Mark Hayes, August 10th, 2019.

Observe, Measure and Quantify

Don't simply rely on existing process documentation, requirements and a bit of input from the people working the process.

Brake down the process into its logical units, observe how they are performed and quantify the time and effort required, as well as quality issues and exceptions. That doesn't necessarily mean a full time and motion analysis. Rather look at what's actually going on.

To be able to fully optimise a process it must first be fully understood, not just in terms of inputs, outputs and actions, but also effort, timing and quality.

Timing is particularly important because not doing something at the appropriate time can cause increased friction. For example, doing something too soon may require rework as, by the time it's needed, inputs may have changed. Equally, not considering dependencies can result in delays or rework simply because a window of opportunity is missed.

When prioritising, looking at effort is always a quick win if it's been accurately quantified. For example, shaving 10% off a process that consumes twenty hours is clearly more important than shaving 50% from a process that takes five minutes. Unless, of course, the five minute process is performed a thousand times and the twenty hour process only runs once.

Defect resolution, for example as a result of dodgy data, invariably consumes more resource than defect prevention. When analysing a process, look at where and why defects arise, how they affect downstream consumers, where and how they can best be prevented.

For example, in the accounts department of one company, the end of month process was crippled by the number of unreconcilable expense claims. The accounts team would attempt to sort them out themselves and it was taking most of their time during month end.

The decision to simply reject invalid claims, and insist they be done properly and submitted no later than five working days before month end, resulted in almost every claim being valid within two months.

Back to Flow

Improving flow is generally quite simple to grasp... remove obstacles, reduce the number of interactions and iterations, simplify etc. There are many ways to describe it but despite its simplicity many organisations are still wasting vast sums of money by not getting it right.

I feel the need to elaborate with a couple of example here as failure to address flow at the right level can actually be detrimental. The two key areas I'm going to address are a) call centres, and b) personal account managers.

These have issues so rife and solutions so obvious it's crazy.

Problem Area 1: Customer Support Call Centres

In an ideal world, when resolving issues for a customer the person answering the call should be the ONLY person the customer needs to talk to. Just like a sales desk, they should only have to speak once, maybe twice if a callback is required to confirm issue resolution.

When this is the case you guarantee:

  1. The path to resolution will be optimised. I.e. the customer will spend the minimum amount of time possible getting resolution and therefore the customer experience will be optimal.
  2. The number of incoming calls will be reduced many times.
  3. Calls relating to ongoing problems will drop to almost nothing.
  4. Response times will be reduced across the board.
  5. The quality of support delivered will increase.
  6. The amount of time call centre staff, and other support staff, spend resolving issues will drop dramatically.
  7. The time spent repeatedly asking the customer for their details and a description of the issue will drop by at least half.

These are all objectives of most customer support processes, yet they fail in the majority of cases. So, given the fact that these companies don't really want to have bad customer relations, what's going wrong?

Customer support processes are almost never designed in a way that provides as smooth a customer experience as a sales desk does.

The people answering the phone can only resolve a portion of the support calls they receive. This shouldn't actually be a problem, but... It is!

The reason this shouldn't be a problem is simple. Instead of putting the customer through to another team, which is quite often the wrong one, the person answering the phone should:

  1. Take the customers particulars and the details of the problem.
  2. Resolve the issue immediately if possible, or...
  3. Thank the customer and tell them they will be in touch as soon as the issue is resolved.
  4. Own and manage the case.
  5. Pass the details to someone who can resolve the issue.
  6. Chase it up as appropriate.
  7. Report back to the customer as appropriate.

In other words the person answering the phone doesn't need to be the one that resolves every issue, just the one that owns and manages it. Instead of implementing team based service level agreements, create them for the end-to-end process, from first call to resolution.

Regardless of functional areas, make the process work as if delivered by a single team. If necessary, let issue "types" dictate turnaround times, but always from first call to resolution. Having multiple team based service level agreements in a single process is one of the primary causes of bad service.

An organisation that doesn't at least appear to be operating as a single unit will never be as effective as one that does.

Big savings can be made by simply providing a better and more efficient service. If you don't believe me, get in touch, put together a purchase order and set me loose!

Problem Area 2: The Personal Account Manager

This is a simple one and it applies to banks, insurance companies and many others. I won't go into detail as the reasons this doesn't work are incredibly simple:

  1. They are not always available, meaning the customer has to wait for a call back or keep trying.
  2. Each time the customer calls, and doesn't get their Account Manager, both the customer and the person who answered the phone have wasted their time.
  3. Having personal account managers encourages the rest of the team to fob customers off when it's not their customer.
  4. Customers really don't care who fixes the problem, they just want it fixed straight away.

Both areas, call centres and account managers, have been failed by poorly thought out process improvement and marketing initiatives. Friction and general inefficiency have been introduced to the detriment of flow. Yet if flow, from the perspective of the customer experience, had been the primary consideration these issues would have never arisen.

Finally... It's Never Over

Ultimately it's all about smooth process flow from the customers perspective, get that right and the rest will follow. Regardless of whether the customer is internal or external, mid process or final... the better the flow the better the experience, the lower the cost, effort and defects.

However, just because you get it right, doesn't mean the job's over. Processes should be regularly reviewed with the aim of finding even better, more efficient ways of getting the job done.

Most importantly, don't rely on customer feedback to tell you how well you're doing. Observe and measure the services you provide, and do so frequently.

One final comment, a "smiley" if you like...

Yesterday I had to find a new home insurance provider, I was blown away by the answer system of one company in particular. Instead of playing terrible music with poor sound quality, it gave me the option to select a genre. Most impressive was the fact someone answered the phone before I'd finished listening to the options. I made one call, spoke to one person and bought the product. Here's hoping, if I ever need them, the service will be the same.