Customer Service

Whack-a-Mole is hilariously fun at first, yet it quickly becomes tedious and repetitive.  Just imagine having to play it for a living.  If you manage a customer facing team or function, that’s what you may feel you’re doing when dealing with customer service issues.  You run from one problem to the next, stopping just long enough to apologize or extend a goodwill credit before dashing to the next fire.

If you’d like to stop playing customer service whack-a-mole, consider using “continuous improvement,” a management method made common by Toyota and other manufacturing companies to help identify, fix, and prevent production errors.  Continuous improvement works on customer issues, too.

How to Begin

While reams of material exist on the art and science of continuous improvement, at its core it’s simple enough to start using without prior experience.  Consider taking the initiative and making one very simple customer service improvement with your team this week:

Use a regular team meeting or simply kick off with a group email to gather your team’s ideas about opportunities for improvement.

First, recap true north: what does a great customer experience look like?  If your company hasn’t yet defined this, consider using the 3 E’s model explained by Forrester Research in Outside In: interactions with your company should be effective, easy, and enjoyable for customers.

Prioritize the ideas based on their level of impact and feasibility.  The top ideas should involve small, simple changes which would make a big difference to customers.  Now, pick just one to start.

Follow 5 Simple Steps

Once you’ve selected your opportunity for improvement, apply some of the key principles and process steps of continuous improvement:

  1. 5 Whys. Find the root cause of the issue using the “5 Whys” exercise.  To begin, simply ask the team why the issue may have happened.  You’ll likely identify one or more possible causes.  Ask why those exist.  Keep asking “why” until you find root causes which, if addressed, should prevent future problems occurring.  You typically won’t need to ask all five whys.  Here’s a good example.

Determine what changes to make to address the root cause of the issue, and follow a process of Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA):

  1. Plan – What will you do to address the root cause of the issue and what do you hope the outcome will be? How will you know your fix worked?
  2. Do – Put the fix into action.
  3. Check – See if it worked.
  4. Act – If it did, make the change permanent. If not, determine why the fix may not have worked, adjust your plan, and run through another cycle of PDCA.

Once you’ve solved the problem, recognize the team and celebrate your success.  Positive reinforcement is critical in creating buy-in for doing continuous improvement.

Coach More, Command Less

Throughout the steps above, try to stay in the role of facilitator and advisor to your team.  Ask questions, offer support, and resist the temptation to dominate the process.

Your team members should “own” the process improvements to build their problem-solving IQ.  This will help them address and prevent future issues faster and more efficiently.

Invest Now for Benefits Later

Use your judgement to determine the right mix of time and funds to commit to continuous improvement efforts.  There is an unavoidable trade-off with productivity.  Don’t want put customer support on hold while fixing customer support!

Take some inspiration from the story of Taiichi Ohno, the father of the famed Toyota Production System, a key ingredient in Toyota’s rise to become the world’s largest auto maker.  To improve production quality in making cars, he empowered each employee to stop the entire auto factory production line if they saw a defect, by pulling an “andon cord”.  His line stopped a lot at first, but as the defects and their roots causes were fixed over time Toyota’s product system became far more effective with fewer over defects.  The “andon cord” is still in use today at Toyota plants.

If Toyota will stop its production line to ensure the customer gets a good product, you can likely take a few hours and if needed, a few dollars, to help your team address opportunities for improvement in your customer experience.

Continuous improvement is an investment in your company’s future.  In the long-run, you will spend more time enjoying the fruits of effective, easy, and enjoyable customer experiences, and less time playing customer complaint whack-a-mole.

(Quality and Continuous Improvement experts out there, feel free to chime in with tips in the Comments section… no pride in authorship here!)

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