Four steps to improving customer service

Barb ClearyEditor’s note: This is the first in a series related to customer service. Watch for further discussions in coming months.

With a variety of approaches to process improvement, including programs and regimens that have come and gone without a trace, a new generation of business owners, educators, and healthcare providers is ready to get to the heart of improvement and to understand the basics about quality of products and services. Unlike earlier generations, they do not have time to take extensive courses or attend multiple conferences in their quest for this understanding. So let’s boil down the essentials of quality improvement, beginning with the customer’s experience.

We’ve all been victims of poor customer service. Recorded telephone responses, including the interminable “Press 1 for sales…” to “Press 2 for service” announcements, or the softly uttered assurance that “Your call is important to us…” that precedes a 15-minute wait on hold, or the unanswered letter to customer service—all have become routine in our business lives. Everyone has a horror story when it comes to customer service, it seems, although the old “Complaint” window has long ago vanished from our experience, aside from its appearance in cartoons.

The quality of a customer’s experience with an organization begins to be evaluated at the first interface between customer and provider, but the provider often does not even realize that an interface has taken place. It is common knowledge that 95% of customers who have had a negative experience will never complain about it. Further, it is easy to view the disgruntled customer as just that…someone who will complain about anything. As the American Society for Quality points out, “unless your company offers a unique product or service, your major competitive advantage is high quality service. Quality service results in repeat and additional purchases from existing customers.” And further, “The Harvard Business Review reports that customers who experience poor service quality often stop doing business with the offending companies without warning or complaint. On average, 40 percent of customers with poor experiences do not return.”

Of course, the reality is that the quality of an organization and the success of its endeavor are dependent on the responses of its customers. It is common understanding that when a customer has a positive experience, he or she may tell one person about that experience; if the interaction has been negative, it will be related to at least seven people. All the advertising in the world cannot compensate for an unpleasant or negative experience of a customer. Failing to respond to a suggestion or complaint from a customer will be fodder for countless conversations about your company.

And remember—it’s less expensive to hold on to an existing customer than to develop new customers.

Preventing customer dissatisfaction goes well beyond assuring a pleasant voice on the voicemail recorder. It involves a genuine commitment to improvement and a conscious look at a number of factors in an organization that ultimately lead to the interface with the customer. These factors include:

a. an understanding of who the customer is;

b. knowledge of the system that serves the customer;

c. responsive leadership that understands variation in the system;

d. use of data in making decisions.

This list embodies what is often referred to as “quality,” because it reflects an interest in improvement at every level of an organization— and a concerted organization-wide commitment to monitoring processes to assure that improvement.

You may remember when you were learning to drive. You had to think in small steps: press in the clutch, insert the key and start the engine, look in the rear-view mirror, put the car in gear, slowly (or jerkily) move forward. It all seemed somewhat artificial and halting, and you may have thought you’d never get the hang of it. But look at the process now; you undertake the same steps, but you no longer need a list or flow chart or a memory jogger to follow them. Driving has become second nature to you, and you are barely conscious of the improvement you’ve made since those days when you initiated a new process into your regimen.

Process improvement—bringing continuous improvement to any process and enhancing its quality—is the same way. You may find yourself studying manuals or using reminders about the steps to improvement as you begin a quality journey, but it will all become second nature to you eventually. You will sense opportunities for improvement; you will become facile with data; and you will see your processes improve over time.

1. To improve customer service, you will need to understand who the customer is and what his or her needs are.

With sophisticated methods, often electronic, it’s easy to map the demographics of those who are likely to purchase certain products or use specific services. But serving a customer involves paying attention to a much larger group of people, since “customer” really includes a reference to all those who benefit from what an organization does—not just the end user of the organization’s services.

Who, for example, benefits from the services that a hospital provides? The list is far longer than the immediately obvious one, the patient. It may include those who:

• pay for the patient’s care

• make medications available

• are on the hospital payroll

• drive ambulances

• provide professional medical care

• run a hospital gift store

• collect taxes from the hospital

• build facilities for the hospital

• deliver supplies

• visit patients in the hospital

• provide chaplain services to patients

• deliver newspapers to hospital rooms

Identifying customer needs is critical to success of products and services. All customers have needs, but these may easily be confused with wants. For example, I know that I need a safe environment in which to work. When a company understands this need, it can develop any number of approaches to meet the need—some of which the customer has never thought of. When customers articulate their needs, they often mention wants, or specific responses to their needs. I may need a safe environment; I may want a body guard to escort me to my desk. An organization can meet needs in a variety of ways, not in a single, narrow approach. Creating policies that assure nonsmoking areas, installing sprinkler systems in case of fire, using an alarmed entry system, inspecting a building for hazards, providing lighting for hallways and parking areas: all of these represent responses to the need for a safe environment— even though the customer may have been applying a much narrower understanding of “safe.”

Watch for discussions of steps 2-4 in coming months’ issues of Quality eLine.