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    Entries in customers (13)

    Monday
    Aug282017

    In the automation era, maybe people are still a competitive advantage

    In the last year of so I kind of moved off of the 'robots are taking all the jobs' topic as I had gotten a little tired of it and after reading 17.993 pieces on the subject it is pretty clear that nothing at all is clear about it.

    Maybe the robots will take all of the jobs. Maybe they will only take the 'bad' jobs that we don't want to do. Or maybe we will have to someday co-exist with our robot masters.

    Or maybe people and our unique ability to connect with other people will continue to be an important competitive differentiator in a world where we seem more and more inclined to develop and implement technology to remove people from business processes. Tale a look at an excerpt from a piece in Fortune last week about how the home improvement and supply giant Lowes is rethinking the importance of real, live employees in delivering better customer service, (emphasis mine)

    The company (Lowes) said its adjusted profit was $1.57 per share, below analysts' average estimate of $1.61, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S, while net sales climbed 6.8 percent to $19.50 billion, short of forecasts for $19.53 billion. Comparable sales rose 4.5%, well below the result posted last week by Home Depot, suggesting Lowe's continues to struggle to capitalize on the housing boom compared to its nemesis.

    But the home improvement retailer thinks it has found a solution: increasing hours for store workers to improve customer service.

    "While our results were below our expectations in the first half of this year, the team remains focused on making the necessary investments to improve the customer experience," CEO Robert Niblock said in a statement. He added: "This includes amplifying our consumer messaging and incremental customer-facing hours in our stores." 

    'Incremental customer-facing hours' might be the worst possible CEO-speak for 'putting more employees on the floor' but the real point can't be lost in the gobbledy-gook. If you have ever shopped in a Lowes or similar big-box format store you know that actually finding a customer service employee to help you with a question or to get help locating an item can be a daunting task. It seems so obvious that increasing staffing, hours, and enhancing the knowledge of store associates would likely drive significant increases in customer satisfaction, sales, and longer term loyalty.

    But in the last several years most businesses like Lowes have seemed to focus energy and investment in all things digital - better websites and apps, self-checkouts, and even in Lowes case - actual robots that work in the stores.

    But maybe, still, consumers see the value, understanding, and empathy that only people can provide. Maybe in a world where it seems like most of your competitors are moving towards ecosystems and processes that remove people and increase automation that actually providing old-school, in-person, and expert customer service, (from human employees), can still be a source of competitive advantage.

    Really interesting times we live in where increasing customer service employees to improve a customer service problem seems like a bold, innovative, out of the box strategy.

    Have a great week!

    Monday
    Aug212017

    Customers might always be right, but what they tell you isn't always useful

    Happy possible-end-of-days Great American Solar Eclipse Monday!

    'The customer is always right' has been a generally accepted mantra? maxim? truism? that has pretty much informed the product, service, and sales strategies for all kinds of industries for decades. And while the absolute truth and the need to adhere to this precept is certainly debatable, 'customer focus' taken more generally has developed into the operating philosophy of most successful organizations.

    So while the customer is (probably, mostly) always 'right', is what they are telling you all the helpful or useful?

    Over the weekend I came across this outstanding post from Cindy Alvarez called '10 Things I've Learned About Customer Development' that highlights just a few of the ways that customer input and feedback isn't always incredibly insightful or useful. Here's just one example (my favorite), from the list:

    What features your customers ask for is never as interesting as why they want them. So: Direct them away from talking about the solution and back to describing the problem. Listen, pause, and then ask what it would allow them to do if they had it today. Ask what they’re currently doing as a substitute. They’ll either identify a problem (good — now go solve it) or be unable to provide specifics (feel free to deprioritize this suggestion).

    In the enterprise and certainly in the HR tech space function and feature 'arms races' have been a significant driver of solution provider development and attempts at competitive differentiation for ages. This approach makes sense in an environment where customers and prospects send out voluminous RFPs and request tightly scripted demonstrations that sometimes are even spelled out in minute by minute increments. 

    In an environment where business can be won by 'checking the most boxes' it just made sense for providers to, in fact, strive for the most items that could be checked off. Even if no one, customer or provider alike, is entirely sure that checking all the boxes is the best or even a sensible strategy. 

    Of course there is some level of baseline capability that say a Payroll or ATS solution must provide to even be tenable - no one would argue that. But there is probably much more room for creativity, innovation, and ground breaking thinking around enterprise tech than we allow if we focus too much on 'what' we need systems to do and not enough on 'why' we think these features will allow us to accomplish.

    Check out the entire list from Ms. Alvarez, there is much more food for thought in there for solution providers and customers alike.

    And don't stare too much into the sun today!

    Monday
    May232016

    I'm comfortable not knowing

    Note: Re-running a post from the archive, not (completely) because I didn't have time to write anything this weekend, but rather the very thing I wanted to write about sounded so familiar to me that I had in fact written about it before. Hope you enjoy...

     

    About a thousand years ago I was a newbie consultant working for a large, (actually quite large), implementation services arm of a equally large software company. As the software products that our consulting and implementation services group were responsible for implementing numbered in the dozens (if not more), and they were each one reasonably complex technologies, the company enrolled all newly hired implementation consultants in an extensive 8-week training program that was affectionately known as 'bootcamp'.

    The bootcamp consisted of 8 hour days, for 8 weeks, taking all of the new consultants through the details and inner workings of the most commonly purchased of the company's applications, giving us a reasonable facsimile of 'real-world' problems that needed to be solved via case studies, and took us through what life as a traveling software consultant was actually all about. Aside - the job and lifestyle was equally better and worse than we all anticipated, but that is a topic for another time.

    But even over an 8-week period, the amount of technical, functional, business, process, and project management material that was presented to us was immense and fast-paced, and truly, there was almost no way to actually remember I'd estimate more than about half of it. The rest, and certainly the more important parts of the knowledge needed to become a good consultant would take more time to acquire, and work in the field with real customers to reinforce.

    All of this setup is to get to the point of this post. I don't really remember anything specifically from the content of the 8-week training bootcamp save for one sentence that was uttered not from one of the excellent instructors or experienced consultants that led our training, but rather from one of my fellow bootcampers.

    At the end of a long week of intensive work on some complex application and technology concepts, our instructor was making a final point about some detail or another, and she noticed a look of confusion on the face of a student in the front of the class. She paused, explained the point once more, and then asked him point blank, "Do you understand what I mean by configuring setting ABC in order to allow the customer to do XYZ?" , (the specifics don't matter, and I don't remember what they were anyway).

    The student thought about the question for a second then replied, "No, I really don't understand. But I'm comfortable not knowing."

    The instructor was a little taken aback, tried to re-state the concept, and hammer it home so that it clicked with the student, but she missed the real point of his response. It was not that he didn't care about understanding the point she was making, or that he would never understand it, but rather in that setting, with that specific point competing with about 3,000 other ones we'd all been exposed to in the last few weeks, that is was ok to not understand. He was comfortable (his word), with his ability to access reference material, draw on his network of colleagues, do some of his own testing, etc. in order to understand the key point when confronted with the problem in the future.

    He was comfortable not knowing because he was comfortable in his ability to think about the problem, access relevant resources, and apply what he'd learned more generally in order to solve this specific problem. He didn't need to know everything, Heck, no one needs to know everything.

    I like people that don't claim to have all the answers. I especially like people that are willing to admit that they don't have all the answers, but know how to find them. 

    And are comfortable with that.

    Tuesday
    Mar152016

    Taking care of customers by taking care of employees, (give them all a raise edition)

    ETERNAL TRUTH: Better engaged employees are happier, more productive, are retained at higher rates than less-engaged folks, and provide higher levels of customer service, all things being equal.

    So if you want/need/desire improved customer service, all you have to do is find a way to improve employee engagement levels of the folks meant to be providing the customer service. 

    Easy, right?

    Except when it's not. I have written plenty here, (and so have lots of other folks), about how despite tossing money and effort at improving engagement for at least 20 years, that in aggregate engagement levels are about what they have always been since it became a member of the 'something we measure' club.

    But what if there was another, simpler way to improve customer service that didn't involve 'engagement' at all, but did impact those employees that are on the front-line working with and helping customers every day? You'd be interested in something like that, wouldn't you? What if it was as simple as cutting a check? Well, make that several thousand checks.

    Check this excerpt from a recent Fortune piece - McDonald's Says its Wage Hikes Are Improving Service:

    The hamburger chain in April announced it would raise the average hourly rate for workers at the U.S. restaurants it owns to $9.90 from $9.01 starting July 2015, with average wages climbing above $10 per hour by the end of 2016. The company also said it would allow those employees to earn up to five days of paid vacation every year following one year of employment.

    McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook, who took the helm in 2015, has since moved swiftly, closing hundreds of weak stores, bringing back all-day breakfast, and simplifying the chain’s menu, reducing bottlenecks in serving customers quickly. But improving the customer experience hinges on workers being on board with all these changes, hence the raises.

    “It has done what we expected it to—90 day turnover rates are down, our survey scores are up—we have more staff in restaurants,” McDonald’s U.S. president Mike Andres told analysts at a UBS conference on Wednesday. “So far we’re pleased with it—it was a significant investment obviously but it’s working well.”

    The move reportedly created friction with franchisees, who hire and pay their own workers, as they felt pressure to match the wage hikes. Still, there are early signs it is paying off: In October, McDonald’s reported its first quarter of comparable sales gains in two years. The company built on that growth with a huge 5.7% increase in the following quarter.

    Wow, is it that simple? A general 10% across the board wage increase and sales and customer service both rise enough to offset the costs of the increased wages? That's it? Man, what took them so long to sort that out?

    In truth, there are a few things to tease out of this experiment, and it could be that some of the non-wage increase changes have been at least somewhat responsible for this recent turnaround in McDonald's fortunes. But as CEO Easterbrook rightly observes, in order for these operational and strategic changes to really work, the employees had to be on board, and raising wages was the simplest, (and possibly best) way to accomplish that.

    There are probably a few special circumstances that make this strategy more effective than it would be in other places, even small reductions in turnover are likely to have a big impact on service levels in the fast food business, and even with a high number of employees, giving blanket increases of 10% does not represent massive spending. So get turnover down just a little, keep a few more longer-tenured staff on each shift, and boom - the drive thru lines move a little bit faster and the customers are happy.

    Sometimes, maybe most of the time, we tend to over think what it takes to keep people (reasonably) happy, and give them a situation where they feel good about the work they are doing, and the customers that they are serving. 

    You might not be able (nor necessarily should you), give everyone on the staff a 10% bump. But there probably is some other, simple, reachable change you can make that would serve the same purpose. It's out there. You can find it.

    Just don't call it "employee engagement" and you will be fine.  

    Tuesday
    Mar102015

    Users don't know what they want - but they know something

    How much, or little, should product designers and developers interact with potential users and customers of the products the designers and engineers are creating?

    It seems like a simple question, but if you think about it some and recall some of the famous perspectives on customer input into product development you find that the answers to this question tend to land on one of two extremes.

    On the one side, you have the Steve Jobs/Henry Ford take on customer needs and wants. Jobs more or less thought customers had no idea what they really wanted, and he (and Apple), had to create that want by building amazing products that met that need (that the users didn't know they had). Ford is famously quoted as saying that if he had asked customers what they wanted they would have replied 'faster horses', instead of reliable and affordable automobiles.Ford

    The other extreme, and one seen traditionally in lots of workplace kinds of technologies, is for developers and designers to build just exactly what customers request. This approach is mostly an outgrowth and evolution of internal IT shop's tendency to build custom applications based on a list of documented requirements from the end users. If the feature was in the requirements doc, it made it into the product. If not, then the capability didn't get built in the delivered product. And the IT response to downstream complaints was always, 'Well, it wasn't in the requirements.' 

    So what is the best, or most effective middle ground between Jobs/Ford (customers don't know anything) and the traditional IT (customers HAVE TO know exactly what they want) approaches?

    Maybe the best approach is summed up in this recent piece from the O'Reilly Radar site, 7 User Research Myths and Mistakes:

    The most common reason people give for not talking to users is that “users don’t know what they want.” While that’s sometimes true, it’s not a good reason for not talking to them. It’s just a good reason for not asking them to tell you exactly what they want.

    Instead, ask people about their problems. Ask them to tell you stories about how they use other products and how they make buying decisions. Ask them when they use specific products. Is it on the train? In the car? At their desks? At work? Ask them about their lives.

    Users might not be great at telling you what new product they’re definitely going to use, but they’re great at telling you about themselves, and that is a very good thing for you to understand if you’re making a product for them.

    That seems right to me - describing that sweet spot or middle ground between not giving a rip about what users think and the other extreme of expecting the users to tell you exactly what you should build for them.

    Keep this in mind the next time you sit down with some HR tech solution provider salesperson. How much do they ask you and your team about the problems you need to address? How much do they seem interested in what makes your organization work (and unique)?

    And how much do they like to talk about exactly what their product does?

    You are the user. You might not know everything. But you sure know something.