Customer service demands focusing on systems

Barb ClearyAs we saw last month, customer service is a clear reflection of the quality of the interface of products or processes and those who benefit from these products and processes. Without understanding the customer, a group that includes everyone from those who use a product to those who distribute it to those who deliver it, it is impossible to provide high quality customer service. Understanding customers means, first and foremost, identifying who they are and how their needs and wants can be met by the organization that serves them.

Once customers have been identified, what’s the next step?

Customer service represents far more than being nice to those who pay our bills. Shaking someone’s hand while giving them a defective product represents a bad balance and a lack of understanding of the ways that customers’ needs are met. To serve customers well, an organization must understand the systems that serve these customers.

Customer needs can be satisfied when there are deliberate, purposeful systems in place to address these needs. Systems include activities that contribute to the achievement of a defined purpose. They are made up of processes that reflect what W. Edwards Deming called “constancy of purpose”—that is, processes that directly support the purpose of the system.

Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, was known for insisting that everything in a drama must contribute to the outcome: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there” (from Gurlyand’s Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov, in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904, No. 28, 11 July, p. 521). In the same way, every system in an organization must support the mission.

Of course, this definition of “system” implies that the purpose of the system has been identified. It may be expressed in a mission statement, or it may be articulated as goals of the organization. In a school, for example, the mission might be to promote learning. Systems that support this mission would include the obvious ones of classroom instruction, the testing program, the counseling services, the curriculum; but the food service and maintenance

systems also contribute to the mission. A system, defined by Deming, includes suppliers, inputs, processes, outputs, and customers.1 All of these must in some way contribute to promoting learning. It would make no sense to create a class schedule that revolves around the needs of the school’s business office rather than student needs, for example, or designing a curriculum that builds skills in only one area in order to conform to testing standards.

Improving only one area of a system may militate against overall improvement and fulfillment of an organization’s mission. A bank could have the best security system in the world, but if it means that customers cannot enter its buildings, the security process has undermined the larger purpose of serving customers.

A notorious example of a failure to provide clear systems to meet customer needs is that which is often found in the technical support function of cable television or telephone services, where help lines are understaffed or customers are served only by computerized, recorded responses to frequent questions, where voice responses (“My name is J-O-N-E-S.” “I cannot understand your name.” etc.) are not understood by the system, or where hang-ups are frequent occurrences after a customer has patiently and painstakingly gone through a series of screening questions. It is clear that these organizations have not included the customers’ needs in delivering sound communication services. These companies may be providing the best billing or service installation system in the world, but they may have abandoned attention to other important processes that render their products less than excellent. It may be that the primary system in such organizations has only the bottom line of profits as its purpose for being.

Customer service, as we have seen, involves a thorough approach to analysis at every step, and improvements that genuinely reflect the need for change. Leaving peppermints for customers may please them for the moment, but it is far-ranging attention to quality in every process that will win their loyalty. And most organizations want their customers to be not only satisfied for the moment, but loyal enough in the long term that they will tell their friends and colleagues about their positive impression of the organization.

Next month, we will focus on the ways that understanding variation contributes to predictable customer service.

  1. Deming, W. Edwards, Out of the Crisis (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), p. 4.