Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Analogy #176: Get Human

Ever try to call up one of those “help” lines for a company and get a worthless computerized phone system? It happens to me all the time. The computer voice will start out by listing about 5 types of problems, and you are to press a number between 1 and 5, depending on which problem applies to your situation.

Almost 100% of the time, my problem doesn’t come anywhere near the five options they give. Therefore, I have no idea which number to press. So I press a number at random hoping that the next level will be more helpful. It almost never is.

Many times, I make these calls from my cell phone or a telephone where the touchpad is in the handset. Therefore, I have to take the phone away from my ear in order to press the proper number. By the time I get the handset back to my ear, I have missed the next round of instructions.

One of my favorite web sites is http://www.gethuman.com/. The primary purpose of the Get Human site is to help people avoid these computerized phone systems and get access to a real human being.

The site lists hundreds of companies and the tricks you have to do when phoning each company to avoid the computerized system and get direct access to a human being. In many cases, the site tells you to “ignore whatever the computer is saying” and press a particular sequence of numbers and symbols. Other times, it tells you to ignore everything the computer says and just wait. Eventually, you outlast the computer and it goes directly to a human. A third approach is that it tells you what to press at each prompt to take the shortest path to a real operator.

This past month, they added a blog feature to the site where people can share their horror stories about using these phone systems.

I must not be the only person frustrated with the lack of help on these help lines, if there is an entire web site devoted to avoiding them. This brings up an interesting question—do companies realize how infuriating these calls can be for their customers? Do they realize how much ill will they can create with their customers?

Most of the time when we talk strategy, we talk about the big picture. We talk about large visions and elaborate positions versus all of the competition in the marketplace. These are all very important, because if you do not stake a claim to a winning position, you have very little chance of success.

However, staking a claim and keeping a claim are two different issues. You get to decide where you want to stake your claim, but the customer decides whether you have earned the right to keep it. If you disappoint your customers, they will pull that stake right out of the ground and throw it away.

In this day and age, direct customer contacts with a company may not happen very often. Your call center may be one of the few chances you get to make the right impression. If those calls turn into a nightmare for your customer (as they often do for me), then all of that fancy big-picture stuff may be for naught. That bad interaction my cause me to reject your firm entirely.

Therefore, strategies must be developed at two levels—the big picture and the little picture. The big picture is figuring out how you want to win the entire game. The little picture is figuring out how to win on every individual interaction.

The principle here concerns interaction and transaction-based strategies. Sales do not miraculously appear all at once. Instead, they tend to come in small doses, a transaction at a time. The more successful transactions one has, the more income one receives.

If you blow it at the point of the interaction, there will be no transaction, and the income dries up. It’s as simple as that. Therefore, a part of your strategic planning needs to deal with ensuring that each interaction between the prospective customer and the company reinforce your strategic objectives.

In many ways, a strategy can be looked at as a series of promises to your customers. For example, if you are Disney, you are making a promise that the interactions will be wholesome entertainment for the whole family. That is why there was some outrage over the recent photos of Miley Cyrus in Vanity Fair magazine, which pictured this Disney Hannah Montana star in a less wholesome manner.

For a department store like Nordstrom, there is a promise of great quality, great selection and outstanding personal service. Many people are willing to pay a premium price for this promise. Yet, if the service at the store disappoints, the promise is no longer believed, and the strategy is destroyed.

American Airlines likes to tell people that “They know why you fly.” However, at the point of interaction this past month, when thousands of flights were suddenly cancelled, American made it clear that they really don’t get it after all. The promise vaporized.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help ensure that the big picture strategy gets translated down to the interaction and transaction level.

1) What are the promises implied in our strategy?

2) What would the customer expect those promises look like at every point of interaction with the company?

3) How can we create a process which guarantees that the customer expectations are at least met (if not exceeded)?

4) Whenever we are making a change in the way things are done, will the customer perceive the change as bringing us closer or further away from our promises?

5) In a crisis mode, will customers see us as abandoning our promises?

6) How do we react when a salesperson lands a big sale, but does it in a way that destroys the strategic intent of the interaction? Do we reinforce bad behavior?

7) Do the people developing our customer interfaces (phone, on-line, etc.) understand enough of the big picture strategy so that they can ensure that the interface reinforces that strategy?

8) What do we reward people for? Is the quality of the customer interaction on that list?

9) Even for the people who do not have direct interaction with the customer, do they see themselves as a support team to help make the interaction better?

10) How do we handle mistakes made in an interaction with the customer?

11) What about the after-sale interactions the customer has with the product or service? Do these help or hurt their impression of the strategy? Remember, they may need to make another purchase later or talk to their friends who haven’t purchased yet.

Finally, we (as executives) need to ask ourselves how much we really know about our company’s customer interactions. In prior blogs, we talked about how important it is get firsthand knowledge about your company’s interactions from the customer’s perspective (see “Do You Do Breakpack” and “Stuffed Shirt”). Try to buy something off your web page. Go on a sales call. Try to complain on your help line. Better yet, spend some time on the other end of the phone listening to customer complaints.

Ross Perot was shocked when he found out that the directors at General Motors no longer bought cars and in some cases no longer drove them. They had no idea what customers had to go through to get a car repaired. Yet these directors had no qualms about making decisions for the automobile company. Out of touch directors lead to an out of touch company that lost a tremendous amount of market share.

You can’t fix it if you are unaware it is broken. And ignorance is no excuse.

Although it is critical to get the big picture strategy correct, that work is worthless if the company cannot translate it into the right customer experience every time there is a customer interaction. A strategy is not just a theory. It needs to tie into the specific details of how the customer interacts with us.

In reality, our position is what the customer believes about us in their mind. If their experiences cause them to come to a different mental conclusion than what we desire, then we have failed.

Customer perceptions are formed based on many things. Impressions may be formed years before you get a shot at a face to face interaction. Consider the problems at Ford—they have achieved a quality level equal to Toyota, but are not getting credit for it. There is too much bad history to make that statement credible. There’s a reason why the old sayings about what FORD stood for were created by customers: “Found On Road Dead” or “Fix Or Repair Daily.”

Be vigilant in protecting your reputation. Once it goes, it is hard to get back. Grand strategies cannot make up for years of disappointing interactions. Fix the interactions first, and then you have a foundation to make the new strategy credible.

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