“What is Your Customer Trying to Tell You?”

Lynn Daniel, Founder and CEO, The Daniel Group, interviews Paul Start, Market Growth Development Manager, Thomas Built Buses, a subsidiary of Daimler Trucks North America LLC

Lynn Daniel, Founder and CEO, of The Daniel Group, interviewed Paul Start, Market Growth Development Manager at Thomas Built Buses, to learn how they use customer feedback to improve with business.  During the interview, Paul emphasized the importance of answering the question, “What is your customer trying to tell you?” from survey results and then taking action.

Lynn Daniel:

To kick things off, Thomas Built Buses has been a client since around 2013. What are some of the most important things that you’ve learned about what your customers want from either Thomas or your dealer network? What are some of those things that really have stood out to you about what customers want?

Paul Start:

I think the greatest thing we learned is about the communication aspect. Communication has to be proactive. Anytime a customer reaches out, it is usually a “fail” on our part. There’s the odd circumstance where that would be different, but for the most part, if customers are reaching out to you, you’ve breached or failed the support process.

So, we use that to measure. It really comes down to the support. Do they trust you? Are you supporting all their needs? I’m sure if you ask our customers, they all have their own individual checkboxes. Are we checking those off? Are we really easy to do business with? Some of those items in the last two, when we say we’re checking off their boxes, are we easy to do business with, A lot of times we confuse  doing what’s best for us as opposed to really seeing things from the customer’s perspective.

The survey forces you to switch your eyes to what the customer sees as opposed to doing things that you think are helping the customer, but it’s really just making your life easier?

“The Customer Shouldn’t Have to Call You.”

Lynn Daniel:

You mentioned proactive communication. If you think about that process of ownership (buying a bus, using a bus, etc), what are some important points where your dealers, and Thomas for that matter, need to be proactive with the customer?

Paul Start:

The actual survey that we do just to share with the audience is about the delivery experience. I think a lot of our dealers thought the survey was like a really small window. I’m going to deliver your new RV today, so that’s your customer experience window. It’s not. It’s when we first contacted each other until the time that you retire or sell or get rid of that vehicle. That is now the process.

We have had to look at the entire process. In doing so, what’s the status of my bus as far as the build schedule? You should never have to call me. I should always be leading you to our next contact point and saying, “Our bus is still on schedule for this. I will be back in contact with you at this point to give you a further update. Your vehicle’s in for service.”

Here’s what your expectations are, Lynn. We will have this ready by this time. I will contact you at this time.” So, you already have clear expectations of what you expect from us. As long as we meet those, then it meets the requirements of the customer. That’s what I mean by, those are proactive as opposed to you calling me saying, “Where’s my bus? Have you had my bus in for service? Has my bus showed up in the yard yet? When are you going to deliver my bus?” Those are all reactive. In our world, we realize and recognize those as a “fail.” That’s a customer fail, right there.

Lynn Daniel:

Sometimes people miss the necessity of being proactive. What are two or three of the most significant changes you have made to your CX efforts that have generated the most positive impact on your ability to serve customers?

Paul Start:

I think the one we’ve already mentioned. The customer experience in terms of delivery was a much shorter process that is now huge. We have to change our mindset and think about all of those times that we interact with the customer. That’s been one of the positive changes. When we have a completed survey now, we call it active, meaning, in our case, the dealer has to go in and physically close out the survey. Once they’ve read the survey, they have to go in and record whatever their actionable item is. In the case of they got a great survey, they could go in and say, “I contacted the customer. I thanked them for their valuable feedback. I’m closing the survey.” There’s no further action required by us at that point.

If there are actual items, we look at them in the case we got an “extreme.” An extreme would be either a negative survey or a highly positive survey. We might do a further one-on-one in each case just to see why. What went really well? And what was not perceived as highly effective? We look at those a little differently. Like I said, those we call a deep dive. When we deep dive, there’s other compelling reasons. We’ve done quite well. Most of the surveys we get are highly positive. But within those lines, there are still opportunities for improvement that the customer’s given you little nuggets that you can just feed on. Even if you’re at a high, high level, there’s still another step up the ladder you can take, and they’re giving you that information so that you know where to begin.

“I didn’t even realize myself how valuable it was or how strong my relationship was with that customer.
And I’m not going to take it for granted.”

a Bus Dealer on Survey results

“Customer Surveys are not a Witch Hunt.”

Lynn Daniel:

And you find those nuggets are there in those surveys.

Paul Start:

Yes, just in general, when we first started, I think everybody thought we were on a witch hunt. And it’s not. It’s the positive information that you get. In some cases, we’ve had dealers come back and say, “I didn’t even realize myself how valuable it was or how strong my relationship was with that customer. And I’m not going to take it for granted.” But they also give you their telling points of what’s important to them. So those are the most important takeaways for us.

“You must be proactive with customers”

Lynn Daniel:

For the big lessons you may have learned so far, you mentioned one, I think, where you talked about the necessity of being proactive, which is really hard to do. Let’s face it, the customer’s bus is a month late, and everybody knows it. Nobody wants to be the one to call the customer and say, “Mr. Customer, that bus is going to be a few weeks late, but I wanted you to know first.” What are some of the other things you have learned as a result of this process?

Paul Start:

I think that’s the biggest one. And I laugh, you get a customer who has a bus that’s a day late, and they’re relentless. They’re going to tear you up. Then you have another customer that has a bus that is even later, say a good month or two and they give you a great survey. And you have to go back, and every time it was like, “The vehicle was later than was originally planned, but Lynn kept us up to date on the process throughout.” It changed their expectations.

Not everything’s in our control. Everybody right now, through COVID, has gone through supplier issues and their own health issues within their organization. There’s going to be delays. But how are you giving that information to the customer?

For us, it’s two-fold. It’s one, dealer to customer. But also we have to look at, in some cases and say as an OEM, where have we failed our dealers because we’re not giving them the correct information quick enough, fast enough, or more accurate than we could in the past?

I think those are the big ones. Just as long as you’re staying ahead of communicating to the customer. You’re basically out thinking. It’s like a game of chess. What’s my customer’s next move? I got to beat them there. If I keep beating them, it’s always a compliment when you call a customer, and they go, “I was thinking about you, and it’s almost like you knew.” So that’s where you got to get to.

“What is the Customer Trying to Tell Us?”

Lynn Daniel:

Thomas Built Buses works through an OEM and then many dealers throughout North America. What opportunities or challenges has this arrangement posed for executing a good CX program in your company if any? Maybe none.

Paul Start:

No, there’s always some. I think one is, you’re giving up a little control. Not that we want to be controlling, but you want equal passion, equal buy-in to the process. Some of our dealers, in fact, most of our dealers, have really bought into it. It’s easy then when even if you get a positive survey, but someone has a couple of negative comments, it’s so easy to take that personally. And it’s not. It’s highly valuable information.

Often, when you’re dealing with another group, they’ll get defensive, and they want to pass that on. It doesn’t do us any good to say, “That’s not our fault. It’s your fault,” and start playing that game back and forth. You have to keep pushing it back to; what is the customer trying to tell us?

    • What are we doing right?
    • What can we do better?
    • And where did we fail?

And we have to look at it, both parties, with equal passion.

The other thing to us is that it’s easy to play the blame and say, “The survey is really on you,” and then try to dismiss ourselves from it when we’re the ones providing the equipment, we’re the ones providing the information, and we’re the ones providing the support.
We have to look at it and say, “Our dealer group is our customer group as well. It’s a layer of customers, but are we doing everything to check their boxes and give them the information as well?”

The final thing is, and I brought it up before, to continually go through it and try to remove emotion and try to pretend you’re the customer.

    • What are they telling you?
    • Why are they telling you this?

And stop taking things personally. So it’s just great value. We love it. We keep moving the survey around a little bit to get different pieces of information. But for the most part, we have a high rate of success in that customers want to be heard. We don’t have too many that when you guys call, I say, “No, I’m not interested.” It’s a big five to seven minutes on average for them and highly valuable to us.

Lynn Daniel:

Oh, thank you so much. I greatly appreciate your time and your insights. This has been most helpful. I’m sure people will enjoy hearing what you have to say. So again, thanks so much.

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