meaning they can handle more calls in a day.”
I laugh, painfully. “And how do our customers feel about being on the phone for less time?”
“Good question,” he answers. “Some of them probably love it, if they’re getting their problems resolved.”
“Do we know that they are?” I probe.
“Getting resolution? I’m not sure. We probably have to ask MJ.”
“Let me ask you this, Joe,” I continue. “When you wake up in the morning, how likely is it that you want to call an 800-customer service number for any reason?”
He seems to think about this. “Not very likely, I suppose.”
“Okay, and when you do call a service number, what do you typically do when you don’ get resolution?”
He laughs. “Usually I hang up and call back, hoping to get a different rep. Or I ask to speak to a supervisor.”
I smile. “I do the same thing. Do you think this is good customer service?”
“Honestly, I’d rather not call at all,” he admits. “The very fact that I’m calling suggests there is a problem with the user experience.”
“That’s right. Unless the customer is calling to place an order and give us money, we should be asking why are they calling at all? In fact, some top companies today don’t want customers calling them for any reason. It’s time-consuming and expensive. There are better alternatives.”
“I hear ya, Jack,” he says. “That’s what we’re working on now.”
I nod my head. “And is that going to take us six years?”
He shrugs his shoulders. “Hopefully, not six years.”
“Let me ask you this,” I continue, pressing for facts and data. “How many calls do we get per year and what are the top three reasons customers are calling us?”
He seems to give this some thought and then says, “I don’t know exactly. I’m sure MJ does though. We’re supposed to be tracking that in Customer Service.”
“Okay,” I add. “Tell me this. What is our average cost per call?”
“I don’t know. We probably have to ask Accounting for that information.”
Here we go again. My business transformation leader doesn’t know the answers to some of the most important questions about our customer service. We’re spending millions of dollars a year answering telephone calls that should not be coming in. I’ve already done my research and I have the data. Customers are calling us to ask about their deliveries. Rather than clicking a link to track their order, we force them to call us. The same thing is true for changing or updating account information. Rather than doing this themselves, they call us. We think that talking nicely to our customers on the phone is good service when our customers don’t want to call us at all. More and more of them want easy, seamless self-service. Our NPS confirms that.
Joe and I enter the Customer Service call center and there are dozens of reps sitting in cubicles with headsets on. The phones are ringing constantly, and our associates look frantic. We step into a small, private conference room with several telephone headsets that we use for training.
“Let’s sit for 20 minutes and listen to some calls,” I suggest, putting on a headset. “I think a little Gemba might be helpful.”
Joe looks at me inquisitively and follows my direction. For the next 10 minutes we hear some very frustrating conversations. In most cases the reps cannot really solve the problem. They can appease the customers but not please them. I’m sure if we use the Five Whys on why we’re getting so many calls we would discover that we aren’t doing much proactively to eliminate them. For example, training customer service reps on telephone etiquette doesn’t solve a design flaw in our product that causes it to malfunction.
Mary Jo sees us in the conference room and decides to investigate. “Is everything okay,” she asks, stepping into the room and closing the door behind her.
Joe looks at me for a reply. “Just doing a little Gemba, Mary Jo,” I say. “I want Joe to hear what your reps are dealing with every day.”
“Good,” she says. “Sometimes it’s absolutely maddening. There’s just so much outside our control.”
I nod my head. “Let me ask you this, Mary Jo,” I continue. “How do your reps feel about the new measures and incentives in place to shorten their call time with the customers?”
Mary Jo looks at Joe and then at me. “Do you really want the truth?”
“Absolutely,” I reply.
She hesitates for a moment as if wondering how to be diplomatic. Finally, she says, “They don’t like it at all, Jack. In many cases it incents them to upset the customer even more to avoid getting in trouble for missing their quotas. I’ve already had three reps quit since we went live with the new system.”
Now Joe pipes in, defensively. “Well, you have to admit your team is handling a lot more calls per day than they were before.”
“You’re right, Joe,” she says firmly. “But a lot of those calls are the same customers calling back because they didn’t get good service the first time around.”
I put my hand up in the air to avoid a dispute. “Look,” I say confidently. “I think it’s time we revisit our whole customer service model. I want to see you two put together a kaizen team, including representatives from engineering, operations and information technology, to make things better for our customers and our associates immediately. We’re not going to wait six years using hope as a strategy.”
“What if the team recommends that we reverse some of our recent decisions?” Mary Jo asks, looking at Joe and then at me.
“So be it,” I reply, knowing Joe doesn’t agree. “We’re not going to defend a lousy system. It makes all of us look stupid.”
Mary Jo laughs. “I have several reps who will jump at this opportunity immediately. But you’re going to have to talk to some of the other department heads. As far as they’re concerned, this isn’t their problem. They have no idea why the customers are calling us.”
“Or how expensive it is,” I add, returning a headset to my head. “I’ll talk to them today.”
Joe sits there like a child who has just been scolded. I might have to start by talking to Joe. Why is he so resistant? What is he so afraid of? And then it hits me. Ignorance. Subconscious ignorance. It’s the root cause to all problems. Joe doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. None of us do. And here I am condemning him with my own ignorance. Maybe instead of firing him like I did Wayne, I need to fire him up like I did Kathleen.
I return my attention to the chatter on the phone, thinking of a quote I like from W. Edwards Deming. “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” Again, my blood pressure starts rising. I think we need a miracle in Customer Service.
Excerpt from Miracle Minded Manager: A Modern Day Parable about How to Apply A Course in Miracles in Business by John J. Murphy.
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About the author: John J. Murphy is a global business consultant, speaker, spiritual mystic, "zentrepreneur,” and award-winning author. He is Founder (1988) and CEO of Venture Management Consultants, Inc., a firm specializing in creating lean, high-performance work environments.