Tag Archives: management

Customers Don’t Care about your Processes

A few years ago, I opened my credit card statement to find a huge late fee and interest charges.  Being neurotic about avoiding such fees, I tend to take care of my payment expeditiously after it is received.  Immediately, I called to check whether the check had been cashed, and indeed, the automated banking system indicated it had cleared some time ago.

I then called customer service at the credit card company.  After making me listen to content I had no interest in hearing (my balance, my next payment due, my cash forward balance, and a few other things I never use), I was put in the queue to speak with a representative.  After a short hold, a live voice came on and asked for the card number, holder name, and a few security questions.

Having made it through the security process, the representative politely asked me how she could help.  I described the problem and reported that my check had cleared, etc., etc.  I heard some typing and she reported back that her records showed the check had cleared their system the day after it was due and therefore, that these charges were legitimate.

I informed her of the date the payment was placed in the mail which from my recall was one to two days after I received the bill.  I heard more typing, and indeed, she was able to find another date indicating when the envelope arrived to their processing center.  I of course informed her that the arrival date was well before the posting date and the due date.  She then went into the description of the process of receipt, posting, and clearing in their process.  It takes two days for this, and two-three days for that, and you should allow seven to ten days for the mail, and another two-three days for this.  I politely informed her that the number of days she just articulated would indicate that I need to mail in the payment before I receive the bill.  She then informed me that in addition, there was a hiccup in the processing system during this cycle as there was a note in her records.

After hearing this, I suspected that she would immediately take the charges off my bill.  But the offer did not come.

I informed her that the only part of the process I can control is my ability to receive the bill and promptly put it into the mail.  As for the rest of the process and any internal delays, I have no control and cannot be expected to be held responsible for it.  In short, “I don’t care about your process.”  And, I need you to take the late charges and the interest charges off this bill and any interest charges you might be thinking about charging me in the next cycle.

She warned me that I get only one “grace” removal of charges per year and if I used it now, I could not request another for a year.  My urge was to inform her that if this happened again, I’d be removing my business entirely.  It wouldn’t be hard as I just need to open one of the three credit card offers I receive in the mail each day.  However, I refrained, knowing that she was simply following the script in front of her, and the script did not allow for the insertion of common sense or problems with the processing system.

Now this isn’t an uncommon problem in business, with either external or internal customers.  Having been in a few organizations, there isn’t one where I have not experienced a failed process that has impacted my ability to get my job done.  And in each organization, I receive the narrative about the functioning of the process, how it is supposed to work, the forms I need to fill out (often with some indication that I’ve filled out an outdated form and I need to fill out the new form to really make the process hum), and of course, I’m informed of the value of the process to me.

And though I deliver the message, most times, with some tact, the message is still the same: “I don’t care about your process.”  What I care about it is that my expectation was not met.  The promise you made to me as an internal/external customer was broken.  The deliverable has not reached my desk, is not working or it is causing me extra, unplanned work.  It is compromising a deadline for the clients I serve or is further stretching my resources.  I don’t care about the forms or the fact that a box wasn’t checked because the software didn’t recognize my click on the box and the individual decided not to contact me to ask about the box, but rather to let the project sit until I checked in to see why I saw no progress or wasn’t receiving my deliverable (again, no insertion of common sense).  I don’t care that now there is a new form or about the hours of committee meetings it took to develop the new form or about the position of the form in the newly revised process flow chart that took still more hours of committee meetings to rearrange.  I don’t care.  I don’t care.  I don’t care.

Customers care about the product or service they are receiving.  How it goes through your system and the quality of your system, not so much.  They care about quality of the end-product or service and the deadlines explicitly or implicitly implied.  They want their expectations managed, and if you fail to do so, customers will defect.  External customers will find different suppliers; internal customers will outsource.  And they should.

So the next time you are putting together or refining processes, I recommend two “reminders” during your development phase.  First, articulate what the customer expectation is and write that as your “purpose.”  Is the purpose of the process to efficiently process a payment, develop a technology, receive an order and ship a product, receive a repair request and get a technician onsite?  Secondly, articulate what the cost of failure of the process is to the customer.  Is it unfounded exorbitant charges, late delivery of a gift, no power or phone service, loss of a sale, or loss of a customer?

And as you develop or refine that process, refer back to the purpose and the customer cost repeatedly.  Further, constantly remind yourself that the customer, external or internal, doesn’t care about your process or your forms, the customer cares about the purpose and the cost.  Don’t let the process be your purpose; make the process serve the purpose.

I can almost guarantee that when your focus is the purpose for the customer and the cost to the customer when failure occurs, the process you design will be efficiency-focused (fewer layers and fewer forms), and in addition, it will also include the opportunity to insert common sense.  Now that’s what I’m carin’ about.

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Silos, Ladders, and Customer Feedback

On the drive into work recently, I was listening to an automotive dealer lauding his company because it had the intestinal fortitude to kill a product that customers clearly told that company they did not want and would not buy.  Ironically, later that morning, I received an email from a former colleague who is still in the business of consumer research.  He sent me a link to the Detroit Free Press article on the subject, accompanied with a comment stating his amazement that an organization would actually kill a product that customers were already heckling before it was ready for sale.  While many would think this a common sense approach for all companies who depend on customers to buy their products, it is not uncommon for corporations to well, “dismiss” the customer.

My colleague and I have spent years “listening to customers” and reporting their opinions to countless organizations.  Our successful clients were those that took customer messages, incorporated them into their product design, retail environments, customer service centers, and even their parking lot design and made changes quickly.  Our less successful clients were those who told us that we obviously recruited the wrong customers to our focus groups, or we sampled the wrong 1,000 respondents when we were conducting quantitative research, because of course, these organizations knew their customers and they knew the customer would like what they built.  Why they were just completing the consumer research because they had to check the box on the product development flow chart that said they had to do research with the target audience.  Consumer research was just really a formality to moving forward.

In fact, we had one organization that scheduled what seemed like endless focus groups in two cities for the purposes of the evaluation of a new product idea.  We recruited carefully to insure that we had the right customer – the customer that this product was to target.  Group after group declared the product ugly, pointed out several problems, and advised the organization that they would not buy it.  They threatened to leave the brand and explore competitor products.

The message was clear.  Don’t produce this!  However, our client informed us that we must have recruited the wrong people.  The 100 or so people that evaluated this product couldn’t have been the right people.  “We know our customer and these people are not our customers.”  The solution was to conduct several more focus groups with several hundred more people in three more cities.  And in the last city, the reaction to the product was “take-it-or-leave-it.”  The customers weren’t as vehemently negative.  And while we cautioned that the region of this last city is known for more “polite” communication, the absence of absolute negativity from the customers in this city was all that was needed to give the client the permission to proceed.  They did and the product, unfortunately but predictably, failed.

Now lest you think that this occurs only in large organizations:

  • From a 24-year-old technology developer during a focus group on search engines with baby boomer women who couldn’t see benefit in the proposed technology:  “I know search engines and I know baby-boomer women (perhaps his mother?), and what they want.  These women in this group just don’t understand the technology enough to understand how much they need it.”  Ah, if the customer can’t understand your product grasshopper, it’s dead in the water.  And yes, the technology, whatever it was, lost its venture capitalist funding.
  • From a youngish consultant in social media marketing:  “I tell all my clients to throw away their traditional marketing methods.  There is no reason to conduct direct mailings or run broadcast advertisements.” Hmmm, I just hope his clients are all targeting moderate to high-end urban audiences that can be and want to be connected all the time by voice or Internet technologies – and who will opt-in to receive marketing messages.  That’s everybody, right?  I’m not betting on a lot of repeat-clients for this gentleman consultant.

Leaders in organizations, big and small, just like celebrities and politicians, tend to surround themselves with people who work well together and thus, tend to agree with each other.  And the group begins to drink its own Kool-Aid.  Product development groups are often put together because they are high functioning as a group – to start.  It would seem, however, that they quickly become isolated.  They become silos on their own farm isolating themselves from those whom they are serving.

It also goes, that those who have had success in the past tend to climb that corporate ladder accompanied with some legendary success stories.  These climbers gain more power in the organization and colleagues with less power tend not to want to report things that are not in agreement with the dude on the top of the ladder.  I recall a conversation with a brand consultant on a flight home from NYC.  He told me he had gone to the city to deliver some bad news to a corporation regarding some customer feedback.  The process was to present to the product team and the product team would then either have the consultant re-present with CEO in the room or the team would deliver the message themselves.  The team’s response to his findings:  “We can’t tell Mrs. Johnson that.  She would be furious.”  So, the product team decided to pretend that the findings were never collected and the consultant was heading home a day early and a bit dazed.  We laughed as we predicted that he would not be hired again by that organization because it is easier to shoot the messenger rather than deliver the message (or pretend the message never happened).

It’s hard to listen to customers.  They are needy and always looking for something better, and for the most part, in most cities, they tell it like it is.  They aren’t very loyal anymore either.  It takes guts to listen to the customer.  And it takes still more guts to deliver the customer’s message to those who need to hear it, to those who have the power to pull the plug on a project and either make modifications or start all over.  And those with power don’t make it easy to deliver negative feedback, particularly when it’s a “pet project” that Mr. Power has wanted to develop for the past 20 years.  And it’s hard for me to advise people climbing the ladder to keep delivering the real truths to those at the top of the ladder.  The more successful customer-driven organizations of course embrace delivery from all rungs; but still too many just kick the messengers off the ladder and send them home early.

So for those of you at the top of the ladder (and those of you climbing the ladder, when you get there), be sure to embrace dissonance.  Invite employees and your over-worked consultants, particularly those focused on consumer research, to disagree and to deliver the good, the bad, and the downright jeered.  If you rarely hear disagreement or every idea you present is met with, “That’s a great idea, the customer will love it,” you’re probably living in a silo and you’re likely thwarting honest feedback.  When presented with unexpected customer feedback, take action to make sure the findings aren’t an anomaly, but if you continue to hear customers jeer and threaten to leave your farm, it’s a good bet it’s time to plow up the crop and replant.  And congratulations to General Motors for plowing up the field on the Buick crossover that customers said they would not buy!  I think I just heard a silo crumble!

Misery and Wet Noodles in the Workplace – A 40-Something-Manager’s Epiphany

Though I’ve been in the professional workplace for about two decades now, there are days when I feel like I just started – bright-eyed and naïve about the ways of the workforce.  As you gain years, you have your bubbles burst – some quickly in that first year and others more slowly, particularly as you gain knowledge of politics and other impenetrable barriers that exist.  You also realize as you gain experience that these barriers live in all workplaces.  Moreover, having been employed in a handful of organizations, I have found that the same personalities have existed in all, just under different names and faces (which come to think of it, might be a fun, future post!).

Those admirable professionals that cannot bear to work within preset barriers or work around barrier-setting personalities and who are risk-takers are the ones we see start their own companies.  Those of us who aren’t so risky, well, we take one of two paths.  We either work within the barriers and around challenging personalities, while trying our hardest to chip away at the barriers for the good of our workforce and our own sanity.  Or, we burn out, focus our efforts on that which we can control in our own department or unit and don’t worry about the big picture because after years of trying to push change, we get frustrated.  You know the people that I’m talking about.  I still recall some of the names of these now inward-focused middle managers at my former employers – there was Ted and Pete and Phil, and a few more of course. 

At points of high frustration with what I believed to be simple and logical changes for the better of the organization, Ted or Pete or Phil would wander to my office, sit down with an empathetic ear, and then advise me that they too had face similar issue(s) “in their day,” and after 20 years of trying to change it, had given up, accepted it and worked within it.  And this I would find amazing.  How could you give up?  But, as I grow in years, I have gained appreciation for their perspective.  Pushing the wet noodle of change is exhausting, and at what point to do you just give in saving your energy for perhaps more rewarding things like your family or friends or other aspects of your life?

I’ve always been a chipper and a pusher of wet noodles up hills.  I ache when I see inefficiency in operations and when I see unhappy employees.  And every time, I can visualize how to make things work more smoothly or how to make employees, my colleagues, happier with their environment.  After all, we’re spending a better part of our lives in the office.  Why not make it a fun place to work?  And I’m confident that fun and professional can be combined.  You don’t have to be stuffy to be professional – really!

But alas, I had a bubble-bursting epiphany the other day.  As I mentioned, in nearly every organization of some size, you see many of the same personalities at work.  There are the optimists, the motivators, and the quiet and highly efficient types.  There are those that seem to spend more time getting around doing work than doing the work.  There are the “I’m so busy all the time” types who go on and on about all the hours they are working, but you never see any work product to prove it, and there are the highly motivated, get it done and ask for more types.  And there are the complainers who find misery in so much of the organization that I always wondered, “Why do they stay?  Why not leave the organization and find a position where you will be happier?”  It can’t be rewarding to be that miserable every day for 10+ hours a day.  Or, can it?

And this was the epiphany!  Some employees, I believe, actually prefer to be miserable!  For whatever reason, they enjoy complaining about every aspect, every program, and most of their colleagues.  They don’t leave, because it is likely that every organization they have been at, that they did the same thing.  It’s not that they are absolutely frustrated with their job, or colleagues, or management, they just simply enjoy complaining about it all.  And they seek out others who will commiserate, and they do.

For me, this is liberating and why I’m blogging about it.  For years, I’ve tried in small and sometimes larger ways to improve morale in the workplace.  I’ve endeavored to make all employees happier and more satisfied.  I realize now, “all employees” is an impossible mission.  And that makes it easier.  I can concentrate on developing communication avenues and other employee-friendly tools to better the morale for the majority of employees.  And I can take satisfaction in the majority’s increased morale versus believing myself to be a failure because I cannot improve things for “all” employees.  I understand now that certain segments do not want improvement – they thrive, for whatever reason, on being miserable at work.  And as long as they get their work done and do not contaminate the rest of the organization with despair, who am I to suppress their enjoyment of misery?

So while I appreciate the positions of my former colleagues, Ted and Pete and Phil, I am not ready to stop pushing wet noodles up hills.  However, I will be better at selecting the hills – avoiding, once I identify who resides there, the hill of misery, since no matter how hard I push, I am not welcome there, and that is okay by me and its residents.  It just got easier!

Isn’t “Free” Enough?

Being in the category of “experienced employee” or “approaching middle-aged employee,” I find myself reflective not only in the shower or during the drive in/home from work, but also, during meetings where since I am not on the spot, I can reflect and listen concurrently (a skill that motherhood has perfected also).  And though I am gaining experience, both in age and jobs, since I’ve had a few jobs in a few places, I still can be taken aback.  The most recent experience was at a department meeting last week.

As with many companies, a kick-off meeting to a great year was held during that first week back from the holidays.  It’s a well-intended meeting giving department members a good map to what is upcoming in the next few weeks, and this year perhaps, some reassurance just by seeing each other that even in this economy, things will be okay.  And the head of my department is part manager and part saint (and I’m not just saying that should she stumble upon this post).  She has patience and empathy beyond the average and not just because my past jobs have been in businesses or environments where the weak are eaten and there isn’t time for patience.

So, the meeting began at 10:00a, and due to another meeting, I was going to have to exit a bit early.  We went through a couple of welcomes to transitioning staff and then began on the agenda.  After a few brief updates on some business items, the next topic had to do with a staff morale project.  The project leader on this has been investigating rewards and recognition ideas that we hope will help to boost staff morale, even in these dreary times.  She has been working hard on this having surveyed the entire staff and having looked into implementations issues on a shoe-string budget.  She has a passion for the topic and it shows in her work on it.

So one of the most popular ideas for staff recognition was very simple – that the organization provides coffee and water free of charge to its employees.  The staff research showed that this was a popular recognition item relative to other ideas and the implementation and costs were not that significant.  Further, as the leader queried other organizations similar to ours, she found that our organization is the only one charging for access to coffee and water.  Thus, in addition to making employees feel better and more caffeinated throughout the day, it achieved equity issues with neighboring units.  How simple – right?

So here I sit thinking that my department mates will say, “Thanks – what a nice thing for you to pursue.  Good job – thank you for working on this and the other things.”  But no.  The managing member of the coffee club, who by chance is in our department, piped up that the coffee club members would have to vote on whether they wanted this and/or whether to disband, and that ordering and providing coffee was an extremely complex process, and none of us could understand the complexity unless we were members.  Really?  It’s coffee.  In my experience, “Perk it and they will come.”  And, apparently this club might schedule a filibuster to keep free coffee and water from the hands of all staff members – and frankly, the lecture on coffee complexity this morning was a skilled start to that filibuster.

And then the subject turned to decaffeinated coffee.  Another member of our department gave a lecture on selecting the proper decaf.  Apparently there is a more expensive decaf coffee that is specially filtered; otherwise, decaf drinkers are just drinking a bunch of chemicals.  Thus, if free coffee is to be offered, she wants to be consulted on what coffee to offer.

So here I sit amazed.  We are in an economy where budgets are being cut, where we need to focus on our core businesses to ensure that our customers keep buying our services, where our friends, relatives and acquaintances are facing layoffs or are already there, and we are spending over 20 minutes of a 90 minute meeting (that’s almost 25% of the meeting) on the subject of offering FREE coffee and water to the staff.

In my subconscious, I stood up and gave a lecture about how spoiled we all must be.  Are we kidding?  Our compassionate colleague has more/less just gotten approval to show recognition and appreciation to employees of this organization – employees, who compared to probably 80% of other organizations, are already provided generous benefits, vacation, and professional development opportunities with rare overtime and weekend work, I might add.  And we, in our comfortable jobs, are not only not recognizing her contribution in a positive thankful manner, we are putting stipulations on how we will accept “free.”  I’m betting all those that have been laid off or have had to take pay cuts in order to keep their organizations solvent would accept it with no stipulations.

But, perhaps this view is a product of having been in organizations where I knew I had escaped the layoff list by just a couple of head counts or where I had to escort people to the door after they received their notice, not because they were bad people or bad employees, but simply because the organization could not afford to pay them any longer.  Perhaps this makes one more appreciative – for having a job, a job with generous benefits, and yes, for free coffee. 

I did stand up, but I stood because I had to leave for my next meeting.  But let me say, I for one, if offered complimentary coffee and water, will drink from the trough without stipulations.  And, I will appreciate it.  “Free” is enough for me.

The Credit Card Push = Remember dear management, you get what you reward!

Having left my make-up bag at my parent’s home over the Thanksgiving holiday, after a day that starter paler than usual, I ran out to the department store where I make my usual Clinique purchases.

Generally, purchasing make-up or perfume this time of year is a frightening feat since oftentimes the offers that accompany a purchase over $50 (easy to do since the sum adds quickly in this department) draws in crowds similar to those at a rock concert.  However, in today’s economy, there are only three of us at the counter who are all there to pick up a quick replacement item.

An associate is immediately available to help me.  She’s definitely new as she’s having a real hard time finding the two things I’ve requested.  (And when I got home, I realized she had dropped in the wrong foundation – oh well, I’ll survive.)  The other associate has just finished with another customer and begins to wait on the person that arrived just after me.

The customer, like me, is just looking for a replacement item and even hands the associate the empty container.  And then it begins.

Associate:  Will this be on your Macy’s charge? 

Customer:  No, I don’t have one.  (Since my associate is still searching for my foundation, I’m hearing the total interaction.  I wanted to advise, “Oh dear customer, never ever, ever say you don’t have one – ever!”)

Associate:  “Would you like to save 20% on your purchase by opening and account – this offer is just for two days and is usually only 10%?” 

Customer:  “No, I probably wouldn’t be approved anyway.   I’m going to pay cash.”

Associate:  “Why just earlier, a young lady didn’t think she’d be approved, and it went right through.  It doesn’t take long.”

Customer:  “No thanks.  I’ve gotten into some trouble with credit cards.  I’m just going to pay cash.”

Associate:  “You could turn around and pay cash right away and just pay it off.”

Customer:  “No.  I’d better not.”

Associate:  “But you’ll save 20% – they never offer that.  And you could pay it right off.”

Customer:  “Thanks.  I’ll just pay cash.”  And the customer hands over her money.

Thank goodness!  But the associate still doesn’t give up and offers to open that account one more time and pay it off with the cash the customer has just handed her.  The customer nods politely and the transaction is FINALLY over.

Now let’s look at the beaming red flags here.  Flag 1: I probably wouldn’t be approved.  Flag 2:  I’ve gotten into trouble with credit cards.  If I as a creditor saw those flags on a customer, I’d be leaping over the counter to grab the cash since cash in my hand is worth triple the costs of a customer where I can’t collect the money and either must write it off or I need to pay a collection agency to collect it – and that’s after giving the 20% discount I gave to bring the customer into my card in the first place.  Three words:  “Cash is king!”

Now I’m sure that the associate is handsomely awarded for bringing in new accounts – regardless of the credit-worthiness.  Why else would she be so aggressive?  It matters not to her if her company will be strapped with non-paying customers since she will see the reward in her paycheck.  So while I do believe on a personal level that she should take some responsibility and back-off when the red flags raise, similar to that of a bartender who insists that his alcoholic patron “just have one drink” in an effort to increase the tip amount, the associate is pursuing that which she will be rewarded for. 

The company really needs to be careful about what it rewards.  Simply rewarding based on getting a customer in the credit cycle will get them any customer – those that can pay and those that obviously cannot.  Remember all of the controversy on the voting records related to ACORN?  All the workers had to do was sign up voters with a valid address to get their cash rewards, so there were several Mickey Mouse’s and Darth Vader’s across the nation.  Now why the controversy, I don’t know.  Mickey Mouse & Darth Vader still needed to show up at the polls with a picture ID to actually vote – signing up wasn’t the only step in this process.  But, ACORN got what it rewarded – a list of voters, well, actually, a list of valid mailing addresses.  And Macy’s is getting what it rewards – customers in its credit card program.  But at what cost?  Or perhaps better stated, at what value?

So, in business and in life, be careful of what you reward, because you get what you reward.  Just like rewarding toddlers who throw temper-tantrums with the attention they are seeking, rewarding employees with bonuses based on signing up people without qualifiers put into the process will get you more temper-tantrums and very costly customers.

And cheers to the customer that held her ground and said “no to credit” when she knew it was dangerous for her!  My regret for the day is that I didn’t tell her so!