The “Low Bar” Mentality- Recognizing and overcoming mediocrity in customer service experience…

  • An appliance repairman or cable television technician shows up with just ten minutes remaining in his four-hour schedule window and we’re relieved.
  • A waitress makes no mistakes in our dinner order and we reward her exemplary service with an above-average tip.
  • We laboriously type our social security number and credit card information into an automated IVR system and then are unsurprised when asked to repeat it all again to the agent who answers the phone.
  • We stand in line at the grocery store, watching as the cashier leaves her station and walks back into the store to check a price.
  • We wait patiently at the hotel registration desk as the clerk takes a phone call even though she’s in the middle of checking us in.

What do all of these mind-numbingly familiar scenarios have in common? Several things actually. First, they are all examples of stunningly poor customer service, so commonplace that we scarcely bother to even remark about them to friends and families. Second, we, for the most part, allow them to happen without comment, recourse, or even recognition. We don’t get upset, switch away from the offending service providers, or even suggest alternatives. More insidiously, though, it has come to be what we expect. We have reached a point where we’ve concluded that nothing better is possible. We have lowered the bar so far on service providers that we frequently find ourselves in the ironic position of rewarding mediocrity.

Exhibit A for these diminished expectations is restaurant service. Our culture is one in which we expect to pay a fifteen-percent gratuity to wait staff who simply show up for work. The server who actually gets our order correct (i.e., who does their job) is thought to be astonishing and expects to receive more than this nominal amount. And we happily pay it.

Companies, almost without exception, will tell you that the reason for diminished customer service is cost containment. You can’t get an agent on the phone quickly because agents are expensive. You have to sit at home all day waiting on the technician because gas and trucks are expensive. Sorry, that’s just how things are these days.

But it isn’t really about cost at all. It’s about managing to the level of service that customers expect, and going no further. As a consequence, our expectations today are so minimal that on those rare occasions when we phone a business and a person answers instead of a machine, we’re momentarily stunned into silence while thinking of what to say. We feel guilty giving only ten percent to the waitress who gave us surly, inaccurate service at lunch.

It is not the purpose of this brief treatise to propose service solutions; these are addressed in plenty of other places. Rather, the point here is to simply acknowledge and make explicit the low (and falling) expectations we’ve all come to accept, the hope being that recognition of this fundamental state of affairs will, as consumers, make us just a little more willing to demand something better from those who provide us with service, or, as service providers, to rise to these heightened expectations. In a society where everyone settles, there is no incentive to improve.

But what are we, as service providers, to do? Most importantly, expect customers to expect more. Rather than benchmark our service performance against what the competition offers, evaluate it against what’s possible. This, in turn, requires an aspirational mindset that is not terribly common in American business.

On the flip side, we are all not only business people but consumers as well. Adopt the mindset that you deserve more than you’re currently getting from your service providers. The worst that can happen is that you get a reputation as someone who doesn’t settle. That certainly can’t be a bad thing.

Ultimately it becomes a virtuous circle. Heightened service expectations beget improved service. This, in turn, makes us expect even more. Heck, before you know it, that technician might show up at your house at exactly the time you want him there!


Guest Author: Brian Kenneth Swain is a Consultant with onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Brian has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted for numerous companies across a wide range of industries and geographies. Brian can be contacted at

Jump!!!- How to “ignite change” within your organization…

Using the “nightmare scenario” to catalyze change…

Since I started my career 22 years ago, I’ve always been intrigued by the use of the proverbial “burning platform” as a motivational tactic for catalyzing and effecting change within organizations. Originally, the “burning platform” was simply a metaphor used for a looming crisis that required a change in organizational thinking and behavior. More and more, however, these “burning platforms” are becoming more literal, making the consequence of “status quo” even more real and threatening to those who are on it.

There is no shortage of cases in which the threat of REALLY BIG negative consequences turned out to be an effective means of initiating major change within organizations, cultures, and individuals who were otherwise operating myopically, blind to many of the realities around them. We saw it in the 1960’s as MLK used present inequities among races, and what the future would look like if left unattended, to inspire what would become a successful civil rights movement that would change US and global principles, policies,  legislation, and ultimately cultural behaviors themselves. Auto companies used the threat of overseas domination as a way to improve productivity and quality, and continue to use it as a way to sustain performance.

“Burning Platform” examples: Past and present…

We are also seeing it quite literally now, as nuclear companies have used past examples of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now the as-yet-unresolved crisis at Fukushima, as a way to renew the industry’s focus on safety. And of course, all major oil companies are using the consequences of the BP spill of 2010 as a catalyst for driving major improvements in operational safety. The latter is a particularly good example, as on the day of the explosion itself, the company was celebrating a long string of days without a recordable safety event!

Late last year, Nokia’s new CEO Stephan Elop  used the same tactic to catalyze the need for some dramatic new thinking within his organization. To amplify the importance of responding quickly to what appears to be a competitive nightmare scenario, he sent a memo to the organization comparing its circumstances to that of a “burning platform” surrounded by the “icy waters” of the North Sea. In this case, survival meant risking both a fall and survival of icy waters in order to avoid the certain death of being consumed by fire. Talk about a wake up call!!!

Even humanity in general uses the “burning platform” as a way to inspire vigilance and action around things like spirituality and lifestyle. Most are aware of Harold Camping’s prophesies around the projected May 21st “Rapture” of Christians worldwide and the October 21st end of the world as we know it (Sorry if that puts a damper on anyone’s springtime plans :), but hey, I’m just the messenger!). Regardless of your religious background, or whether you “buy into” this or the myriad of other “end of days” proclamations, prophesies like this one certainly get our attention, and remind us of the importance of staying in close touch with our maker–lest we risk the ultimate in “burning platforms.”

Nevertheless, most of the successful uses of the “burning platform” tactic of motivation, particularly those in business, are based in fear–fear of losing customers, fear of losing market share, fear of financial collapse, and the myriad of other risks  associated with not responding fast enough, or with enough magnitude to avert otherwise disastrous consequences. And while most leaders, like myself, would prefer to use more positive oriented motivation and reinforcement to accomplish our vision, the “burning platform” (threat of crisis) often has a more pronounced catalyzing effect, and as a leader, it is highly likely that you will be forced into using it at some point in your career, assuming you haven’t already.

Guidelines for developing your “burning platform”…

If you are going to use the “burning platform” tactic effectively, I believe there are a number of factors that should influence and guide your approach:

  • Make sure the platform you choose is real, credible, and significant. — Focus on specific threats or risks to your business that cannot be dealt with or averted using existing processes, practices, or people (e.g., a specific safety risk that if unmanaged would sink the company, or a productivity gap that is 40% worse than your top competitor, is better than a repeated message that sales are down, costs are up, and profits are hurting).
  • Make sure you offer a “roadmap” or “pathway” for success that is achievable (assuming one exists)— Everyone has heard the adage “accept the things you cannot change…change the things you can …and have the wisdom to know the difference.” There are two implications of this in creating your burning platform. First, there is nothing worse than a dismal scenario that has no way of being averted, as that is a sure path to apathy and hopelessness. Assuming there is one (if there is not, you may want to think about jumping ship), make sure that you help your staff see it.  None of us are capable of changing the “end of days” scenario described above (should it prove out), but we can change our behaviors, approach to relationships, and other facets of our life.
  • The “burning platform” doesn’t always have to be apocalyptic in nature. — You can be just as successful defining a future scenario that might open possibilities for you or your organization to “break out” or leapfrog competitors. Our visit to the moon was a good example of where we used external forces and opportunities to inspire a very positive outcome.
  • A “compelling narrative” is essential. Almost every good example of a “burning platform” tactic being successful begins with the ability of a leader to clearly and compellingly state the case for change. At its basic level, this is the ability to be a good storyteller, in a way that vividly paints the picture of the crisis at hand, shows the vision for success, and clearly identifies what must change, all while respecting the history and past successes of the organization.
  • Track and report progress/establish consequences — If you do a good job of identifying a real and credible threat to the business, and articulating a pathway to averting or navigating the risk, then you should be able to establish some good metrics for reporting success. Think of these as milestones or way-points on your journey. Report these frequently so that they enable critical course corrections. You’ll want to make sure you hold yourself and those on your team accountable. Again, if you’ve done a good job of defining the threats, risks, and path for success, then improvement in the business should allow for ample rewarding of those who contributed the most.
  • Don’t overuse the tactic. — There is nothing worse than a leader who constantly “cries wolf”. All of us have had bosses who live in a constant narrative of “the sky is falling.” They repeatedly send the same message over and over again, and when subordinates stop listening, they ascribe it to their staff “simply “not getting it”, when in fact what has happened is that they have become so “numb” to the message that it has the reverse effect, i.e., of creating complacency.

A “burning platform” can be a very effective strategy for managing change within an organization, regardless of the business type. But doing it incorrectly can create hopelessness and a feeling of apathy across the team and put the organization in worse shape than when it started.


Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at

Performance Lessons From “The Masters”…

“A Tradition like no other”…

Well, folks, it’s “Masters Week” once again, the time of year when Augusta, that little town in southern Georgia, comes to life in an awe inspiring array of colors and sounds that usher in the early days of spring, and the beginning of another golf season. From the proud magnolias and tall pines, to the brilliant display of azaleas and dogwoods, the setting becomes an iconic announcement that spring has well and truly arrived.

Add to that the flurry of colors that will characterize this year’s fashion statements by golf’s superstars, and you have the setting for spring’s equivalent of the Superbowl. As Jim Nantz of CBS will say repeatedly throughout this week’s broadcast, the Masters is, most definitely, “a tradition like no other!”

I know there are those who probably couldn’t care less about the game of golf, (see my friend Brian Kenneth Swain’s comedic golf essay on the nonsense of it all). For these folks, our fixation on watching the flight patterns of a tiny white ball, no matter how inspiring the backdrop, is about as interesting as a marathon birdwatching event. In this context, some might even find it repulsive, because inside this metaphor the birds are white and the measure of success is how hard we can hit them and how fast we can stuff them into 18 tiny holes. If this is you, you might want to fast forward through this post and leave the golf analogies for someone who actually gives a damn.

For some, it’s all about the theater…

For many, this time of year is to golf what opening day is to baseball and the fall chill is to football. But unlike baseball and football, the Masters golf tournament often captures the attention of those who would not normally proclaim themselves to be actual fans. Over the four days of the Masters, most will find themselves sitting down to watch at least some portion of the event. Even the many golf widows like my wife who admittedly have no interest in the game, and whose passion for sports is limited to “Superbowl commercial viewing” will even find time to enjoy a few holes of this springtime fiesta.

But for others, it’s much more than that…

For those in the latter camp, myself included, golf has taken on a somewhat spiritual meaning. You don’t have to be a professional golfer to let this kind of obsession bring you into its grasp. And once it has you, the meaning of golf extends well beyond  the beauty of the day, the dynamics of the tournament, and sometimes beyond the game itself. Before long, we find ourselves exploring the many parallels between the game of golf and circumstances in our everyday lives. And just to prove that I am not alone in this crazy obsession, just look at the number of books that have been written and sold on the non-technical aspects of the game. I can vouch for this because one entire shelf of my home library is dedicated to books on golfing implications on everything from mental attitude to overall relationships and life skills.

As crazy as it may sound, though, I’m not alone in these sorts of interpretations and extrapolations. Perhaps it’s because so many of us overachievers are such underperformers at the game itself, and hence are forced to seek out other meanings to rationalize the time and interest we dedicate to the sport. But I suspect it’s more than that, given that the writings of those far more experienced and respected in the game assert similar observations. One of my favorite books is called “Golf is Not a Game of Perfect” (and the sequel, “Life is Not a Game of Perfect”) written by a famed sports psychologist Bob Rotella, seems to give genuine legitimacy to this perspective.

The connection between your golf game and                          “managing business performance”…

For those of you who know me professionally and personally, it’s probably not surprising to find yet another post that integrates golf with the discipline of performance management. Combine my passion for the game, my ability to draw parallel observations between the game and life experiences, and my everyday profession, and …well…did you expect anything else this week?

But rather than pontificate on one dimension of this relationship (like I’ve done in other posts on “performance sustainability” and  the importance of “progress over perfection“)…I’ve elected to provide just a few thoughts on various aspects of good performance management systems, for which I believe the game of golf has key implications.

So without further adieu, lets “tee off”—

On Vision-

Perhaps no other sport speaks to the importance of vision as golf does. We see this at both the player level, and in the design of the venues on which they display their talent. Anyone who has walked a great golf course, whether Augusta or any of the other marvelous creations like St. Andrews, Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, or the myriad of other golf wonders of the world,” is obliged to respect the vision and imagination that guided their designers and architects. They are much like artists, only instead of painting on canvas or sculpting physical structures, they perform their craft on acres of often undeveloped earth. If you’ve never seen one of these venues, tune into CBS and have a look this weekend. Even the environmentalists in the crowd have to acknowledge the beauty of it all, not only in the landscape, but also in the variety of wildlife that is so prevalent in the audio aspect of the broadcast.

I liken the golf course to the business model that your staff operates within. A great one will not only possess creativity and uniqueness, but will also provide the right level of challenge to truly engage your “players” and allow the great ones to succeed.

On imagination and creativity-

This apparent genius of great golf course design should not be especially surprising, given that most golf architects were good players to begin with. After all, it was a true legend of the game whose imagination and passion went into creating Augusta. Imagination is a requisite skill and competency that all good golfers must develop and nurture. And some of it is innate . “Visualization” is often the word chosen to describe what a player does before a key shot , in that he visualizes every aspect of the shot, from the ball strike to the trajectory, landing spot and resulting ball “behavior on the surface when it lands”. Not surprisingly, good golf courses bring out the creativity in good golfers, and nowhere will this be more evident than on the lush fairways and undulating greens of Augusta National.

In our professional environments, we have to remember that there is a limit to what tactical skills and training can produce. Great performance is often the combination of near flawless execution on the basic skills (which certainly can be taught and measured), along with an added dose of creativity and imagination that often can’t.

On goal setting-

One thing that is always impressive to watch is the way in which professional golfers approach their goals. While most approach each tournament with the goal of winning, this happy outcome rarely occurs week in and week out, since there are not just two competitors but often over a hundred. Thus, if this were their only goal, we’d see a lot of disappointed and demoralized performers. So what happens when a player enters a Sunday several strokes back and it is clear that victory will have to wait for another week? Their perspective simply changes. Most good golfers achieve an excellent balance between short and long term goals, and when some objectives become temporarily out of reach, these individuals have an uncanny ability to shift gears and focus instead on other goals that are just as important to their career success. Sometimes it will be refocusing to the number of career wins, sometimes it’s the overall tour ranking, and sometimes it’s just, well, improving on one specific skill or technique they have been working to improve.

In our corporate performance framework, it is important that we design in a healthy mix of goals and targets that will guide our staff and teams. Our goals should be both short and long term, and should cover various aspects of our performance. And while these should be firm, they also must have some “flex” built in so that success and failure are not binary in nature. For me, the concept of balance in the balanced scorecard goes way beyond having adequate coverage of objectives and goals, and gets to the overall balance and flexibility of the “system.”

On metrics-

I can’t think of many sports where there are metrics and statistics for just about every aspect of your game and playing experience. And every good golfer uses most of these to effectively navigate every part of their game. I’ve never seen a sport with as much focus and transparency as golf when it comes to being able to measure, track, and improve through the use of metrics and statistics. And what’s also amazing is how all of these metrics are tied to each other…from leading indicators like % fairways hit, greens hit in regulation, sand saves, etc…, to result indicators like the stroke count on a specific hole, to the net score on a round, to tournament and season results.

Managers need to really think about their operations in a similar context. Do I have the right metrics that ultimately translate to outcomes desired? Do I actively use the metrics to navigate by? Do I set targets deliberately, or do I aimlessly monitor performance against the absence of desired performance aspirations?

On managing “the game”-

A golf round, whether for amateur or professional, can be both an emotional and trying experience. Just listen to the post-round interviews this week and you’ll hear numerous players describe how they “grinded” through a round, having to endure disappointment and distress while patiently waiting for their “game” to return. I recently read an interview with a college golf coach who says the main thing they look for in junior golfers is how they recover from strings of bad play; in essence, can they mentally recover from the demoralizing effect of three or four bad holes, bad rounds, or bad seasons that characterize the proverbial slump. This requirement is present in most sports, but with golf, that mental pressure, present and highly visible, is on with every shot on every hole. Being able to recalibrate and adjust is critical, not only in their play, but in their attitude and confidence levels they carry throughout the round.

While we must have the ability to reward and promote great performance, and routinely exit non-performers from the business, we must also teach the organization how to manage through slumps. The capacity to do this is both a tactical (in terms of being able to adjust expectations, targets, and strategies to match the environment), and a cultural dynamic and competence in terms of being able to “manage through” failures and consistently harvest the lessons that can come from them.

On consistency-

Earlier this year, as I watched some of the opening tournaments of the season, I had the distinct impression that I was witnessing a true ” changing of the guard” so to speak. In the 90’s we witnessed a tidal shift when Tiger reset the bar, essentially distancing the entire field of golfers that competed at that time. Just as Hogan referred to Nicklaus in his prime as “playing a game with which he was not familiar,” many began to refer to Tiger the same way. But given Tiger’s slump, and the inconsistent play of others from the same class, I began to question whether the new class of “young guns “were beginning to displace them.

But now with the season in full swing, we are seeing  great play emerge from all corners. Amidst the strong play from the game’s new “young guns “, the older icons of the game like Fred Couples, and others who have long been written off by the golf pundits as a legitimate threat, are frequently dazzling us with strong performances. So rather than signaling another transition or sea change, I think we are simply seeing the emergence of the great equalizer- a leveling of the playing field that is free of any single dominant player. Today, it seems great players only win 2-3 events every season/year (not 10+) , and those wins are based on truly brilliant displays of technical competence and creativity. The real mark of a champion now appears to be generating those 2-3 wins year in and year out without fail, in essence creating a portfolio of wins that transcends decades, rather than a few dominant tournaments or seasons.

We’ve seen this play out in business as well. Our performance measures and indicators of success should be built to reward short-, mid- and long-terms success. The failures of Ebers, Maddow and Lay demonstrate both the flawed logic and the risks of just a short term oriented strategy. Once again, the balanced scorecard must not only transcend the types of measures, but also the horizon and depth of ambition that will drive the aspiration of consistency in performance excellence.

Well, I suspect there are many other examples of these kind of parallels, but rather than list all of them here, I’ll invite you to chime in with yours as you watch the events of the week unfold. For any of you that are like me, these will jump out at you as you witness the ups and downs of the four days, and the emergence of a new Master’s champion.

I wish all of you a happy Masters week, and I hope you enjoy the theater this weekend will bring as your senses are dazzled through the screens of your HD TV!!!


Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at

Customer Engagement and Efficiency- Are these conflicting priorities?

The Challenges of Funding a  CEM Strategy…

A few weeks back, I was talking to a client about their latest strategies to enhance what is now known commonly as “the customer experience.” And like most companies that are working tirelessly on driving their customers toward higher levels of satisfaction, delight, and our latest aspiration, “engagement,” this company was going through all the common challenges of funding their new Customer Experience Management (CEM) strategy.

But also, like many others, funding their CEM strategy is meeting some pretty big resistance from their CFO and others who are trying to make corporate “ends meet,” especially in this economic climate. More and more, these two perspectives are clashing, not because the organization fails to value investment in Customer Service (CS), but more so because the impacts associated with that those investments are often less direct and less tangible, at least compared with the realm of immediate cost and productivity savings that produce faster (albeit not always sustainable) payback to the bottom line.

The Cost/ Service Trade-off: Myth or Reality?

For over two decades of working in the Customer Operations arena, I’ve heard clients invariably revert to the “perceived” trade-off between customer service levels and cost savings or efficiency efforts. That is, the notion that there is an inverse relationship between our ability to improve service levels and our ability to capture CS related productivity and cost savings. And for a long time, the data supported this notion. But as technologies improved, and companies began to increase investments in CS-related technology, tools and process changes, select companies started to prove  that notion false by demonstrating the existence of both high service levels and low cost at the same time–companies clearly worthy of the term “myth busters”.

Yet despite all those great examples from the 90’s, we are now seeing many return to the proverbial “trade-off” as a reason for deferring further investments in their CS infrastructure. Make no mistake, there are clearly companies that are pushing the envelope of customer delight, and perhaps even engagement, but more often than not, investments in CEM, and even critical investments in basic infrastructure, are once again hitting the funding wall.

Some of this is clearly driven by the current economic climate. As a CEO from one of my energy clients said recently, “We haven’t given up on CS. But these investments are discretionary, and right now we are struggling to ‘keep the lights on'”. And, while on the surface, this may provoke emotions of heresy from those in highly competitive markets, it’s hard to argue with financial realities. At one time or another, most CS executives, regardless of industry, have encountered this same argument from their C-Suite executives.

Unfortunately, for some, the lack of investment in that infrastructure has created a bit of a back-slide in performance, creating the question of whether we are back to the days of the proverbial trade-off.

Reversing The Course…

As with most things in life, the cup can be either half empty or half full based simply on the lens through which we are looking.

Sure, we all want to delight our customers and make them happy. But from a financial perspective, there is always an ROI at play, and it’s not always easy to establish a causal linkage between that “added delight factor” and the bottom line. Hence the conflict.

But this assumes we are trying to impress, delight, or otherwise “engage” the customer for the sole purpose of selling more of our product or service. And that is clearly part of it. But again, at the risk of offending our hardcore sales and product advocates (of which I am one), I would assert that there are many other reasons for having an engaged customer that go far beyond the next product sale or any direct influence on buying behavior at all.

Beyond the Obvious…

From my perspective, “Engagement” is about changing the overall predisposition of a customer from one of negative predisposition or neutrality, to one of positive engagement that is leveragable in some context. That context could be higher sales, repeat business, or Word of Mouth (WOM) referrals, but it could also serve a variety of other purposes.

One of those purposes is cost savings. What?

That’s right, cost savings.

Over the past several years, we’ve completed a variety of assignments that were geared to identifying efficiencies where the mandate was “zero degradation to Customer Satisfaction”. Not an insignificant challenge. Especially when you consider that most companies have explored every way under the sun to drive more productivity out of their workforce, and have automated just about everything they can automate. And in some cases, these efforts have in fact degraded service level.

But many of those changes were inflicted on customers in a “push fashion”. Sure we’ve made tons of good changes in everything from local office closures, to call center automation improvements, to web interaction, but many of those changes were “pushed on the market” regardless of the level of satisfaction or disposition it happened to be in at the time. Yet we still wonder why the acceptance rates on what may appear to be wonderful customer options are at levels well below their potential. Experts claim that something as basic as “paperless billing” should be hitting 50-70% saturation in the next 3 years, but most of us are only at a fraction of those levels. But to me that is not surprising, given that we have not yet engaged the customer who we are asking to accept these changes. At least not in the spirit of how it is defined above.

Engagement for the Sake of Cost Reduction ?

Just for a second, put on your CFO hat and consider the following argument.

Cost is a product of both efficiency and transaction volume. We can decrease cost per transaction by 5,10, or even 20% in the form of cost-per-call, cost-per-bill, cost-per-payment, and the litany of other transaction types we offer. But the large majority of cost still remains.

Now think about the other side of the equation. Transaction volume. Different story entirely. When we eliminate a transaction, be it a printed bill, a mailed payment, or a call to the call center, we eliminate 100% of the cost. Looking at it this way, there is no question where our focus should be. And looking at the potential that our recent advances in technology could have on enabling these reductions in transaction volume, it’s rather amazing that such a large part of our focus is still on operating and productivity gains.

On this basis, and given the potential that exists in the workload dimension alone, it is conceivable that savings of 30, 50%, or more are possible, and go well beyond what we would ever consider from mere productivity gains.

It all starts with Impacting Predisposition and Behavior…

Given the impact of workload on bottom line, why wouldn’t that become our primary focus?

Perhaps it should be. Or at least one of our primary goals. But haphazardly looking for where we can drive customers to self-service channels without a clear strategy will get us right back to square one. The “win win win” (CCO, CFO, and Customer) if you will, is only achievable if the levels of potential I describe above are fully realized, and accomplished in a manner that leaves the customer satisfied and engaged.

Engagement is about changing customers’ predisposition from negative or neutral to positive and engaged. Once that is accomplished, there exist numerous ways to leverage that engagement, including getting the customer to willingly shift the nature and frequency of their interactions with us, thus decreasing transaction volume. But that is only the tip of the iceberg, as the companies mastering this dynamic are finding out.

But it all starts with the lens we look through.

So next time you are faced with hitting that infamous “funding wall”, or get challenged on the basis of your new CEM strategy, think beyond the obvious.


For more on driving Customer Excellence through combined efficiency and service level focus, see the folloowing posts on . Related articles include:

Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at

Promises & Commitments- A powerful combination in driving performance excellence….

Promises, Commitments, and Peak Performance…

From a performance perspective, failures and breakdowns (whether they occur in operational  processes,  business negotiations, or our everyday relationships with colleagues, friends, or family) often fail for one simple reason:

“The failure to make and manage commitments effectively!”

That’s not just my opinion, but rather the opinion of many recognized “gurus” and thought leaders in the change management discipline. So much so, that “commitment based management” is now a well known and accepted approach to  managing change, and has developed what I would call a true “following of believers” within consultancies and companies who have used it effectively.

While, to many of you, this may appear to be somewhat “common sense”, it is based on a long history of research and hard work done by Fernando Flores and his colleagues over the past several decades. I’ve had the opportunity to work beside some of his students, and while I didn’t agree with everything they’ve preached, they did convince me (through a myriad of real life examples), of the enormous depth and breadth of impact deriving from this simple yet powerful concept. If you are interested in learning more about the model, and the research behind it, a little time on Google will give you more than you need. I have also included some links at the bottom this article, and would encourage you to take a look.

A simple yet powerful model for sustainable change…

There are a lot of complexities and nuances to the model, and I encourage you to take the time to understand its background, development, and evolution. As the attached articles indicate, much of it originated in Flores’ research into the intersection of linguistics, psychology, and biology: three areas only now being collectively explored outside this discipline as a highly dependent web of interrelationships and connections.

The Commitment Management Cycle as adapted by Vision Consulting (click image to enlarge)

But at its core, the model is, in fact, quite simple. It involves several aspects:

  • The transaction– Any transaction which involves commitments being made and delivered upon. This could be an interaction with a colleague, a transaction with an “actual” customer, a negotiation with a vendor, or any variant or sub-variant of the above.
  • The parties– Specifically, a customer and a performer, which I would encourage you to think about in a dynamic way. (i.e., roles can change in other transactions, or even within stages of this one).
  • The Customer’s condition of satisfaction – both tangible and intangible, with both clearly understood within the context of the transaction.
  • The 4 stages of the transaction itself- Preparation, Negotiation, Performance, and Acknowledgment of completion of the transaction.
  • The range of movements and interactions within the transaction -Manifestations of what the original research called “speech acts” – (Requests, Promises, Assessments, Assertions, and Declarations) – each manifesting themselves in the actual phases of the transaction through the words and behaviors of both the performer and customer.

Some would say I’m over-complicating a simple dynamic. But those at the core of the discipline would say I’m actually over-simplifying it. So I suspect this may actually be a fairly balanced representation, although I still encourage further reading and study to draw your own conclusions.

Nevertheless, with the right understanding, the lens that this model offers provides a very powerful view into how these transactions work, and where in fact many of them break down. While the notion of “customer and provider” roles is not new, what is unique is the range of dynamics at play and what is required to make it work.

In a nutshell, the model plays out through a series of interactions that form the basis of the commitment. It starts with an attempt to understand (though good listening and well-grounded assessments) the “customer” in the way that allows the performer to make a clear, compelling, and coherent “offer” to which the customer can either reject or accept in the form of a “request”. While this often results in an iterative conversation, one of the things that can emerge is what we’ll call “the promise”. If the promise does in fact manifest as a commitment, the process (specifically the coordination of action through conversations and behaviors) plays out until delivery is perceived, declared, and assessed.

Again, simple yet powerful in terms of applying a clear and measurable framework and specific actions to an otherwise common everyday occurrence. And it works not because we recognize the importance of commitments and the presence of this simple process, but because of a common awareness of what each phase entails in terms of key actions, required skills, necessary behaviors, and competencies that have either been absent, overlooked, or become unlearned.

The implications are significant and far reaching…

As I’ve worked within and around this model, with companies who have embraced it holistically (like many embrace Lean or Six Sigma initiatives), it has become clear to me that the tools offered by the approach have broad, sweeping implications. Here are just a few examples that point not only to the value of adopting this framework, but also the unique dynamics and behaviors at play that require significant leadership commitment and investment to instill within the organization.

  • Customer Service/CRM – This should be the most obvious and straightforward application for this methodology, since the roles of Customer and Performer are obvious from start to finish…right? Wrong. For one,  if you study the model, you will understand quickly that the roles are dynamic and change frequently “within the process”. But even without that complexity, there is the myriad of actions that occur within the transaction that many CS Organizations (performers) are simply blind to. For example, are your CSR’s aware when every time they make a “promise”? (Do they really? Be careful, as it could happen 10 times inside of one interaction!). Do they know what they are actually doing (and where in the interaction they are) when they say the words “I’m sorry”, and simply move on (see post on the “empty promise”) ? So much of this process could be improved with some simple and basic understanding of how this transaction works.
  • Leadership alignment – A major issue for many companies, and perhaps the least understood. Why? Because at its core, alignment issues are about trust. As a close colleague once told me, trust is made of 3 things: Sincerity (of the person your are making the trust assessment about), Competence (in their ability to perform in all domains of the transaction), and Reliability (your assessment of their ability to consistently deliver on promises). There are too many dynamics to explore in one short paragraph, but I think you’ll agree that working within a framework like the above would bring into focus much of what our leaders and managers are blind to (often not willfully), thus improving the overall trust and alignment of the group.
  • Managing Performance – This one may actually be the most direct application of these principles since the customer and performer are usually defined for the scope of a specific transaction. Save for team goals, they usually take place between leaders/managers  and their subordinates. And in those cases, it is a fairly straightforward negotiation. But the problem in most negotiations like this is that neither the customer nor performer play their roles very well, largely because they do not understand what their responsibilities are within the transaction. This ranges from”understanding the customer enough to make a relevant and robust offer”, to the ensuing “request”, “establishment of conditions of satisfaction”, a “promise to deliver”, the “declaration of completion”, and everything in between. I spoke yesterday to the variability in companies’ target setting effectiveness. This model would help address many of those concerns by improving clarity of roles and actions required of the parties.
  • Labor Negotiations – This is such a volatile situation for many companies that any resource used to address it has become such a specialized skill that it is almost a “self contained” problem within most organizations (critical, but viewed and resolved separately through other courses of action.) But I’ve also seen companies who have applied these skills (usually as a result of all leadership and even labor representation in the business having been taught how to operate within the framework), and their successes has been impressive. It doesn’t solve every breakdown easily, but just as with leadership alignment, these breakdowns are rooted in trust, and solving the trust problem is the fastest path to addressing the range of other barriers to a productive settlement and ongoing relationship.
  • Operational Process Improvement– I am not going to argue here about the best way to address process breakdowns or inefficiencies. I happen to be a strong advocate of tools like Lean and other supporting tools like Benchmarking, Dashboards, and other aspects of the Performance Management infrastructure. But one thing we can all agree on in “operational improvement space” is that process change requires people change, and without addressing the leadership and cultural dynamics, change will undoubtedly fail. One very powerful aspect of this model, is the degree to which it blends operational work-flow with human dynamics of managing commitments. In fact, one of the most creative and effective “process maps” I’ve seen to date did NOT include boxes, lines, and swim-lanes like we see on conventional flowcharts, but rather a series of connected “loops” like the one above, each of which spawned other “commitment loops, thus allowing the more critical human  breakdowns in alignment, trust and commitment management (often the real culprits and victims of process breakdown) to be more fully understood and addressed. Pretty powerful stuff!
  • Technology Development– Much of Flores’ early work resulted in a book called “Computers and Cognition”, and while I found that book, and his later works to be very in-depth and sometimes difficult reads, they have become like “books of the bible” for the many gurus that were born under his leadership. And so it is not hard to make some pretty clear connections between technology and software, and the implications of the above on their thinking and ongoing development. If you think about it, all the basic tenets of commitments are found in most applications we work with on a daily basis, from email and calendaring, to work planning and management systems…not to mention the plethora of implications emerging from the advent and rapid evolution of Social Media.

These are five examples for which I have either applied these principles directly (performance management systems, process change, and leadership alignment ), or seen them successfully deployed by others (formal negotiations (from unions to suppliers) and software/ technology deployment). But this list is by no means exhaustive and the approach deployed clearly has the potential to impact many other facets of business, government, and even our personal lives.

Again, my intent is certainly not to oversimplify the importance, or the manner, in which this approach can be deployed. But at the same time (at the risk of offending the true disciples of this methodology)  it’s not “brain surgery”, and it is possible to deploy with the right skills, talent, and understanding. But at the same time,  I’ve seen some companies (including some I have consulted and worked with) fail because leadership lacked the openness and receptivity required to learn, commit to, and develop the competencies required to effect the level of change possible.

Read the articles below and come to your own conclusions. If, after that, any of this strikes a real chord with you, and you want to learn more (specifically how this impacts areas like the 7 I mention above, and the degree to which they can be integrated into your existing performance management and operational improvement initiatives), send me a comment or drop me an email at and I’ll be happy to connect you with some wonderful people who I call “the real brain surgeons” of this type of change.

HBR Article on Commitment Based Management

Fast Company article on Flores’ and his approach

Blog Post by Clarke Ching on “Conversations for Action”

Blog Post by David Arella on “Managing Commitments

Coordination of Action: Implications on Customer Relationship Management (by Vision Consulting)

Change Management Perspective (by Vision Consulting)

There are, of course, many adaptations and improvements to Flores’ thinking that have emerged over the years, and this is just a small sample. If there are other articles you’d like me to add on this specific approach (and there are many good ones out there), just post them in the comments and I’ll be happy to reference them via an updated post.


Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at