VA Wait Times are an Important Service Measurement

The head of the US Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, demonstrated a phenomenal lack of understanding of the nature of a service product and measurements relevant to those service products when he said that VA wait times was not an important measure.

VA Wait Times in McDonald’s View of Service Measurement

“The days to an appointment [wait time] is really not what we should be measuring. What we should be measuring is the veteran’s satisfaction… When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important? What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?… And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure,” as reported by the Christian Science Monitor at one of its events on May 23, 2016.

Really?  He thinks Disney doesn’t measure wait times?  Of course it does!  Why?  Because wait time is part of the customer experience, it’s part of the product-service bundle they sell to their customers.

McDonald’s bona fides for the VA job was his military background and that he was CEO of Proctor & Gamble.  How can Mr. McDonald run a service operation when he lacks such basic understanding of services?  There are no wait times in the production of Tide.

Let’s put the issue into a context that Mr. McDonald would understand.  Let’s say customers love the cleaning power of Tide, but the box they hate — no carrying handle or it was flimsy and would break into smithereens if it were dropped.  Would Mr. McDonald say, “Yea, but we should focus on the cleaning power of the detergent”?  Of course not.  Look at the whole package, which customers do.

Service Quality Dimensions

A well-accepted academic model of service quality posits that there are five dimensions to service quality:

  • Responsiveness — prompt delivery of service
  • Reliability — delivering service with good outcomes
  • Assurance — having confidence in the service provider
  • Empathy — showing concern for the customer
  • Tangibles — leaving the customer with more knowledge of the situation

People evaluate their overall experience based on all five of these factors.  The core service could be reliable and of high quality. But if you have to wait a long time for it, or you are treated badly, or you lack confidence in the abilities of the service provider, your opinion of the service will be impaired.

Interestingly, Mr. McDonald’s comments about the lack of importance of responsiveness demonstrates a lack of empathy and could probably reduce the assurance veterans will feel about their VA health services.

Professor David Maister has a highly cited Harvard Business Review article on the “Psychology of Waiting Lines.” He discusses in his book ways that the perception of wait times can be managed, but the actually wait times still need to be managed.  Just ask the TSA.

Yes, Mr. McDonald, Disney does measure and manage wait times and wait perception.  And they’re only delivering entertainment.  In your service world of health care delivery, treating wait times that can affect clinical outcomes as unimportant is truly mind boggling.

TSA Blames Passengers for Missed Flights

TSA (US airport security screeners) frequently tell us during busy times to arrive at the airport extra early. Early arrival does NOT increase capacity. If everyone arrives 2 hours early, then you are no more likely to make your plane than if everyone arrives 1 hour early. Arriving early just creates more congestion, but now TSA can turn the blame to you for missing your flight. Airport capacity management is the issue!! If only journalists would ask the right questions…

A Very Short Customer Journey Map

Customer Journey Maps are typically long & involved, but my journey out of American Express’ customer base was very short due to an ill-conceived process. What lessons can we learn about designing customer interaction processes?

What Sprint Could Learn from Cat Litter

Summary: You would probably think that a company who values reduction in customer churn (Sprint) would have lessons for a company for whom churn is an offshoot of the scooping action (Normerica), but in fact the opposite is true. (You just knew from the title that some bad puns were coming.) I was treated far better when raising an issue about the quality of cat litter I’ve bought for a decade than I was in raising an issue about my cell phone contract with Sprint with whom I’ve been a customer for 12 years, spending well in excess of $10,000.

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I thought that title would get your mind wondering where I was going with this. I had interesting experiences with how two companies in very different businesses dealt with a customer complaint.

I had a two-cell-phone contract with Sprint for years — and I mean years — that had different allotments for Anytime minutes, Night & Weekend minutes, and Mobile to Mobile minutes. My understanding was that all the minutes were shared between the two phones. That’s what I was verbally told. In fact, when I last upgraded my phone and renewed my contract, the written documentation provided me stated that “Minutes are shared.”

I wound up going over my “Anytime” minute allotment one month, which rang up charges at 40 cents per minute. I could tell from the call detail that all the minutes on the second phone on the account were being applied to the Anytime allotment even if the calls were made during nights or weekends.

I then began a four-month quest to get the issue addressed. The first phone agent with whom I spoke agreed with my assessment and filed a trouble ticket with engineering (or something like that). Not surprisingly, I heard nothing.

Rather than go through a long call again, I wrote a letter to Sprint Customer Service outline my diagnosis of the situation. Since I’ve worked in customer support for three decades, I know it’s difficult for a phone agent to do research on the call. And it was faster to write the letter than make another long, arduous phone call. I got an unintelligible voice mail reply from Sprint Customer Service, and when I returned that call, I got an agent who had not seen my letter and new nothing about my case. And I could not get connected to the person who had called since I could not understand her name.

This agent told me I was wrong about my understanding of my contract and tried to upsell me. I’m not a fan of having bait-and-switch being practiced on me. We got into a bit of a heated argument, and I had to get off the phone to avoid being unprofessional.

Back to square one.

I wrote a second letter this time to the office of the president, assuming it would go to a real problem solver. Based upon experiences I had had with companies with whom I had a long-standing relationship, such as Subaru, I thought I would be taken care of. I included the written documentation showing the contract I had with Sprint and all my analysis.

A month later — yes, a full month later — I got a letter that basically thanked me for my patronage but told me I was wrong. The writer never addressed the written documentation of the contract I sent.

Now, does Sprint really think I’m going to keep my custom with them?

  • They change my contract without telling me.
  • They deny they have changed my contract.
  • They tell me I am wrong about the contract despite written documentation, which they convenienlty ignore.
  • They take forever to respond.
  • And they try to upsell me!

Let’s contrast this with Normerica, makers of Simplicity Plus and other cat litter. (I’m really a dog person, but for lifestyle reasons we have cats, which I treat like dogs. Fetch!) As the person who works out of the home, I also get the pleasure of many daily chores, including scooping the litter boxes. (Yes, TMI…) We’ve always bought Simplicity Plus. Great price at Costco and does the job quite well. Or did. I noticed that product from recent boxes put up a cloud of dust when scooping. Not pleasant at all.

I was just going to switch products, but the Simplicity Plus box had contact information on it. In my line of work, that’s an easy invitation to take. What did I have to lose? I wrote a short email on a Sunday, and by 9:30 am on Monday I got a nice reply. They assured me that the quality control issues had been addressed — and they sent me a check refunding my most recent purchase.

And the next box I bought had no dust problem.

While I am sure that Normerica gets fewer complaints than Sprint due to the nature of the product, that should mean that Sprint has built a richer infrastructure to handle customer issues. But from Normerica, I got

  • A quick reply
  • Recognition of my issue
  • A fair resolution

Will I buy more Simplicity Plus? Of course. I wish they carried cell phone network service.

I have read repeatedly that Sprint has made great strides in its customer service. I guess I’m one data point to the contrary. And I just switched to T-Mobile for my cell service. Goodbye Sprint. [In a future article I might write about the very poor initial customer experience I had with T-Mobile. Why? I couldn’t understand the 4 different customer service people with whom I spoke — and I was calling them on my landline. Remember, this is a phone company!]

Normerica has a better, more effective process for addressing customer issues. Far better. For kitty litter.

Go figure.

Mind Your Ps and Qs — Processes & Queues

Summary: Queue management is an essential factor to determining customer satisfaction in a service operation. Normally, bad queue management results “just” in customer inconvenience or annoyance. This article reviews the queue management for the immigration service at Dulles International Airport that is so bad that physical injuries could have resulted.

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In all service operations, queue management is critical. It affects the customers’ experience as well as the efficient use of resources. Queues can be either virtual, as in a call center, or physical as in supermarket. One would think that it’s easier to manage physical queues since they’re visible. With basic observation, the problems in a queue can readily be seen.

Imagine my disgust at being a participant in two poorly managed queues in one trip, traveling back from Dubai through Washington, DC. In each, some fundamental principles of queue management were violated to the point of criminal negligence at Dulles International Airport. Yes, criminal negligence. I’m not a lawyer, but that’s what I would call it.

airport-queueThe first “bad” queue was the immigration check point leaving (and entering) Dubai. Just like the supermarket, each immigration agent has his own queue. In other words, there was not one line feeding all the agents. The nearby photo shows the extent of the rope queues. When customers judge service, equitable treatment is a key element. With separate queues for each agent, wait times can be very uneven. Agents work at different speeds — boy, do they ever! — and immigration checks of some people take far longer than others. If you are stuck in a slow moving line in this model, you’re stuck. You can watch people in other lines move far faster, as I did. I unknowingly wound up in a queue for processing families, who take longer to process. No indication was made in signage or in verbiage that this was a special queue. But once you’re in it and you realize your mistake, what can you do? Emotionally it’s tough to leave a line in which you’ve “invested” considerable time and go to the end of a longer line. “Line jockeying” is usually a fruitless action.

Worse, some queues fed multiple agents! Those lines moved very quickly, but you couldn’t see the queue dynamics until you were committed to a queue. Then the people managing the queue commit the ultimate sin. When they open a new line, they take the new arrivals, not those who have dutifully been waiting. Go to a Trader Joe’s, and you’ll find when they open a new checkout register, they try to maintain the First Come, First Served (FCFS) prioritization. I thank the cashiers for doing that; it blows their minds.

Dubai passport control could have had one queue with the “snake” that most of us know so well, but they choose not to. Not only does the single snaking queue ensure FCFS equity, but there’s a positive psychological element. Snaked single lines are in constant motion – assuming there are lots of agents working. That movement reduces the perception of waiting time, even if the waiting time would be the same as the one-line-per-agent setup. Perception is everything in customer service. However, the average wait time is less in a snaking queue than in the multiple line queuing system  The excessive wait time for those caught in the wrong line leads to far longer average wait times for the system as a whole.

My strategy when I see the arrangement I saw in Dubai is to choose the line with unused agent stations next to them. Why? If they open a new agent station, I can shift to the new, empty queue. In fact, that worked on my arrival. (And it works at Costco stores, though to be fair I always offer people who have been waiting ahead of me the chance to jump queues. It’s just the Golden Rule…)

These shortcomings in Dubai paled in comparison to the shortcomings I encountered at Dulles International Airport upon return to the US. The immigration area has the preferred single line feeding multiple agents. (Actually, they had 2 separate service areas, one for US passport holders and a second for non-US arrivals.) The failure in Dulles is that the geniuses who designed the system do not seem to understand the arrival pattern of “customers.” While there is some randomness to the arrival pattern here, which is very common in service operations, here there was a predictability.

My 777 from Dubai arrived around 6:15 am, plenty of time for my 8:30 connection — or so I thought. We followed directions from an immigrations person to proceed down the corridor and take the escalator downstairs. The area at the base of the escalators filled very quickly. We weren’t moving forward at all and people kept coming down the escalator.

Here was the criminal negligence. What happens when there’s no room for people at the base of the escalator? Remember, many of us had luggage, too! Once you’re on the escalator, you’re committed to it, and no emergency stop buttons were obvious. The result could have been serious physical injury as people piled onto each other coming — or falling — off the escalator. I say “could have been” only because a few of us — despite our sleep-deprived state after a 14-hour flight — saw what was happening and started yelling at people to NOT take the escalator but to take the stairs, and we asked people who were in roughly a single line in a wide corridor to move forward to make room. (They couldn’t see what was happening behind them.)

Where were the immigration or airport personnel to manage the dynamics of the queue? I don’t know, but doesn’t the airport — or someone — have a responsibility to monitor the process and to prevent personal injury that could result from passengers following instructions? I cannot marshal strong enough words for the incompetence of those in charge of this operation, both designers and controllers. How could no one be responsible to monitor the state of the queue system around the base of the escalators?

Notice I said that the line was barely moving. I mean barely moving. It was 20 to 30 minutes at least before we finally got into the main hall for immigration. There we entered a snaking queue — but slowly. It took 10 minutes for us to turn the first corner in the snake. Now get this. I counted 11 — that’s eleven! — rows in the queue. Do the math. At that rate, it would take almost 2 hours to get through immigration, and I’m not including the time to just to get into the hall. Yes, I’m enough of a geek to calculate these things. But I saw a great final exam question for one of my operations management classes.

I counted roughly 25 people per row, which means the immigration hall was designed to hold just under 300 people. (Here I am discussing only the queue for US passport holders.) That also means that they were processing about 25 people in 10 minutes.

We couldn’t see how many immigration agents were working from where we stood, but it was readily apparent that more staff came online at 7 am. Suddenly, we started to turn a corner every 4 minutes. Either staff was doubled or someone told the agents to pick up the pace (which I doubt). I made my flight with a little time to spare, but I suspect others missed their connections.

I mentioned negligence. Here’s why. One of the responsibilities of a queuing system designer is to make sure there’s enough room to hold everyone — or everything — in queue. Imagine a supermarket that didn’t have enough room in front the checkout registers for patrons with their carriages or a gas station with cars queued up into the street.

I would estimate there were 400 to 500 people in the queue around 6:30 in the morning, 300 in the hall and at least 100 in queue outside the hall. The physical system could not hold that many people, which is why there was almost the pile ups at the end of those escalators. Since the physical design had shortcomings, those with operational control responsibilities should have monitored the queue and blocked off the escalators.

But if you think of the nature of this queuing, the incompetence is even more glaring. In most service systems, how many people arrive is unknown. With good data collection, the pattern can be estimated, but there will be some randomness to the queue length. Queuing models can help predict queue length.

Here, the number of passengers arriving at immigration is known! Without being too snide, can’t the immigration folks check the incoming flight schedule to see the number of flights and passenger counts? Apparently not. One basic principle of queue management to attack a queue before the queue lengthens. It takes a long time to work down a long queue.

Unfortunately, here the additional staff appears to have gone on duty at 7 am even though three large international flights (I believe) arrive at Dulles between 6 and 7 am.

Let me get really cynical. Next to the immigration agents were little used kiosks for those people who have registered with immigration in the Global Entry program. Is the horrendous service a device to push people to registering? The cost doesn’t bother me, especially compared to the “cost” of the long queues, but I value my privacy too much to want my fingerprints on file.

I do know the easiest way to fix this problem. Have our congressional representatives abandon their chauffeured private military transportation on overseas junkets and make them use Dulles immigration. The problem would be gone in a matter of days.

How many of you service managers reading this commit some of these queuing mistakes? Are your queues equitable? Are wait times too long? Do you have enough of a holding pen for people queuing up? Do you staff in anticipation of demand or in response to a demand spike? Do you capture and analyze the data to allow you to make fact-based decisions?

The design issues for a physical queue are the same as for a virtual queue, say in a contact center. Because we can’t see the queue doesn’t mean we don’t have to manage it.

Was It “A Flight Attendant from Hell” or a Customer Who Should Be in Purgatory?

Summary: Are customers always right? A Wall Street Journal article raises the question of whether the customer or the service agent was the disagreeable party.

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An article in the January 7, 2012 edition of the Wall Street Journal provoked a strong reaction among readers, including me. The title, “A Flight Attendant from Hell” was accompanied by a drawing showing a flight attendant with horns. Nothing subtle here. So what prompted this?

The author and novelist, Marisa Acocella Marchetto, was flying back to Rome from New York when her stomach turned into a knot. She acknowledged in her article, “Why did I have that spicy spaghetti dish the night before? More important, why didn’t I have Nexium with me in the first place.” And, she noted, she had had a hiatal hernia.

I can empathize with her to a point. I have an acid stomach that flares up occasionally but severely. When it does, I am in sheer pain. That’s why I am never more than 2 minutes from a Pepcid or equivalent. I keep a cache in my car, in my briefcase, and in my suitcase. I never want to be in Marisa’s position. If I were going on an overseas trip, you bet that I would travel with my prescription medications close at hand.

Ms. Marchetto’s mom and traveling companion called for the soon-to-be-demonized flight attendant, asking for a Nexium. The flight attendant said the only medication they had was aspirin. Now, Nexium is a prescription medication. Who would ever expect to get a prescription drug from a non-medical person operating in an official position?

Ms. Marchetto’s mother asked for a satellite phone so she could call her daughter’s doctor, but the flight attendant, now referred to as Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” said, “I’m calling our doctor,” meaning “the Good Samaritan Hospital… in Phoenix, Arizona.” The ellipsis Ms. Marchetto adds for emphasis indicates that she thinks the physical location of a call center matters. D’oh! Either that or she has a personal disdain for Phoenix.

In fact, the Journal had an article on July 11, 2002 about this very call center, MedAire, noting that the number of diverted flights for medical emergencies had declined. The particular requirements of medical problems in flight led to this entrepreneurial creation of a doctor-staffed call center for airlines. I wonder what Ms. Marchetto would have written had the airlines not established such a medical delivery system. Or does she think every flight should be staffed with a doctor and a complete pharmacy of prescription drugs? Would she be willing to pay the extra costs?

The flight attendant told a pilot from the airline who was dead-heading on the flight that he could not give her a Nexium and then told a nurse who was a passenger and took some vital statistics, “If you give her a Nexium, then you’re responsible if she has a heart attack.”

Ms. Marchetto expressed annoyance at the call center doctor asking basic information — and that they wouldn’t believe her self-diagnosis. The doctor determined from the symptom description that Ms. Marchetto was suffering from a heart attack. We never learn why the misdiagnosis, which apparently it was. Maybe that will come out. But what if it had been a heart attack and Ms Marchetto had been treated based on her requests. Who would she have blamed? Herself? I doubt it.

I fly a lot, and certainly some flight attendants leave a lot to be desired, particularly on US airlines, particularly on international flights. However, I have been on flights with medical emergencies, and the crew has acted in a professional, caring, speedy manner. (In fact, I no longer use my academic title, “Dr.” on flight itineraries to not delay medical care if they searched for a doctor in the flight manifest.)

Perhaps the flight attendant’s manner was improper, but I have a hard time buying the characterization by Ms. Marchetto, given the whiney, self-absorbed nature of the article. Remember how Alec Baldwin portrayed his nemesis flight attendant in the infamous phone-gate episode only to have contrary stories come out.

Ms. Marchetto’s flight was diverted to Shannon, Ireland to get Ms. Marchetto medical attention on the ground. She protested that she was feeling better, and they should continue to Rome. Again, procedures were followed. What if she’d had a recurrence? I suspect the crew enjoyed the trip from Shannon to Rome much more than the first part of the trip.

We live in a litigious society. I don’t like that fact, but it is a fact that we need to deal with. Renters of my Maine house get a House Guide, which includes — up front — information about smoke alarms, CO alarms, fire extinguishers, emergency numbers, hospitals, veterinarians, etc. It is truly well intended, but I also never want to be in the situation where a renter could say, “But we were never told…” My lawyer has taught me well.

Our lease even says tenants will not disable smoke detectors. Why? Common sense isn’t common. I’ve had renters take the batteries out of alarms — why I shudder to ask — and not replace them.

Given the constant fear of litigation, organizations are going to protect themselves, and employees are going to follow the prescribed procedures to protect themselves. Recognize it. Deal with it. And take your own common sense actions to avoid being in a situation where you are at the mercy of what society has done to our economic interactions.

Customers are not always right, and some — think Baldwin — are MTTTW (More Trouble Than They’re Worth). While I am all for good customer service, we in turn need to learn how to be good customers.

Perhaps most astounding is Ms. Marchetto’s belief that the article would elicit sympathy for her position. Apply common sense. Take personal responsibility. If you have a gastric condition, eat properly and keep your meds close by. And don’t try to blame others.

Constant Contact Customer Onboarding Processes

Summary: The most important impressions to a customer are the first impression. One company, Constant Contact, goes beyond the automated messages that lack all sincerity, and really focuses on the onboarding process. This article describes their onboarding process as a critical first step in customer experience management.

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When looking at the whole topic of customer engagement, can there be any more important point in the engagement process than the very first point? Clearly, the initial contacts with a prospective customer and the initial experiences as a customer set the tone for the relationship, for good or ill. Yet, how many companies pay particular focus to the initial customer experience? It seems like common sense, but companies that are in a moderate to high volume business all too often pay little heed to the critical onboarding process for a new customer.

onboardingIt’s not uncommon as a new customer for me to receive nothing more than some automated welcome message. These lack any personal touch and sincerity. And even after I’ve bought the product and put it into use, I typically receive no follow-up except perhaps a “Do you want to buy more?” message. In my first real job after college where I managed Waterbeds East in Brunswick, Maine — no joke — I came up with the novel idea of calling customers the day after we installed their bed to answer any questions about this new sleep system. It seems so obvious in hindsight.

One company that does focus strongly on the client onboarding process is Constant Contact. I can state this personally since I experienced their onboarding process when I relaunched my newsletter, but I had the pleasure of hearing (and moderating) a talk led by Larry Streeter, Vice President of Customer Support for Constant Contact, at a First Wednesday Group meeting.

Constant Contact’s target market is small business — very small businesses. Through a suite of complementary products, they help these businesses stay in contact and market to their customers. The flagship product — and the entry point for cross-sales — is the email newsletter product for which the company is best known. They send millions of emails each month on behalf of their 400,000+ clients.

They have an explicit onboarding process that is co-managed by the Direct Sales and Customer Support departments. Its goal is to get clients to the “wow moment,” which they view as when the client sees recipients of their newsletter clicking on links. The clicks show that the newsletter is creating engagement with the recipient.

The onboarding process starts with having a good engaging website at Constant Contact that draws prospects to a free trial period. Within 24 hours of the start of the trial, the prospect receives a call from a sales associate who helps get them set up and answers any questions. The purpose of the sales team is to create a level of engagement between the customer and Constant Contact that, hopefully, leads to the trial person becoming a paying customer. In fact, the sales associate will not even ask for a credit card number during the initial call.

If the prospect poses questions that are very technical, the prospect will be handed off to tech support. Mind you, at this point the person is still a prospect, not a paying customer. About 10% of tech support calls fall into this pre-sales area. Whether a pre-sales contact or a contact from a paying customer, the goal of tech support is to “leave the customer wanting nothing.” The agents have no talk time goals. The focus is to support the revenue stream by creating highly satisfied customers.

In fact, Constant Contact views customers as being in one of four stages of engagement: At Risk, Vulnerable, Secure, and Advocacy. By default without information to the contrary, they assume a customer is At Risk. An explicit goal of the onboarding process is to move prospects and customers from the At Risk stage into a higher level of engagement.

Tech support is a key player in creating Secure customers and Advocates, especially during the first three months of a subscription when calls to support are most frequent. Support is delivered through internal resources using multiple contact channels, and the support group has a first contact resolution rate of greater than 90%.

I can personally vouch for the nature of the tech support interactions. I did have several questions when I was building my first newsletter, and the techs took considerable time to answer my questions and even made suggestions to enhance the look of my newsletter. I never felt like they were rushing to get off the phone to take the next call in queue. And no, I didn’t tell them I knew Larry, but I did tell them I wanted the tech notes named after me for some bigs I identified for them.

To make sure the positive onboarding process is staying positive, Constant Contact, which has a survey module, conducts both relationship surveys and closed incident surveys.

A challenge that Larry said they are facing is how to engage with long-standing customers. These are customers who have ongoing subscriptions but are not contacting the company with any questions — and may not be using their subscriptions very fully. These are indications of a vulnerable customer.

What if they do lose a customer — and this is a business by whose nature there is some natural churn. The Save Desk folks explicitly ask for feedback about why a customer is leaving, and tech support conducts a lost customer survey. So, in addition to creating positive experiences by design right from the start, Constant Contact is also capturing and applying customer feedback to improve the customer experience.

Onboarding as a critical first step in customer experience management isn’t rocket science. It’s really a common sense approach applied to the entire life cycle of a customer relationship. Places where the company engages the customer are not considered cost centers where costs should be minimized, but rather these engagement points are considered critical to providing an ongoing revenue stream. They are managed for their effectiveness and not just their efficiency.

Customer Experience Design — Do our designs bring out the best or the worst in our customers?

Summary: Good Customer Experience Design requires that we show respect for our customers. Lean Six Sigma systems bring out the best in their employees by applying a sociotechnical systems thinking perspective. When applied to service operations we must remember that customers are part of the production system. Incidents like the encounter between Steven Slater, Jet Blue flight attendant, and the passenger beg the question whether our service systems bring out the best or the worst in our customers.

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The incident with the Steven Slater, the likely soon-to-be-ex Jet Blue flight attendant who blew a gasket and slid to a new life, has brought up the topic of workplace rage, but this time with a twist. Normally, the rage is between an employee and the company or between a customer and the company. The service management literature emphasizes the need to manage the interactions in all three dyads of the Service Management Triangle of company, employee, and customer, along with the critical fourth component of customer-to-customer interactions. Here we see, in dramatic fashion, rage between an employee and a customer. The details certainly aren’t clear yet, but we don’t often see a service employee flip off a customer like that.

While the media will focus on the dramatic, much of the intelligent discussion that flows from this incident will focus on the work design that led a long-term employee to lose his composure — to say the least — but I want to take a different tact. What about the “work design” that led the customer to “lose it?” Don’t we who design service systems have a responsibility to design the systems to bring out the best in our customers — or at least, to not bring out the worst?

“Customer Experience Management” (CEM) is hugely hyped these days, but the emphasis is all wrong in my estimation. It’s putting the cart before the horse. Before we can manage a customer experience, we first must design it. “Customer Experience Design” (CED) should draw primary attention. We can then manage, refine, and fine tune it by capturing feedback from customers. But how much of our CED is done with little consideration of the customer, that is, with an inside-out perspective as opposed to an outside-in perspective?

Let me propose that a good perspective for Customer Experience Design can be found in Lean Six Sigma concepts. Applying Lean Six Sigma systems to service operations is a new rage in the service industry; it’s on every conference docket. Most people think the key objective of lean systems is the elimination of waste, such as inventory buffers or overproduction, which can be achieved by performing the work as close as possible to Just in Time. That’s true, but an equally important lesson from the Toyota Production System (TPS), which is a father of lean systems thinking, is its application of sociotechnical systems thinking.

The sociotechnical school emphasizes that both social and technical factors must be considered in work design. The technical events in a system exist within a social context that affects how employees act. The Toyota Way emphasizes respect for people and developing teamwork. Workers are not just flexible machines who can perform myriad assembly tasks but are also critical contributors to identifying quality problems, correcting them, and designing better production systems. This whole person concept maximizes the productive output of the workforce and a team focus.

Well designed systems reduce muri (overburdening) of employees and mura (inconsistency) in operational flow and output. These results support the reduction of muda (waste). TPS talks about seven types of waste to reduce or eliminate. A key one is the waste of inventories, which are used to buffer against the uncertainties of demand, process times, and quality. The result of a lean system is the need for less inventory.

Now let’s turn to service production systems. Customer interfaces must be designed for efficiency in resource utilization, but we should remember that customers are part of the production system. Their efficiency should matter too. Customers at minimum must provide information to service agents to execute tasks, but customers may also have tangible tasks to perform as part of the service process flow. However, many “advancements” in service delivery design offload work onto the customer and inconvenience the customer all in the name of increasing operational efficiency. But whose efficiency? Certainly not the customer’s.

In services we don’t have inventories of parts to be processed, but rather queues of customers to be processed. Having queues in service operations is viewed as a vital way to increase efficiency by eliminating the waste of having productive resources sitting idle while waiting for customers. But just as inventories are wasteful in manufacturing so are queues wasteful in services — but the waste is encountered by our customers.

As we increase the burdens — muri in TPS lingo — on our customers, is it any wonder that customers get frustrated and angry and take it out on front-line employees? Personally, I like many self-service operations. I prefer to pump my own gas and to select my own groceries. But many times the customer is forced to perform mundane tasks and endure poorly designed systems that show disrespect for the customer to the point of bordering on being inhumane. We treat customers so badly that by the time the customer-employee encounter actually begins, customers are at a fever pitch.

Consider the flying experience. Customers are herded like cattle, searched like criminals, crammed into tight, uncomfortable seats, breathe unhealthy air, and must endure the idiosyncrasies of their neighbors. Customers fight for overhead storage space because a checked bag may get lost or damaged, and the customer will be forced to wait 30 to 60 minutes to claim the bag. I am not excusing loutish behavior by customers. Anyone who travels a lot has encountered inconsiderate, self-centered, brutish morons. But does the systems design ameliorate those effects or amplify them?

Consider mile-deep and mile-wide phone menus that can send you in circles. I basically yelled at a Metropolitan call center agent recently. I was calling about house insurance on a rental home I own in Maine, though I live in Massachusetts. I spent close to a half hour negotiating the multitude of 800 numbers, obtuse phone menus, and frustrating voice recognition systems that simply wasted my time. When I finally got an agent on the phone and said she would connect me to the right queue, I yelled, “Please don’t! Please first tell me the correct number I should be calling!” I then explained to her my issues and apologized for my quick outburst. By the way, every Metropolitan agent I speak with says they know how bad the phone menus are. Why doesn’t management? (Maybe they do and don’t care since it saves them money — at the expense of the customer.)

Last night my wife called Bank of America to cancel a credit card that they sent us unrequested. (Yes, I know that’s against the law, but it happened.) 10 minutes of her time were wasted going through phone menus to be greeted by an agent with, “How may I deliver world class service to you today?” Well, for starters, kill the phone menus. I was thrilled to see that Citi now has a “2” option “to” get connected directly to a service agent.  I may have trouble with the accent, but I’ll take that over time-wasting phone menus.

What other service systems offload work onto you, the customer, in a disrespectful way?

A lean systems design brings out the best in employees. When we apply lean systems thinking to services, we must remember that customers are part of the production system — and part of the team. We must consider all the costs in the system, including those costs incurred by the customer. Further, the sociotechnical analysis would examine the social context of the interaction between employees and customers. I don’t want a customer bill of rights. I want the respect due a valued part — arguably the most valuable part — of the production system.

We should practice Customer Experience Design to bring out the best in our employees and our customers. Does your design do that? Do your systems show respect for your customers? Please tell me if you’ve applied Lean Six Sigma to a service operation treating the customer as part of the system.

Everyone in the Pool! Good for Parties But a Muddied Customer Service Design at United Airlines

Summary: “Everyone in the pool” may make for a good summer party, but it’s a lousy design for customer service organizations. Customer service at companies, such as United Airlines and Comcast, used the pooled approach to answer customer email inquiries. While the approach lends the impression of greater efficiency, this approach leads to more rounds of email exchanges, creating customer dissatisfaction, and wasted effort on the part of the company. The failure to recognize the flaws in the design lies in the performance metrics used to measure the organization.

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In the heat of the summer at a party, someone may yell, “Everyone in the Pool!” This makes for crazy fun, and many customer service organizations practice an analogy of the pooled approach, such as Comcast and United Airlines customer service. When a customer emails an inquiry, the inquiry goes into a queue and the first available support agent will answer it. Fine so far. If the customer responds, not to close the issue but to clarify further, correct a misunderstanding, or requesting a more complete answer, what happens? In the pool approach, that customer follow-up goes into the queue to be responded to by the first available support agent, not the agent who answered the first inquiry.

What’s the result? The second agent doesn’t read the whole email thread, which undoubtedly included a bunch of canned, lengthy template responses. Why won’t the second agent read the thread? Because the agents are measured on the number of emails they handle in a day. Reading the thread would hurt that metric.

What’s the result? The second agent’s email will be ill-informed since he/she doesn’t take the time to understand the full picture. The customer will now be shaking his head because rather than getting clarity, he now needs to educate a second agent on the situation in a third email. Frustration and aggravation ensues. This third email will start getting a bit curt if not rude from the exasperation.

What’s the result? You guessed it. Yet another agent will respond to this third email further muddying the waters.

What’s the result? The customer just gives up or gets so outraged that he writes a letter to the CEO, hoping it gets handed to some intelligent person in the “executive service department” who will work the issue to its conclusion.

You might think I work in customer service organizations. I don’t, though I did work in Digital’s field service organization and I do consult into customer service organizations for customer satisfaction surveys. My knowledge of the pooled service model described above has come from two truly frustrating experiences dealing with Comcast’s customer service and United Airlines customer service. Brief descriptions follow.

United Airlines Customer Service Situation

I bought a ticket on United for a flight to Singapore. The agent informed me of upgrade options on each segment for United’s Economy Plus. I bit — and bought. I got separate email receipts for the ticket and for each upgrade. An hour later I got two more email receipts that turned out to be for upgrades on someone else’s tickets! Clearly, the reservation system (or agent) screwed up and put my credit card number on these upgrade purchases.

I called the reservation line to get an explanation of all this bundle of odd receipts. By questioning me, the agent surmised that these were incorrect charges. Here’s the process I was told to follow. Call your credit card company and challenge the charges. The credit card company would then work with United’s refund department.

Huh? Have you ever encountered a company that couldn’t just issue a refund, but told you to challenge the charges? Why was the work assigned to me to correct their mistake? As a professor of operations management, this goes into my hall of fame of bizarre business processes. I asked for contact information for the refund department so I could contact them, and I was given their email address. I challenged the charges and then forwarded the two incorrect receipts to, including the dispute number given me by Citi.

I was thrown into the pool. The first email I got from declined my refund request! The ticket was bought; no refunds allowed! The agent actually gave me the passenger’s name, which violated that person’s privacy. I responded. The response I got clearly indicated the second agent had not read the thread. I responded. Same thing again. After a week, they say they have honored the first refund request, but I never got any response regarding the second refund request despite repeated requests.  Further, I got another email about my first refund request now saying it would be disallowed!  The disorganization is unfathomable.

In the interim, I wrote to the CEO, Glenn Tilton. As of this writing, it’s one week since my letter arrived at the CEO’s office. If I have to, I’ll contact my Attorney General’s office (though I voted for Scott Brown against Martha Coakley).

Ironically, I was about to switch my primary airline to United since I am now flying to Asia several times a year, which is on United’s route map. Nice re-introduction to the airline!

Addendum, February 19, 2010

It took almost 2 weeks to get a response from a customer relations person. This person told me that I could best be served by one of the “specialists” in the refund department. So, after dealing with incompetent people in the refund department and writing to the CEO to get to someone with a modicum of intelligence — and providing free consulting about their service delivery design — I am shuffled back to the incompetent refund department!

I finally got a communication about the second refund request, but it was via my credit card company. United was challenging my challenge. Essentially, United is accusing me of trying to defraud them, when the problem is entirely a result of a failure in their reservation system. From a customer experience management standpoint, this is the worse interaction I believe I have ever had. From a service recovery standpoint, United has failed on all accounts. I have zero confidence that any future issue will be handled to my satisfaction. They just don’t get it.  United clearly qualifies for the Customer Service Hall of Shame.

Addendum March 9, 2010

I finally got a customer relations who actually read what I wrote. I’ve been told I will get my refund. I even got a call from the refund department apologizing.

Now here’s the ultimate irony. I had to postpone my trip. I asked about the refund for the seat upgrades from the agent. I learned that I never should have been charged for them since I am a Star Alliance Gold member.  So, now… I get to try to get those refunds.

All this for a better seat!

Comcast Customer Service Situation

My wife and I own a Maine oceanfront rental property in the village of Cundy’s Harbor in the quaint coastal town of Harpswell. Thus, we have two Comcast service accounts, one for our primary residence in Massachusetts and the other in Maine. Before Comcast “upgraded” their website in late 2009, I could access both accounts once I logged in. My main page had a drop down box where I could toggle to the second account. That functionality was removed. I had signed up for paperless delivery. So, I am not getting the bills for the Maine house account.

I have used the chat sessions. The analyst just closed out the chat session.

I have called Comcast tech support. I was told there were errors in the website being worked on. Of course, that implies some broken link or coding bug, not a flagrant design and testing error. That explanation would satisfy some people, but not those of us with some knowledge of system design.

I have tried an email inquiry where I went through three frustrating rounds of email exchanges. My last email never was responded to. What choice did I have but to write to Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast in the hopes that my issue would get worked? I’m still awaiting their answer. As of this writing, it’s over one week since my letter arrived at the CEO’s office. I guess my state’s consumer affairs office is my next stop.

Addendum February 19, 2010

To my pleasant surprise — and in contrast to United — I was called, yes, called,  by a competent person who took responsibility for getting me the information I needed. I wasn’t thrilled with the answer, but I got an answer!

Why would customer service organizations use the pooled service design? It’s simple; the design seems efficient. Having the original service agent handle a customer issue from start to finish could lead to delayed response and could lead to overburdening some agents for a short time while others have lower work load. With a large enough scale of operations, this probably wouldn’t happen. However, it’s a known issue that specialization in queues can lead to under utilization of staff. I will wager that both Comcast and United look at utilization statistics and also the number of inquiries handled per agent per day or week.

What’s the proper set of performance metric? They should look at the total clock time to resolve a unique customer inquiry as well as the number of rounds of exchanges needed. I am certain that the pooled approach leads to more rounds of exchanges. If they did some research, I will wager that they would find that customer dissatisfaction grows with each round of (incompetent) email exchanges. First call resolution (FCR) is the holy grail for tech support organizations since they’ve recognized it leads to both efficiency and effectiveness gains. Why don’t Comcast and United know this?

The above are internal efficiency metrics. How about external customer satisfaction metrics? Yes, I got a request to take a United customer survey — multiple times, and I took it multiple times — but not by Comcast. Were my United’s survey responses, which you might imagine were horrible, connected to the record of my email exchanges by some customer advocate or through some CRM system? Perhaps, but I doubt it. If anyone from United is reading this, please tell me! If anyone from Comcast is reading this, please call me!

What would be a better service deliver model? Of course, the ultimate from a customer viewpoint is a dedicated account manager. Each time you have an issue, you’d be handled by the same person. In a B2B environment with an ongoing relationship from continuous transactions, account managers make eminent sense. But in a B2C environment, it’s not practical since most of the interactions are one time transactions.

However, there’s a middle ground that both Comcast and United should use. When an agent starts to handle an transaction, he/she owns it for life, perhaps even if it’s escalated.  By having the customers’ responses go back to the same agent, the continuity of knowledge will benefit both customer satisfaction and operational efficiency.  In the United situation, I have had multiple agents respond to the same email of mine! Just totally ridiculous and a direct cause of the customer service fiasco that apparently defines United.

The lesson here: Don’t be deluded by the semblance of efficiency that can results from an inadequate set of service performance metrics. Pooled resources lend the impression of high resource utilization. Without the proper set of performance metrics, an organization can really tick off customers AND be inefficient in its resource use.

When Accountants Destroy Customer Loyalty

As a customer service consultant and teacher, it’s always fascinating to experience firsthand the very things we teach and preach, such as the companies that create long-term, loyal customer behavior. Of course, it’s better to experience this on the positive side, but a negative experience can sometimes be equally instructive. I recently had an experience with what Fred Reichheld would call “bad profits” — profits that fatten the bottom line now but destroy long term customer loyalty.

I’ve been delivering my Survey Design Workshops in various cities around the country for almost a decade.  Since I handle my own logistics, once I find a meeting location I like in a city, I stick with it — that is, until the venue drives me away. For a Chicago conference hotel, three times I’ve used the Hilton Indian Lakes Resort in Bloomingdale, Illinois.  It’s a very interesting hotel with nice architectural features, good restaurants, etc. within a half hour of O’Hare that just recently became affiliated with Hilton. I’d been pleased with it. But someone should tell their management there’s a recession hitting us here in late 2008.

Workshops like mine can be the canary in the economic mineshaft. They’re a pretty good leading indicator of companies retrenching. While I normally get a good headcount in my workshops, the Chicago class in October didn’t hit my targets. In fact, I had 2 cancellations in the weeks just prior due to companies putting holds on travel. I still held the class since I hate to disappoint my customers and I had a financial stake as you’ll see.

I had had second thoughts about using Indian Lakes. In the two years since I was last there they had:

  • Raised the meeting room rental price by 28%.
  • Nearly tripled the cost of a projection screen rental. (No joke, they want $95 per day to rent a screen. You can buy the same size projection screen at Staples for $120. I borrowed one from a friend. Let me be fair. The $95 includes use of power cords. Now there’s a value proposition!)
  • Most importantly, doubled the Food and Beverage (F&B) minimum purchase.

Clearly, when times were good in 2006 and 2007, they figured they could raise prices. Hello, Indian Lakes! Times aren’t good anymore!

What shocked me was that, despite my repeated use of the facility, Indian Lakes catering folks weren’t willing to work with me to reduce my financial exposure.

  • Could I apply the unused F&B amount to another event? Yes, as long as I held it before the end of 2008. Big help there! You don’t hold the same class twice in the same city in two months. That showed how much they understood my business.
  • Could I carry a credit forward to next year? No way!
  • Would they move my event into one of the hotel’s hospitality suites to cut meeting room expense? No way! That’s money in the wrong pocket of the same pants.

Were they losing money since they could have rented my space to someone else with a bigger crowd? No, the meeting rooms were mostly empty. They should have been thrilled to have me there.

To be fair, they would let any food I bought in the resort’s restaurants be applied to my F&B minimum. But that appears to be their standard practice. I wound up drinking some expensive scotch and eating some expensive dinners.  But I still would up with almost $300 in “attrition” — that is, unused F&B charges.

I recognize fully they had the legal right to the charges; I did sign a contract. But there’s a world of difference between legal rights and good business practice whose goal is to create long-term, profitable customer relationships. Here’s the explanation I got:

I am sorry we were not able to do more for you but from our side with you signing a contract for $XXX. This is revenue we have reported on receiving for the month of October. We were only able to offer that credit for this year so it would stay in this years (sic) revenues. As a business we have budgets and goals to meet (sic) we need to stick to the dollar amounts that was agreed upon and contracted.

Let me phrase that differently. As a business, they have a short-term profit focus. Promises to the accountants are more important that long-term customer relationships and long-term profitability. Ya just gotta love those accountants and savvy business managers focused on quarterly profit performance!

Would I ever use Indian Lakes again for an event? Given the concern they showed for me as a customer and for the success of my business, of course not! Actually, I have to backtrack a bit. I would use the conference suites the hotel provides — they’re wonderful and the hotel personnel seem most accommodating — but I will never darken the door of the catering office again. Indian Lakes catering called the unused F&B “attrition”, and that is the right word since it led to the attrition of their customer base.

To add insult to injury, I didn’t even get Hilton Points for holding my meeting there — and I am a loyal Hilton customer. Then again, maybe I’m not any longer…

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Two other interesting points…

  1. Two weeks after my event, I got their survey — remember, I do survey consulting for my living — which included a pitch for future events at Indian Lakes! It was the same very poorly designed survey I’d seen in the past (and I had given them gratis feedback on it in the past). The survey did not contain a question that really addressed the area that has destroyed my loyalty to the hotel. It had one general question for satisfaction with Management, but that was it. Just another good example of a survey designed with internal blinders. Management thinks customers can only get upset about the food or the catering service. They don’t measure their own service. Is that ignorance or arrogance?I did not get a survey about my hotel stay from Hilton corporate, which surprised me as I have some knowledge of their surveying practices.
  2. My catering manager — a sales person — could not find time in the 3 days I was on-site conducting my workshop to walk a few feet and say hello. Amazingly, this is the third time this year I’ve had this experience in conference centers. Usually the sales person goes to the customer. In this case the customer traveled 1000 miles to the sales person.

This really makes me appreciate the fine, personalized service I have received at the Network Meeting Center in Santa Clara, Calif., Hilton Garden Inn in Scottsdale, Ariz., and at the Forefront Meeting Center in Waltham, Mass. They get it. And will continue to get my business.