Data, Metrics, and Information- Are we better off than we were 4 years ago?

Data, data…all around us…

Most of the projects I work on day in and day out involve data to varying degrees. I use data quite extensively in all of the assessments I do on organizational and operational performance. I use it heavily whenever I benchmark a company’s processes versus a comparable peer group. Data is at the very core of any target setting process. And, of course, data is (or at least should be) the beginning, and a continuous part of any gap analysis and any subsequent improvements that follows.

Today, the hunger that organizations have for good data has reached such unprecedented levels, that whole industries have developed in and around the domain of  what we now call “Business Intelligence” or BI. Having consulted to organizations over the last three decades, I’ve seen this hunger level increase steadily throughout the entire period. But no more so than in the past few years.

However, despite all the gyrations that we’ve gone through over the years, one of the first things I hear from C-Suite Executives is that they still feel  “Data rich and information poor”. So I’ll start this post off in the words of late President Ronald Regan by asking, “Are we better off or worse off than we were 4 years ago (in terms of translating data into useful and actionable information)?”

So are we better off than we were 4 years ago?

As any good politician, I would have to hedge a bit, and say yes, and no. And appropriately so I think.

We are most certainly better in our ability to “access” the data. If you’ve lived through the same decades as I have , you will remember the painstaking efforts we all made to extract data out of those proverbial “source systems” (when “SAS routines” had nothing to do with the SaaS of today). Everything from the data inside of our source systems, to the tools we use to access the data, to the ways in which we report and visualize the results has moved forward at lightening speed. And so, from that standpoint, we are, in fact, better off.

But on the other side of the coin, our tools have, in most cases, outpaced the abilities of our organizations and their leadership to truly leverage them. At a basic level, and in part because of the technology itself, we often have more data than we know what to do with (the proverbial “data overload”). Some would say that this is just a byproduct of  how wide the “data pipe” has become. And at some level, that’s hard to argue.

But I think the answer goes well beyond that.

“Data rich, information poor”…still?

In large measure, yes. The bigger issue in my view is the degree to which the organization’s skills and cultural abilities enable (or better said, disable) them to effectively utilize data in the right ways. Most companies have put such a large premium on data quality and the ability to extract it through their huge investments in IT infrastructure and financial reporting, that it has in some ways forced leadership to “take it’s eye off the ball” with respect to the way in which that data is operationalized.

So from the perspective of using the data to effect smarter operational decisions, I’d say the successes are few and far between.

Of course, you can google any of the “big 3″ IT vendors and find a myriad of testimonials about how much better their decision making processes have gotten. But look at who’s doing the speaking in the majority of cases. It is largely from the Financial and IT communities, where  the changes have been most visible. But it’s in many of these same companies where operating executives and managers still clamor for better data and deeper insights.

So while at certain levels, and in certain vertical slices of the business, the organization is becoming more satisfied with its reporting capabilities, translating that information into rich insights and good fodder for problem solving still poses a great challenge. And unfortunately, better systems, more data, and more tools will not begin to bridge that gap until we get to the heart of some deeper cultural dynamics.

Needed: A new culture of “problem solvers”

Early in my career, I was asked to follow and accept what appeared to me at the time to be a strange “mantra”: “If it ain’t broke, ASK WHY?” That sounded a little crazy to me having grown up around the similar sounding but distinctly different phrase: “If it aint’t broke, DONT fix it”.

That shift in thinking took a little getting used to, and began to work some “muscles” I hadn’t worked before. For things that were actually working well, began asking ourselves “why?”. At first, we began to see areas where best practices and lessons learned could be “exported to other areas. But over time, we quickly learned that what appeared to be well functioning processes, wasn’t so well functioning after all. We saw processes, issues, and trends that pointed to potential downstream failures. In essence, we were viewing processes that were actually broken, but appeared to be A-ok because of inefficient (albeit effective) workarounds.

“Asking why?” is a hard thing to do for processes that appears to be working well. It goes against our conventional thinking and instincts, and forces us to ask questions…LOTS of questions. And to answer those questions requires data…GOOD data. Doing this in what appeared initially to be a healthy process was at first difficult. You had to dig deeper to find the flaws and breakdowns. But by learning how to explore and diagnose an apparently strong processes, doing that in an environment of process


failure became second nature. In the end, we not only learned how to explore and diagnose both: The apparent “good processes”, and those that were inherently broken. And for the first time in that organization, a culture of problem solving began to take root.

Prior to that point, the organization looked at problems in a very different way. Performance areas were highlighted, and instinctively management proceeded to solve them. Symptoms were mitigated, while root causes were ignored. Instead of process breakdowns being resolved, they were merely transferred to other areas where those processes became less efficient. And what appeared to be the functioning parts of the business, were largely overlooked, even though many of them were headed for a” failure cliff”.

Indication, Analysis, and Insight

Few organizations invest in a “culture of problem solving” like the one I describe above. Even the one I reference above, deployed these techniques in a selected area where leadership was committed to creating that type of environment. But throughout industry, the investment in generating these skills, abilities and behaviors across the enterprise, pales in comparison to what is invested annually in our IT environment. And without bringing that into balance, the real value of our data universe will go largely unharvested.

There are a myriad of ways a company can address this. And some have. We can point to the icons of the quality movement for one, where cultures were shaped holistically across whole enterprises. More recently, we’ve seen both quality and efficiency (more critical to eliminating waste and driving ROI) get addressed universally within companies through their investments in the Six Sigma, and more recent Lean movements.

But if I had to define a place to start (like the business unit example I described above), I would focus on three parts of the problem solving equation, that are essential to building the bridge toward a more effective Enterprise Performance Management process.

  • Indication– We need to extend our scorecards and dashboards to begin covering more operational areas of our business. While most of us have “results oriented” scorecards that convey a good sense of how the “company” or “business unit” is doing, most have not gone past that to the degree we need to. And if we have, we’ve done it in the easier, more tangible areas (sales, production, etc). Even there however, we focus largely on result or lagging indicators versus predictive or leading metrics. And in cases where we have decent data on the latter, it is rarely ever connected and correlated with the result oriented data and metrics. How many companies have truly integrated their asset registers and failure databases with outage and plant level availability? How many have integrated call patterns and behavioral demographics with downstream sales and churn data? All of this is needed to get a real handle on where problems exist, or where they may likely arise in the future.
  • Analysis– When many companies hear the word “analysis”, they go straight to thinking about how they can better “work the data” they have. They begin by taking their scorecard down a few layers. The word “drill down” becomes synonymous with “analysis”. However, while they each are critical activities, they play very separate roles in the process. The act of “drilling down” (slicing data between plants, operating regions, time periods, etc.) will give you some good indication where problems exist. But  it is not  “real analysis” that will get you very far down the path of defining root causes and ultimately bettersolutions. And often, it’s  why we get stuck at this level. Continuous spinning of the “cube” gets you no closer to the solution unless you get there by accident. And that is certainly the long way home. Good analysis starts with good questions. It takes you into the generation of a hypothesis which you may test, change and retest several times. It more often than not takes you into collecting data that may not (and perhaps should not) reside in your scorecard and dashboard. It requires sampling events and testing your hypotheses. And it often involves modeling of causal factors and drivers. But it all starts with good questions. When we refer to “spending more time in the problem”, this is what we’re talking about. Not merely spinning the scorecard around its multiple dimensions to see what solutions “emerge”.
  • Insight– I’d like to say when you do the above two things right, insights emerge. And sometimes they do. But more often than not, insights of the type and magnitude we are looking for are usually not attainable without the third leg of this problem solving stool. Insight requires its own set of skills which revolve around creativity, innovation, and “out of the box” thinking. And while some of us think of these skills as innate, they are very much learnable. But rather than “textbook learning” (although there are some great resources on the art of innovation that can be applied here), these abilities are best learned by being facilitated through the process, watching and learning how this thought process occurs, and then working those skills yourself on real life problems.

Dont forget “line of sight”

A few days ago I wrote a post on the concept of “line of sight” integration of your performance management content and infrastructure. It’s important here to reinforce the importance of tracking all of this back to that underlying construct.

The process of operationalizing information, is but one of many in the “line of sight” chain from your company’s vision, to the operational solutions that manifest here. And this process of operationalizing change is only a beginning of the journey you will make to translating these gains into ROI for the business (what I’ve referred to before as “value capture” or “value release”).

So as you navigate your path through the above activities, its useful to keep it in context and remember that the desired end state is to enable your business to see that clear “line of sight” from the very top of the organization right down to the work-face.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There’s not enough space in a post like this to elaborate as much as we could on each of these. And creating real cultural change clearly involves more than a few quick bullet points. But as has been my tradition in this blog, my intent is to introduce you to principles and techniques that can get you started on this journey, or increase the ability for you to navigate the road your on.


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

Apology Not Accepted! Beyond the empty words of a typical customer apology…

Sorry seems to be the hardest word…

Almost everyone, at least from my era, remembers that old song by Sir Elton John. While you may or not like his “style” of late, you’ve got to agree, the guy does make some good tunes!

But no, this is not a blog about music, or any other topic that could emanate from a reference to Sir Elton.This is actually a post about a serious condition that is infecting the culture of many businesses today. For lack of a better term, I’ll just call it “the propensity to apologize”.

We are all taught at a very early age to say “I’m sorry” any time we harmed another person. And throughout our lives, we say it often. We say it when we offend someone we like (or sometimes even those we don’t like!). We say it when we bump into someone accidentally on the street. We say it when we interrupt or treat someone inappropriately. Initially, the words “I’m sorry” had a quite literal meaning, often used after injuring or harming someone. But over time, they began to take on broader meanings, from expressing sympathy for someone’s loss to more general feelings of regret.

Real regret or “empty words”?

But like so many words that once had quite a literal meaning, the words “I’m sorry” are now used  for a wide array of purposes, and are heard repeatedly in conversations all around us. Just listen closely, and count how many times those words are spoken throughout a normal day. And while those words were once meant to “comfort” someone, they sometimes now have the opposite effect.

If you’ve ever spent time around someone in a 12 step recovery program, you know that the process of “making amends” are a big part of their journey. There is a whole body of literature on that very topic, but suffice it to say that anyone who really understands the concept of “amends”, will tell you that it goes way beyond the words “I’m sorry”. And while the spectrum of interpretation for the word “amends” can even vary widely; from the most literal definitions found in webster (“reparation or compensation for a wrong inflicted”), to a more fundamental willingness to do your part in ‘righting a wrong’, the principle remains the same. For those who take the words “I’m sorry” seriously, and who truly use them in the spirit that I believe they were intended, the words are more about ‘doing what you can to make the situation (or relationship) better’, than are about simply expressing regret or disappointment.

But today, those words seem to take on a much more shallow meaning and, more often than not, can actually have the opposite effect from “creating comfort” or “a commitment to repairing something that is broken”.

I was reminded of this when a family member told me of a recent trip he took. When sharing the details of his trip he said this to me:

“From the time I left my home until I got to my final destination, the words “I’m sorry ” were used 22 times…What the hell does that mean?”

In not one of those interactions did he feel that the words were sincere. He felt this mostly because they were expressed in such a casual manner that the “apology” appeared to him as simply a tactic used to get the customer to ‘move on’ in the process as it was designed. In other words, to him,  the expression ONLY meant that the agent (or whatever provider was saying the words) was telling him (the customer) something like this: ‘Look, I’m as inconvenienced by this as you are, but let’s face it, nothing is going to change the outcome, so lets both just move on’. Perhaps they were intended to be listened that way, or perhaps they weren’t; but they created that impression nonetheless.

There is a whole body of knowledge out there on how linguistics can generate a wide array of emotions, perceptions, and even somatic reactions in people. I won’t get into all that here, because we all know that we can be better speakers AND better listeners, and that doing so can often prevent these kind of interactions from ruining our day. So for the purposes of this post, I’m going only to focus on the “speaking” side of the equation, and perhaps a little on the culture of the organization behind the expression of the apology.

Ok, “you’re sorry”, now what?

In a business transaction,  the words “I’m sorry” are usually used after something in the transaction has gone awry- and a point at which the customer’s state of mind is, shall we say, “altered”. At this point, the customer often doesn’t give ‘one hill of beans’ about the words spoken, but instead just want the problem resolved. Sometimes that’s possible (often in more cases than not), and sometimes it isn’t. But when those words are spoken, there is often renewed “hope” (no matter how small)  that they will leave the exchange in “better shape” than when it was initiated. And when we look at it like this, that changes the game a bit.

So what would have to happen for the words “I’m sorry” to truly have a meaningful impact, and an outcome that both customer and provider felt better about?

Solving this problem is not an easy one. And it needs to involve things at the front line level in terms of the words, tone, and behavior of the person delivering them. But more importantly, it has to involve changes to the culture within which that person operates, and the way in which that culture views commitments. More specifically, the way in which commitments are made, managed, and delivered upon. After all, most if not all business transactions revolve around commitments.

There is a great body of knowledge written on the subject of “commitment management”, and I encourage you to spend some time exploring it. There are many practices that can help in this arena, all of which can be learned, shared, and embedded within the culture of your business. Some of them are referenced in my previous blogs, and I’ll make an attempt to consolidate those for you in the future.

Toward a “commitment based” culture…

But for our purposes here, let’s look at what those practices would look like in this specific example:

1. The tone and perspective from which the words were said, would come from a standpoint of “resolution” rather than that of a simple transaction. That is, there would be an intent to change something in the future, and yes, the front line rep would feel some accountability for making that happen, even if it’s simple escalation of the matter after the immediate transaction has concluded. While all of us want problems resolved in the ‘here and now’, we are certainly more “comforted” when we feel that there is an increased likelihood of a process fix, than we are when we are just serving as a ‘stopping point’ in a broken one.

2. The company and its leadership would have an effective process for seeking out (and acting on) feedback. At a minimum that means not punishing feedback, which unfortunately is what happens all too often (look to airline pilot protocols for some great practices here). But it also involves actually encouraging it, and acting on it when it comes to light. While feedback is often withheld out of fear of punishment (which there really is no excuse for in leadership these days), feedback is often withheld because the individual simply feels it will not be acted upon.

3. Acting on the feedback, and the results of fixes would become evident. Within short order, the employee would begin to see small changes in both the process and result, and would openly talk about what they were seeing. And ultimately, it would become visible to customers, little by little. And how would this happen, you ask?

4. It’s a little thing called measurement. In problem solving terms, we would call this the “M” in the DMAIC model (Define-MEASURE-analyze improve-control). It would involve an early action by leadership (perhaps initiated by front line management if necessary) to establish a baseline of the broken process, and a commitment to measuring and reporting future changes in performance. Only then will those changes have a chance of being noticed, and further improved upon.

It’s a big job, but start now!

Today, unfortunately,  the words of apology don’t even begin to scratch the surface of connoting real change. When they are spoken, they are simply an attempt by a provider to “get absolution” (in the form of a customer proceeding to the next step of the process) without having to do anything differently.

As I said in my last post, fixing a problem should start with solid leadership, as the basis for building a true “commitment based culture”. And the steps outlined above are only a glimpse of what is necessary to get there. But we can initiate change by recognizing what success looks like, and beginning to demonstrate these practices, even of they are only in the pockets of the business in which we reside and/or lead.

Next time you hear, or say the words “I’m sorry”...think bigger. Think less about it being a regretful end to a transaction, and more about it as a renewed commitment to excellence in delivery.


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

When Did “Common Sense” Go Extinct from the workplace?

When a Customer Service problem becomes an organizational one…

This evening, as I sat down to write this post, I originally envisioned that it would simply extend on some previous posts about Performance Improvement in the Customer Service and CRM arena. But as I thought through the examples I would use to illustrate my points, I realized just how much this issue touches the entire organization and its culture. So while my examples do revolve mainly around CS, I encourage you to reflect on the broader organizational implications, and by all means, feel free to offer your observations and experiences regardless of the process or function they relate to.

In reading articles, blogs and daily posts on Twitter, etc., you’re likely to find that most discussions focus on the newer channels of CRM. And while I agree that these mediums, largely Social Media and IT/ systems driven, I would venture to say that most of today’s frustrations from customers, are more heavily driven by the more traditional channels (via Call Center, or Face to face) for servicing customers. These more basic delivery channels still occupy the majority of interaction, and while I agree that over time we will see a sea change in that trend, we cannot afford to overlook the damage that is still being caused in the most basic forms of customer interaction.

An “all to common” scenario…

Within that context, let’s fast forward to a recent experience that one of my colleagues had with a CSR in an Insurance Company call center. The interaction went something like this:

  • Customer calls, responds to the voice prompts and spends about a minutes in the hold queue
  • CSR- “Thank you for calling xyz company, would you mind if I placed you on hold?”
  • Customer- “Well actually (click- customer is now speaking into dead silence), I am in my car and I really can’t hold because I may lose a signal and I don’t want to lose my place in the queue”
  • CSR (returns after about 3 minutes into the dead space)- “Thank you for calling xyz company, can I have your account number please?”
  • Customer- “Well let’s back up. You asked me a question of whether I could hold or not, but didn’t give me the opportunity to answer…Did you really want an answer because I was about to say that I could’t hold”
  • CSR- (dead silence/ implies some level of frustration)…followed by “Sir, can you please just give me your account number”
  • Customer- “Like I tried to say, when you clicked off the line, I’m in my car and don’t have it handy. Can you look it up by my phone number or some other way?”
  • CSR (exhales audibly as if inconvenienced)- “Fine, give me your phone number”
  • Customer: “xxx-xxx-xxxx”
  • Rep: (after proceeding through 3 steps of a verification process consuming another 30-45 seconds)- “OK, How may I help you?”
  • Customer: (Explains a bit about his recent storm loss, a roof leak in his kitchen caused by severe “ice damming”- about 2 minutes…)
  • Rep: (asks a few more questions)- what state/county are you located in?,When did the loss occur?, etc.
  • Rep- “Oh wait a second, are you calling about a home loss or an auto loss?”
  • Customer: (with slight sarcasm) “Well, last time I checked, “Ice damming in the kitchen, and roof leaks” don’t usually happen in cars and boats…”
  • Rep: “Well you’re in the auto claims area”
  • Customer: “Maybe I am, and I’m sorry about that, but the system didn’t give me an option to make that distinction”
  • Rep: “Yes, I know, its the same number for both”
  • Customer: Ok
  • Rep: “…so I am going to have to transfer you and will be a bit of a hold since they are quite busy today”
  • Customer: “Well, ok then, please transfer me”
  • Rep: “No problem, but before I do, I have a few questions…”
  • Customer: “Ok, but I’m in a hurry, because I said I’m in my car and I may lose my signal, and I don’t want to through all this again. In fact, Is there a direct number to the homeowners area if we get disconnected?”
  • Rep: “No, you’ll have to go through the same process; …but this will only take a few more seconds”
  • Customer: “…ok, but…”
  • Rep: “Is this your first time calling our claims center?
  • Customer: “yes”
  • Rep: “Were you happy with the serviceI provided you?”
  • Customer: “Ummmm…No, not yet” (again with a little more sarcasm)
  • Rep: “Sir I’m just trying to do my job”
  • Customer: “I know, but…”
  • Rep: “On a scale of 1-5, how would you…”
  • Customer (connection lost. Reason unclear.)

Now, while there were many areas of breakdown here, I would say there were three key ones in this specific exchange. Can you determine what they were?

Breakdowns abound…

First, the rep asked a question, for which she really had no desire to accept an answer to. No doubt, this is a process breakdown that starts with the company and the script it provides the rep with. But after the sarcastic response, and the fact that the customer was on his mobile (a scenario which is very common these days), she should have concluded that forging ahead with the “process” was going to have a bad result. I’d have to give the company an “F” for design of the process/ script, but I’d also flunk the rep for not recognizing the situation and course correcting as appropriate. (By the way, if this type of question is on your script, then either design your process to accept an answer, or change the words to, “sir I have to put you on hold for about x minutes”).

Second, was the verification process being deployed before finding out the right queue the customer needed to be in. Another clear “moment of truth”, if you will, that really failed the customer in this instance, mostly because there was no way for the customer to prevent it. The customer was now “hostage” inside of a “black hole” with no way out, and a cell signal that could very well crap out and leave him with having to replay this ugly scenario. Again, an “F” for the designers of the process, with little if anything the rep could have done to change it at that instance. So my grade for the rep would really have to be an “incomplete”, until I could see whether or not the rep actually communicated the process flaw to the company’s higher ups, and the nature and urgency with which she did so.

But the third breakdown was the main failure point in my view. If their were such thing as an “F-“, I’d hand it out to both the company and the rep. Sadly though, proceeding to a “survey” before the process is even started, is actually something that I experience very frequently. And every time I experience it, I have the same reaction: Anger, followed by amazement, followed by pure resignation to the fact that, for some companies, this is “as good as its going to get” under their current leadership.

Think about this for a second. We have actually allowed an objective of performance improvement  and the tools that enable it (which is really the basis for gathering customer feedback) become its most debilitating barrier to improvement. By asking (sometimes begging) for feedback as the process is playing out, it becomes very visibly all about YOU and not the CUSTOMER. And this goes well beyond “survey madness”. How many times is the customer simply trying  to get transferred to the right person, but instead has to withstand a 5-10 second “expression of gratitude” that often feels like 5 minutes? If we had better vehicles for tapping into the real needs and emotions of the customer (like those “dials” they ask people to use during presidential debates and speeches to detect emotional swings), we’d quickly learn that this stupid “exit interview” we put our customers through before a call transfer, or  upon completion, does NOTHING more than serve the company’s ego.

Organizational and Cultural implications…

Now while most of blame for all of this lies on the leadership of the company, the processes that are behind this madness, and perhaps even the CS community in general (we can’t let the vendors who design call centers, those who write the scripts, and the “survey happy” researchers off the hook here, can we?); I believe the employee carries at least some burden for the mess this continues to create. At some point, common sense needs to take over and put a stop to this. And as unfortunate as it may sound, in these types of cultures, that catalyst sometimes needs to start at the transaction/ front line level.

Ultimately, yes, this is a leadership problem. And its leadership that must create a culture of autonomy that will allow a front line worker to essentially do the manufacturing equivalent of “pushing the stop button on the assembly line”. And, yes, for it to become an embedded organizational value, that will take a lot of work in everything from skills and training, to processes and systems, to fundamental leadership values and behaviors.

But to the front line worker and lower levels of management, I think it is incumbent on you to take a risk, step out of the comfort zone, and apply some common sense to our everyday transactions. Often, management needs you to take their blinders off, and see the problems in clear daylight. And front line employees can be a catalyst in making that happen. But in the end, it will no doubt require stepping out of the  comfort zone.

And while it may be a bit naive to expect employees to take that kind of risk in this economy ( the risk that management will “punish that kind of speaking up” and /or continue to deploy a process as fundamentally broken as the one above), I think survival of the business might very well depend on it.


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

To “Meet” or “Exceed” Expectations? The answer may surprise you…

Reflections on Friday’s “Rant”

In my last post, I went on a bit of a “rant” against my wireless provider, something I rarely do on this blog in public, and almost never by name. But the breakdowns in everything from how the CSR handled the specific transaction involved, to the underlying design of their processes and enabling technologies, generated such a wealth of fodder on “how NOT to run a CS function” that I really felt compelled to let loose.

Today, there are so many examples of “poor” customer service littered all over the blogosphere and twitter-verse that most of you probably get tired of reading about them (I know I do). But sometimes “venting” a bit on paper helps me get over a bad experience, and since today’s writing tablet is my blog, I figured “what the heck”… As it turns out, I did sleep pretty well after I got that rant out of my system, so apparently, the “therapy” worked for me.

That notwithstanding, I was fairly certain that this post would go largely unnoticed, and that I would awake on Saturday morning with a new attitude, ready to spend my usual “bogging hour” generating some fresh now topics for the coming week (which were bound to be more upbeat and forward looking). At least, that was the intent.

As with most things however, my expectations were once again incorrect. What I thought was a stupid little “throw away” post  on my Friday afternoon CS experience generated about two times the volume of readership than any of my posts in the last several months. While I’d like to think it was “earned” based on good preparation, research, and authorship, the facts are that this was one that had zero preparation, was written on pure emotion and adrenalin, and was probably one of the most “long winded” posts I’d written in a while.

Learning from a bad experience…”Delight the Customer”!!!

Reading through the comments, and reflecting a bit on the post, I realized that I struck quite a nerve in people who are both passionate about Customer Service, and who (like all of us) have had theie share of negative experiences. The responses I got ranged from “resignation” (this sucks, but unfortunately, ” it is what it is”), to comparative reflection on companies who do in fact “get it”,  and a sense of anticipation that type of excellence will once again return to this industry. In fact, reading and thinking about some of the positive examples of CS in our society (both from today and the “good old days”) was little like “comfort food” for me in healing the pain I endured on Friday. What was a negative post, created positive energy. And that was good.

However, amidst all of those gyrations, I couldn’t help but reflect on words that kept popping up as I read the article and reader comments, which mostly revolved around the notion of “delighting the customer” and “exceeding expectations“. These words seem to show up often just after we juxtapose a bad customer experience with a really good example of what it should look like. Phases like “CS should look to (fill in the blank) company, and how they Delight the Customer (instead of really mucking it up like they did)” are very common in these situations.

If we could only have providers that “Delight the Customer”!!!…Those words make us feel hopeful that we someday will return to the good old days and the types of companies who really “got it”.

In the late 80’s and 90’s, we were trained to think differently about Customer Service, and follow in the footsteps of what I’ll call the “CS legends” of that era. And those of us who started our careers in that era, remember all too well those iconic images of companies “going the extra mile”, often  with some kind of dramatic, back-breaking demonstration of Customer Service “heroics”. Most of us probably remember the old FedEx example from the mid 90’s where an employee hired a helicopter to get a package to the recipient (I can’t remember if it was an organ donation, or a 10 year old’s package from Santa, but I digress :)). Whether it’s that anecdote, or one from a current era, that type of  “over delivery” has become somewhat of an accepted  standard for what “best practice” should look like, and the basis around which some of us continue to shape our expectations.

While I don’t excuse experiences like I had on Friday, I must admit that I did begin to reflect on, and actually question what “the standard” should be. What should have been my expectation? What should have been their goal for delivery against that expectation? And if their goal was to “delight the customer”, what should that look like in everything from the process to the behavior of the rep himself?

A New Standard: “Delighting the Customer” and “Exceeding Expectations”?

Some (counterintuitive) perspectives from the “old school”…

I recall working with a older (and wiser) colleague of mine about 15 years ago (he’s even older and wiser now!), who told me that the goal for Customer Service should be to MEET, not exceed the customer’s expectation. And as a relatively young and unseasoned professional, my reaction was something like bull #$@*!

Heck, I probably recited that same Fed Ex story, along with every other example that was floating around in the B-school literature and CS journals in those days. Back then, I would have rationalized my response by telling myself that this guy was “an engineer “after all (no offense to you engineers out there, but in the industry I was in at the time, engineers had developed a reputation among the “Customer Ops side” of the business of being “old school” thinkers and “barriers to change” (an obvious error in judgement by those in CS, but reality nonetheless). Why?, because that industry, which was going through unprecedented change and feverish levels of competition, had developed two competing cultures. Engineers on one side who were literally “keeping the lights on”, and the Customer side of the organization  (Sales, PR, Customer Service, Marketing, etc.) who were often flaunting their MBA’s, B-school pedigrees, and FedEx case studies around the C-suite, with considerable levels of success. “Pragmatists and doers”, versus the “ivory tower thinkers”. Always a recipe for disrespect of alternate views, and perhaps a subject for a future post.)

At the time, I remember thinking to myself, “this guy really has his head in the sand “(or somewhere less desirable!!). His words were so foreign to me, and it sounded so ‘ass backwards’. After all, in addition to all of the new “feel good” CS legends and case studies, surely there were the old adages of “the customer is king” and “the customer is always right” that he should have been tuned into. So how could anyone think that “exceeding expectations” could be ANYTHING BUT “universal truth“?

Well, we’ve both moved on from there. We’re both older and wiser on many issues, and I do enjoy seeing him occasionally and sharing a good cigar. While we’ve never really talked much more about that specific exchange, working together in the years after showed me enough about what he really meant.

What he was getting at was this: that we, as service providers spend so much time trying to beat the standard that we often miss it entirely. He was also saying that when we try and envision what it will take to truly “delight the customer”, we often get it wrong. That is, we often don’t take the time to know what will delight the customer or not. And if we get it wrong, it becomes a slippery slope.

To “Meet” or “Exceed”?

While you may agree or disagree with his perspective, or its application in the real world, there is something to reflect on here.

But what happened on Friday had nothing to do with failing to “delight me”, or “failure to over-deliver on anything”. What it was, was an abysmal failure to meet even the most basic expectations. And now that I look back on it, many of the things the company may have “thought” it was doing to “delight me” (new kiosks, new ‘sign in process’, flashy technology, etc), were actually viewed by me a “background noise” to the transaction I was there to take care of.

Fact is, the simple act of meeting basic expectations can, and often does, drive BIG success- both in terms of magnitude and sustainability.

Think about McDonalds. Same (or very close) experience- Every product, every store, every time! They thrive on CONSISTENCY of the core product, and very little in my view on “exceeding expectations” and “the delight factor” (at least in the context of the “legends” I referenced earlier). Most people that frequent McDonald’s expect what they expect, and get it consistently.

Southwest Airlines is another good example. Come on!!–An airline that actually made money when everyone else was losing their tails, …and they don’t even have first class cabins or in-flight meals? That’s right. Because they MEET expectations that they set. No surprises (which in my view is a bigger key to Customer Satisfaction than over-delivery)

Of course, I fully understand that some  of those who preach the principle of  “delighting the customer”, are really saying the equivalent of “over deliver on the promise you make (whatever that promise is) and then give that “little extra touch” (or what we used to call in New Orleans where I grew up, “lagniappe”– which in the Creole dialect means “a little bit extra”).

In fact, I believe that is exactly what both Southwest and McDonalds do. Not that they set the bar low, but they set it commensurate to the market they serve and target, and then service exactly to that standard. Then, perhaps where opportunities present themselves, they surround that experience with small touches of the “extras” in the way of smiles, humor, and courtesy. It’s all relative to the standard you set. And consistently delivering against your standard is a sure way to profitability.

Over delivery sometimes backfires…

Unfortunately, there are many practitioners, trainers and consultants that still interpret the “delight factor” as the type of dramatic heroics exhibited by the old legends of the game. The problem with this aspiration, no matter how noble, is that it often takes  your eye off the ball so to speak, and distracts attention from meeting the core expectation. And that’s the main lesson I took away from my old colleague.

While “exceeding expectations” may score you some points, it can also be a slippery slope for a few reasons. First, you may not know what that elusive “delight factor” or threshold is for a specific customer or demographic. It’s hard for even the best companies to “get right” even with decent  market intelligence, and you usually don’t have a lot of “practice shots” to test your hypotheses without experiencing some fallout. More importantly, over-delivery on something that doesn’t matter to customers, AT BEST loses you a few bucks, and at WORST serves as the type of background noise mentioned above that will only frustrate a customer more. And with the state of our Market Research and survey effectiveness these days (see comments on the above referenced post), you have more of a chance getting it wrong than right.

As an example, I am reminded of two separate instances where my flight left 15 minutes early, clearly “delighting” a few, but not me and some other passengers who were stuck in security both times. And yes, I was an hour early in both instances. Thankfully, it was before blogging so ya’ll didn’t have to endure that rant. It was ugly, I can assure you.

Over delivery can also cost you dearly. Not always, but every investment in a customer is likely to have a point of diminishing returns. And in this economic climate, you need to make tough choices on how you will differentiate, compete and win. Often, competing on core product and core delivery is a winner.

One again, Wisdom Wins…

Getting back to my old colleague for a minute. The fact that he was an engineer (a profession I have since learned to respect greatly) did give some insight (albeit a few years later) as to why he believed what he did. Of course, some of it was based on his experience with customers directly over the years. But some of it was based on his own history.

You see, if engineers get it wrong, delivering outside of spec on either side, then it’s usually “lights out” (figuratively and sometimes literally). I would suspect the same with accountants, airline pilots, and any other industry where meeting expectation is the first and often only objective. So it’s a philosophy that shapes them, and to realize that will help us all understand their words and perspectives better. But the reality is, that none of them would probably take issue with the “delight factor”, but they will also never put that as priority 1. And I, for one, don’t want them to.

Understand the expectation, set the bar, and deliver on  it. If, after all of that, you’ve got a little “lagniappe” left to offer, have at it…


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

A Customer Service Rant- Rare but necessary…

Well, Friday has come and gone, and the weekend is now here. I’ve written a bit more than usual this week, enabled mostly by a lighter travel schedule than usual.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thanks to all of you bloggers and tweeters out there. I always learn more from your feedback, than I do from my own writing. I am convinced however, that you’ve got to work both sides of the equation- ‘give to get’ so to speak. I can only hope my posts this week made a “small dent” in what I’m sure will be a perpetual debt balance I hold in the “‘bank of innovation and improvement ideas” fueled by  the blogosphere and Twitter-verse.

All in all, it was a good week. But today was most interesting, from the standpoint of a few Customer Service experiences that left a lot to be desired in my eyes. I’ll leave you with a few parting thoughts from one those interactions, which I’m sure will end up being fodder for some of next week’s posts.

Earlier this afternoon, my wife and I had to run three errands, all of which I estimated would take all but  an hour or two tops. One of those involved what I believed would be a quick run to the ATT store to re-evaluate my mobile WIFI data card and plan, and evaluate some new options I’d been thinking about. While the other two errands were less than perfect from a customer satisfaction perspective (I’ll spare you the details on these), the ATT experience was absolutely priceless in terms of providing new fodder on the topics of business improvement, and specifically “how not to run a customer service storefront”.

In today’s environment, many businesses elect to leave their “storefront” open for a variety of reasons, despite the myriad of online and mobile options available to their customers. It’s no easy decision for them to do this, and the pressures to go the other way and abandon them altogether, are more than compelling. So when they are left open, be it for product sales, or specialized service, I would imagine the company would want to extract maximum value from that decision. In fact, if I were the CCO of that company, my strategy for any local offices that were maintained (left open) would look something like this:

  • Create the most welcoming and helpful environment for customers to shop and buy my products
  • Make sure than any service I elect to provide in that office to existing customers (which, because they are provided in the local office itself, will be visible to my new shoppers/ future customers) is first rate and without blemish
  • And where possible, begin to show existing customers (that are there for “service on their existing account”)  other channels that are available to them to help them (THE CUSTOMER) make their life a little easier, and perhaps even deliver a BETTER level of service than they had before (which would really be a true win win: make the customers life easier and lower the company’s cost at the same time!)

On this particular day, and at this particular store, ATT (and I rarely name a company when I rant on a CS experience!) failed miserably on all three counts. I was there to take care of several things with which I was having trouble taking care of online. I’ll spare you the details on the entire experience, but there was one aspect of the interaction that was truly mind-blowing for me.

As a backdrop to the story, I am a very heavy “data user” given the degree to which I travel.  I have always had an unlimited data plan, which I was “grandfathered” into  a few years back when ATT converted over to a plan that was less expensive, but capped the user at 5 gigs of data. While my usage is significant, I felt I was still undershooting the capped plan even in my heaviest months. So while the lower cost was appealing, I was still worried about the probability of me overshooting the cap, and what it would cost me if I did.

Specifically, my question was how much I had used in the past several months, whether or not I was operating below the 5 gig threshold, and in the months where I may have gone over, what the overage charge would have been. I tried to answer those questions on line but was unable to get a clear enough picture, so I figured I’d just stop in and get some one on one assistance in dealing with the problem. Some may say that this is a simple “self service” transaction, and maybe it is, but as someone who is fairly familiar with online and mobile channels, I found this one to be more difficult than usual and figured I would have more success in person. I had considered calling them by phone, but I had dealt with this store before and expected this to be relatively painless.

While at the counter, I began to describe my issue to the rep- an issue I would have expected them to have faced hundreds of times previously. After several quasi blank stares, I explained the problem again, this time illustrating on a piece of paper (complete with illustrative bar charts) exactly what I was trying to evaluate. Still no luck. And that’s where things went south.

Progressively watching the rep deal with this mathematical dilemma was  like watching a robot get short circuited in front of me, not to mention the other shoppers (prospective customers) that were in the store watching this unfold :

  • First, we had to endure him searching several different screens for the usage pattern (10 minutes (felt like an hour)) for him to find two months worth of history). He tells me it would have been easier for me to do it online because the customer has access to more info. Nice try. I’d already tried to locate the usage history on the site and it was like looking in a maze. That’s why I was there to begin with.
  • After concluding that waiting a for him to find another 2 months of history would have taken another 10 minutes, I decided to rely on the one month overage that occurred in December (which was about 1 gig over the 5 gig threshold) to begin to begin the process of  ascertaining what the overage “charge” would have been. Again, like a deer in the headlights…
  • After watching another blank stare for a while, I just laid out the complex math problem for him as simply as I could (Cost per kb * the kb overage). Calculator in hand, he does the calc 3 or 4 times, and tells me (God honest truth) $20,000. I tell him that’s impossible (like I really should have had to!) because if I was on the 5Gig plan, I would have only paid $45, and while I did go 20% over, I seriously doubt the overage would have been $20 grand. That’s one heck of an overage fee, eh? I’m a bit impatient at this point, as he keeps recalculating and coming up with the same $20,000 answer, over and over again…
  • Now for the climax of the story… he kind of gives up, shrugs his shoulders and says (you cant make this stuff up!!!), “well sir, I find it hard to believe too, but all I can tell you is that most people don’t look at their bills and just pay it. Sir, I’ve not had a question like this before.”

Now, had this been an agent with only a few days on the job, I may have cut him some slack. But this guy has been there more than a few years. I was rather speechless, as were the 3 people around us listening and watching this painful exchange. In a state of amazement (the emotion of frustration had left me by this point), I decided to leave and take care of this by phone, or perhaps by spending another hour or so back on the website trying to figure it out myself. But my confidence in this being a simple exercise was shot. All I was sure of, was that taking care of this myself  would be easier than enduring any more of the “in store” interaction.

And therein lies the “lessons learned” from my Friday afternoon at the ATT Store:

  • If the company wanted to encourage self service transactions in lieu of “in store” transactions— mission accomplished
  • My confidence in the website and mobile transactions being easier for the customer —0
  • Confidence of the other shoppers that ATT’s “after the sale service” will be a good experience—- 0
  • Likelihood of trusting another bill from ATT without being accompanied by a forensic accountant—Less than before I walked in the door.

Seriously though, I actually  do believe that ATT is the right vendor for me at the moment, given the alternatives, and my rather long and uneventful relationship thus far with the company. In fact, there are some unique things about their product that I can’t get from their competitor. So I will likely remain a customer despite the experience on this particular Friday afternoon. For now, I’m going to just chalk all this up to the guy just having a bad day, the CSR equivalent of a “senior moment” or perhaps a minor stroke!

But I believe the real story here is about the state of Customer Service in general, and how the industry is executing the transition to more self service technology. I genuinely don’t believe this is a problem unique to ATT.

There is nothing wrong with trying to shift customers to lower cost channels, be it for payment or general inquiry. But we appear to have swung so far to that end of the spectrum, that the staffs that are left to deal with specialized problems have forgotten what Customer Service is, and more importantly why it exists in the first place.

In the end, I think we will ultimately get all of this into equilibrium, but it is incumbent on CS leadership to make the transition to new technology, new channels and new processes a much more deliberate one. And that will be dependent on their ability to design processes, factoring in the customer experience at a level equal to, or greater than the cost savings involved. Not to say that cost savings aren’t paramount, but it cant be a trade off at the expense of the customer, all else being equal.

Win win solutions that enhance customer service, while still producing a much lower cost structure for the company, are out there. I am confident in saying that. It just wont happen inside of cultures like the one I experienced today. Let’s just hope he was having a bad day.

CC: ATT ???


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