When I first became a Vice President of Manufacturing for a start up in the 1970’s, I faced many challenges getting electronic parts and components. Those were the days of a rapid explosion of electronics manufacturing and a relatively immature supply chain.
As I thought about the situation, the light bulb turned on over my head and I had an epiphany; I was playing with three variables – low price, reliable delivery, and high quality. No matter what I tried, I could only get two of them. I usually opted for delivery and quality and paid the price because I could delivery a quality product to our customers.
The situation also led to fraud and abuse. For example, I once had a burn-in vendor tell me
“If you give me the parts on Monday morning, I can return them by Friday afternoon, with the full 168 hour burn-in.”
This was magic since 168 hours is seven full days and he was going to do it in less than five!
As time went by the manufacturing community discovered lean, six-sigma, and Kazan and things steadily improved until getting three out of three became the norm. And then I moved to Customer Service.
Customer Service is different from Manufacturing
With Manufacturing, all the work happens behind closed doors and away from the customer. Processes can be refined, redesigned, enhanced, or even eliminated without the customer knowing about it.
In Service, the work performed is in front of the customer, either in person or by telephone, chat, or other communication systems. And if the service is being performed remotely, then the agent may be in a different country from the customer or may be working in isolation from a home office. This means that the agent is responding in real-time to feedback from the customer and does not have the opportunity to experiment, redesign a process, or even consult with other employees. And that is why this sign described the normal service operational situation:
Today, as a result of digitization, improved hardware and software, and enlightened management, the two out of three choice is becoming history.
Products are designed to collect and share information about operational performance and environmental conditions. This allows service and support to proactively identify potential problems and correct them without causing significant downtime. My favorite example is the Apple iPhone. According to TechWorm:
Apple has been awarded patent technology for the iPhone that detects when you’re not using it and automatically cleans or fixes itself. The patent was filed in July 2014. The Automated Maintenance of an Electronic Device patent describes a number of different ways that an iPhone could keep itself running. This means that future versions of the iPhone will be able to self-heal, perform maintenance, repair and recalibrate functions’ while you are sleeping, including fixing deal pixels on the screen.
In the future, the Internet of Things will also be contributing greatly to improved service. This proactive model is helping to slowly create a generation of bored Maytag repair people.
Since support people have access to more and better information, in a format that is very useful, all service is becoming faster. Consider a call center. Since software companies introduced Enterprise Search products 11 years ago, call centers have the capability to search all the companies computer systems to identify previously reported (and solved) problems that a current customer issue. The agents can immediately identify work arounds, patches, and upgrades that have been proved successful with other customers.
Good service will never be cheap but it should provide good value for the money being spent. Fixing a computer problem should not cost hundreds of dollars to be told to restart a system! But if it costs $25 or $50 for that advice, and it works, then that is not a lot to pay for a lifelong lesson for each of us.
On the other hand, our service and support community has to learn how to include the cost of customer downtime in the discussion about cost vs. value. If someone complains about having to pay to be told to restart a system, we should feel comfortable in telling her that the advice allowed her to continue working without negatively impacting a schedule.
Good service will become great whenever the employees are 1) fully engaged in helping customers and 2) empowered to do whatever they believe is the right thing to solve a customer’s problems.
With engaged and empowered employees using proactive reports and readily available information, our customers will never again have to make the choice between good, fast, or cheap service. And that will be a beautiful thing!