Customer Development – As Important to Product Development

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I’m reading a book that makes the case that startups need to develop customers at the same time they are developing new products. The two processes need to proceed in parallel, from the very beginning, in order to test the hypothesis that a real customer-need is being addressed.

 

It’s a great book and I summarized what I was learning in this article in the Gleaner – The Customer May Not Always be Right.

Creating the Customer Experience – Practice

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The idea of training customer-facing personnel in the Caribbean to create specific experiences might seem like a tall order, and a highly subjective goal.

Can a company charge its front-line workers with doing whatever it takes to create experiences it decides are important for its customers?

For example, what if a bank decides to create an experience of caring, careful and creative with its customers? How would it train its employees to produce that experience reliably?

Well, they could begin by allowing the employee to internalize the definition of the experiences: caring, careful and creative. They would need to do so by looking in two places — their own experience as customers in day to day life, and their experience as employees in the company.

Surprisingly, the latter is perhaps more important than the former.

Employees who don’t look for the experience of caring, careful and creative in their experience in the workplace are going to have a difficult time delivering it to customers. Workplaces that rarely produce the experience will simply fail, and should instead look to implement a culture change programme that results in a different customer experience altogether.

Without it, employees will not have what it takes to produce the experience with their customers, as they will be too busy trying to have some of it for themselves.

Once the experience is internalized, and distinguished clearly in the experience of employees, the company can go the next step and train them to deliver it. The assumption here is that employees who are overflowing with an experience need do little at some level, because their experience will naturally overflow into the customer’s experience. In this sense, customer experience is quite a contagious phenomena.

How do employees get trained to deliver a set of experiences such as caring, careful and creative?

Do they receive a set of rules to follow? Do they follow a script?

Some companies have tried this approach, but it is imply insufficient.

In addition to guidelines, what employees need more than anything else is time to practise.

Producing a specific experience is not as simple as merely mouthing the correct words, or going through the right motions.

Instead, it requires an element of emotional intelligence, due to the need to quickly appreciate the experience that another person is having in any moment. This ability to “read experiences” can be developed through consistent practice.

“Reading the experience” can perhaps be as easy as carefully observing the changes in someone’s face. Some interesting research into couples, and their communication, has revealed that a trained observer can predict with 90% accuracy, the future of the couple’s marriage, after only a couple of minutes.

They are trained to observe the minute changes in muscle motion that we tend to overlook each day.

Perhaps the same kind of training could be given to front-line customer-service workers, so that they can discover the clues that tell them the experience that a customer is having. This of course, would take some amount of practice in order to master, but it sure seems like an interesting place to start.


There are three sources of information that I can recommend on this topic– one is the book Blink by Macolm Gladwell, and here is an excerpt from the book: http://www.hachettebookgroupusa.com/books/68/0316010669/
chapter_excerpt24301.html

In the December 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review, there is an article entitled: Making Relationships Work by John Gottman. He is the psychologist who is the originator of the University of Washington study.

Cancel cards prior to death

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This came from an email that is making the rounds in South Africa.

Note to self: ‘Cancel credit cards prior to death!

Be sure and cancel your credit cards before you die! This is so priceless and so easy to see happening – customer service, being what it is today!

A lady died this past January, and ABSA bank billed her for February and March for their annual service charges on her credit card, and then added late fees and interest on the monthly charge. The balance had been R0.00, now it’s somewhere around R60.00.

A family member placed a call to the ABSA Bank:

Family Member:
‘I am calling to tell you that she died in January.’

ABSA:
‘The account was never closed and the late fees and charges still apply.’

Family Member:
‘Maybe, you should turn it over to collections.’

ABSA:
‘Since it is two months past due, it already has been.’

Family Member:
So, what will they do when they find out she is dead?’

ABSA:
‘Either report her account to the frauds division or report her to the credit bureau, maybe both!’

Family Member:
‘Do you think God will be mad at her?’

ABSA:
‘Excuse me?’

Family Member:
‘Did you just get what I was telling you . . . The part about her being dead?’

ABSA:
‘Sir, you’ll have to speak to my supervisor.’

The supervisor gets on the phone.

Family Member:
‘I’m calling to tell you, she died in January.’

ABSA:
‘The account was never closed and the late fees and charges still apply.’

Family Member:
‘You mean you want to collect from her estate?’

ABSA:
(Stammer) ‘Are you her lawyer?’

Family Member:
‘No, I’m her great nephew.’
(Lawyer info given)

ABSA:
‘Could you fax us a certificate of death?’

Family Member:
‘Sure.’ ( fax number is given )

After they get the fax:

ABSA:
‘Our system just isn’t set up for death. I don’t know what more I can do to help.’

Family Member:
‘Well, if you figure it out, great! If not, you could just keep billing her. I don’t think she will care.’

ABSA:
‘Well, the late fees and charges do still apply.’

Family Member:
‘Would you like her new billing address?’

ABSA:
‘That might help.’

Family Member:
‘ XXXXXX Cemetery, 1249 XXXX Rd, Plot Number 1049.’

ABSA:
‘Sir, that’s a cemetery!’

Family Member:
‘Well, what do you do with dead people on your planet?’

"Nice Lady"

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It struck me recently that here in the Caribbean we relate to people who provide us with good service with some gratitude, and perhaps with too much gratitude.

Rarely does the fact that we get good service from an individual translate into a feeling that the company, as a whole, provides good service. Instead, we take it to mean that they have one good person, and that the service he/she gives is not a function of the company, but is due to something else like their personality, demeanor or positive frame of mind.

Little wonder that hardly any companies stand out for the quality of their service in the minds of average Jamaicans. They all seem to be offering more or less the same average, low standard fare, with the occasional person standing out now and again, against more examples of poor service that ruin the reputation the company is trying to build.

When we find that good person, we feel like we have found a friend, and are grateful to them, instead of being grateful to the company. It’s a different dynamic than the one that pertains to U.S. companies, which are much less personal and more anonymous.

It seems as if its harder to build a brand when service is taken personally… but maybe it’s easier, when positive experiences become the norm?

Saying "No Way" but Still Providing an Experience

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In customer experience programmes across the region, a real difficulty lies in getting the job done, while creating the intended experience at the same time.

At the very low standards of service we experience across the Caribbean region, it’s safe to say that the average service professional, in the process of delivering service to a local customer, does a poor job of creating any conscious experience.

On the other hand, the very best service professionals I have ever encountered are able to take even a denial of service, and turn it into a positive experience. How is that possible?

Well, I am no surgeon, but the idea of undergoing surgery freaks most people out. Yet, as undesirable as it is, a patient who survives can indeed regard the entire experience as a useful and important one in their lives. Childbirth is similar in this regard.

Not that this is easy. It takes practice, skill and awareness, and also the will to serve people in this most sacred of ways.

There are not too many fresh graduates of high schools and colleges who are able to perform this particular trick. Instead, they learn from their management how to disregard experience, and to use force to get the job done. Then, predictably, the professional can blame the circumstances for the customer’s experience, and remove themselves from a position of any accountability.

They simply are providing the worst customer experience possible.

Creating the Customer Experience Is Easy

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Meeting customer needs is hard, compared to creating a particular customer experience.

Unfortunately, human nature is such that when customer needs are met, but the experience is one that is negative, what is remembered is only the experience. Emotion trumps reason every single time.

In fact, a skilled listener can tell a customer no, and still leave them with an experience that is positive, warm and caring.

Here in the Caribbean, this is a rare skill.

In fact, there seem to be many more who meet the customer’s need, but leave a negative experience — and this I have seen across the region, with some countries much worse than others.

At the same time, it seems that the company that is able to provide a good customer experience should do well, and it’s not because our local service is so bad region-wide.

Instead, the reason is that we take service personally. After a positive interaction, we talk about “how nice that lady was”. After a poor experience, we talk about “disrespect”.

In other parts of the world, they talk about the service that the company provides, but here it’s about the individual and what they did to us that was good or bad.

It’s personal.

JaCSA Graduation Event

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This past week I had the opportunity to speak to the graduates of the first Jamaica Customer Service Association Certification Programme.

It was a wonderful event, to be sure, and I was surprised to discover that I had become known for the work I had done to define what I call the “3 Levels of Service” that I had witnessed here in Jamaica.

It was a bit startling to be told that I was “the Frien’ Service Guy” — based on one of the three levels of service. They had read and assimilated the points had I made in that blog, and apparently it had become something of a mantra for them.

This was exciting, particularly as I remember when the idea hit me, and I thought it was something of a joke for me to share with my friends. I never imagined that it would be included in a class on customer service, or that students would be using the idea in such a playful, and innovative way.

I shared this with my wife, and noted how powerful it was to give away ideas. It gave proof to the idea that I have on my website that ideas are strengthened when they are shared (a concept taken from “A Course in Miracles”). There are many who think, as I used to do, that ideas are stolen when they are shared, but in this respect “I’ve come a long way baby!”

I was encouraged by some to turn the ideas into a book, which is something that I think I would enjoy doing. In the meantime, I’ll be testing all the ideas here in this blog before fixing them up for “prime time.”

Customer Service: Comments

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In a comment on this blog, Crystal made some excellent points. Among them were:

Weeding out the wrong candidates is definitely a must because all the training in the world would not prompt an employee who is not customer service oriented to assist a potential customer. Unfortunately for a vast majority of the Caribbean this is not an option. Many businesses taking this route will be left with closed doors. It is difficult for them to attract employees much less the right employees. I have witnessed quite a few instances where customer complaints have resulted in a mere slap on the wrist or no consequence at all to the employee, all because business owners need these employees to keep their doors open. I believe that it would take an instance of outright theft for them to let an employee go.

There is some definite truth to this, as the difficulty of finding employees in Trinidad, and to a lesser extent, Barbados is well documented. Yet, the lack of service in Jamaica which has rampant unemployment, does not bode well for that theory. However, I would argue that the general service level in Jamaica is higher than it is in the other islands; this from personal experience.

Too often business owners in the Caribbean do not reflect the attitude that they want their employees to portray. Many treat their staff with disdain, mistrust and so they reap the benefits of their deeds.

I believe that this is the crux of the matter, and is reflected in the book “Why Workers Won’t Work” and other studies and reports. Incidentally, a summary of the book is available at our website.

Not to say that the employees are not a fault, many refuse to utilize the training given seeing the current job as a stepping stone and so they are not required to give their all.

Let us say that they are not taught how to give it their all, especially in a customer service relationship.

My wife suffered recently at the hands of a doctor who had no problem having her patients wait for hour without apology. She also “prescribed” J$4000 of Herbalife products when she came in with a stomach ache… none of which happened to be covered by insurance, but which she made a profit as a distributor in her multi-level marketing “business.”

Where does a doctor learn customer service skills? An accountant? A lawyer? Certainly not in school. Yet, they are called upon to use their undeveloped skills each and every day with an unsuspecting public.

In our small economies, I imagine that 90% of high school graduates will have occasion to work in a customer service capacity at some point, without a single hour of customer service training whatsoever.

The problem is that we are well able to pick bad service out when we see it, but terribly poor at seeing and stopping ourselves when we are the ones delivering it.