Customer service – the parable of the plate spinner

April 20, 2015

Marketing guru, Theodore Levitt postulated that the “product” could be likened to four concentric circles.  Starting with the innermost circle representing the Core product, the three outer circles represent the Expected, Augmented and Potential product respectively.  In his article “Marketing success through differentiation – of anything”, he alsdisho concluded that what one customer might regard as product Augmentation, another might see as Expected.

It’s 35 years since the article was published in the Harvard Business Review and there is no doubt that the impact of competition and technology and the resultant rise in customer expectation has seen the migration of features that used to represent the Augmented product being regarded as the Expected Product and those of the Expected Product becoming part of the Core Product.

Product quality is a given these days.  So are such attributes as reliability of supply, competitive order lead-times, delivery-on-time and competitive pricing.  These are the  qualifying dimensions of any product or service and no supplier can perform below par on these attributes for any length of time.  In Levitt terminology they are all part of the Expected Product.  The real battleground between competing organisations is customer service and despite the growth in e-business, customer service invariably involves people.

My company has completed customer/client feedback surveys for all manner of organisations from large multinationals to boutique consultancies covering every type of business from freight forwarding to stock feed and IT.  There is always a high correlation between the respondents’ rating of the level of service they receive from their main contacts at the supplier (my client) and the overall Customer Satisfaction Index.  But it is one thing to achieve high indices, another to maintain them.  And to illustrate the nature of the challenge, I tell them about the Parable of the Plate Spinner.

customer service

In the beginning, there was a plate spinner who became skilled at spinning an increasing number of plates.

He was so successful that he was being asked to do shows every night and increase the number of plates he could spin simultaneously.  This got to be too much for him so he decided to teach others to spin plates.  Naturally, they were not quite so good as him but it enabled him to take the occasional break and when they all appeared on stage together, the results were truly spectacular.
customer service
But then things started to go wrong.  The number of plates to be spun kept on increasing and there wasn’t time to train the new plate spinners to the standard required.  Instead of a set number of plates being the sole responsibility of one plate spinner, a system evolved whereby several plate spinners shared responsibility for the same plates.  At times no one was certain who was responsible for keeping the plates spinning.  Last – but by no means least – they began to spin plates of greatly differing sizes and they found that large plates took up a disproportionate amount of the plate spinners’ time and resources – both to get them up and spinning and to keep them spinning without losing equilibrium.

When a large plate started to wobble, it would require more than its fair share of spinners to reset it and the only spinners that could be spared were those who had plates that were spinning well.

customer service

The result was inevitable.  Whether or not the efforts of the spinners to restore a problem plate to equilibrium were successful or not, other plates, deprived of their regular re-spin began to oscillate ominously and inevitably some fell from their poles, never to be spun again – at least not by this troupe of plate spinners.

The moral of this story is that when the quality of your customer service is of such a standard as to attract new customers, you have to increase the resources to provide the Core, Expected, Augmented and Potential product that they have been led to expect.  Furthermore, the standard of service given to new customers must not be at the expense of the established customer base.  Even the most stable plate will fall off its pole if you ignore it for long enough.

Always bear in mind the research by TARP (Technical Assistance Research Programs Washington DC) that showed that 68% of customers changed their suppliers because the supplier “appeared disinterested or indifferent to its customer’s needs”.

Graham Haines runs his own consulting practice Plans to Reality and has been conducting his proprietary customer feedback surveys for over 20 years.  The feedback from these surveys provides a key input into operational and strategic initiatives for improving the performance of any enterprise.  You can read about these surveys and others covering executives, employees and workgroups at www.planstoreality.com.au.


Searching for the Magic Bullet

July 8, 2013

In 1995, Eileen Shapiro published her book – “Fad Surfing in the Boardroom”.  The sub-title was “Reclaiming the Courage to Manage in the Age of Instant Answers”.  She defines “fad surfing” as “the practice of ridingConnecting The Plan With The Current Reality the crest of the latest management panacea and then paddling out again just in time to ride the next one; always absorbing for managers and lucrative for consultants; frequently disastrous for organisations.”

This observation by Eileen Shapiro reminded me of a comment by the GM of a $billion division of a major public company.  “We have invested close to $250,000 in an in-house leadership program and I’m not sure that I’m getting my money’s worth”.  Actually, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t.

I receive a fairly constant stream of fliers promoting all manner of training courses and programs on a variety of topics, each proclaiming to be the one to take your organisation to new heights of performance.  Many of them relate to aspects of execution – communication skills, teamwork, change management and of course, seven ways to engage your employees and encourage them to greater discretionary effort.

Such programs are not without merit but they ignore two very significant factors.  The first is that no program by itself can raise organisational performance.  Second, great execution is a process – while some steps in the process can be tackled concurrently, others must be tackled sequentially.  So in order to optimise the benefits of the next program you are tempted to sign up to, it pays to understand the process of execution.

The Execution Process

There are six requirements for great execution, five of which address specific topics with the sixth being Communication, the catalyst for making everything happen.  The first five are as follows:

■          Organisational Alignment

■          Management of Change

■          Leadership – at all levels

■          Teams & Teamwork

■          Employee Engagement

Each of these requirements is dependent on the ones that precede it.  Thus Employee Engagement is the most dependent – which begs the question – what’s Organisational Alignment dependent on?

Organisational Alignment

Organisational Alignment is dependent on the quality of the plan – and the quality of the planning process.  The quality of the plan relates to its “technical” merits.  Does it align the current and future capabilities and resources of the organisation to the environment in which it operates now and in the future?  But, just as important, does the process used to develop the plan involve all those who will be charged with overseeing its implementation.  By the time the plan is ready for execution and the initial Action Plan has been agreed, a) everyone in the organisation should understand where the organisation is now, b) everyone should understand the overall goal and the broad strategies to achieve it, and c) everyone should understand their role and its relationship to the achievement of the goal.  That’s Organisational Alignment and that’s why it’s the fundamental requirement for great execution.

Management of Change

How can you manage change if you don’t know what changes are required?  These changes should have been outlined in the plan, together with the rationale behind them.  I’m not suggesting for one moment that managing change isn’t hard but it’s a damn sight harder if those on the receiving end do not appreciate the reasons for it.  As Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote in her book – “The Change Masters” – “change is disturbing when done to us, exhilarating when done by us”.

Leadership at all levels

The position of Leadership in the number three spot always provokes the most debate.  Many argue that it should come before Organisational Alignment.  But I’m not referring to Leadership at the very top of the organisation, I’m focusing on those senior, middle and lower order staff who have a direct, operational role to play in the plan’s execution.  The basic requirement for leadership is a goal.  Leadership and goals have a symbiotic relationship – one cannot exist without the other.  If clear goals do not exist, Leadership will mirror –

The Grand Old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men

He marched them up to the top of the hill, and he marched them down again

And when they were up, they were up; and when they were down, they were down

And when they were only half way up, they were neither up nor down.

 This was the problem facing the GM referred to at the start of this blog.

Teams & Teamwork

When Teams & Teamwork is the subject of a stand alone training program, my observation is that the focus tends to be on interpersonal relationships, building team culture etc.  Teams and Teamwork are regarded as ends in themselves.  Whereas they should be regarded as a means to an end so the starting point for team development is a purpose that is aligned to the purpose of the organisation and a goal that is similarly aligned.  As Katzenback & Smith wrote in “The Wisdom of Teams” the catalyst for their formation should be a “significant performance challenge”.  Organisational Alignment, Management of Change and Leadership are all prerequisites for truly effective Teams and Teamwork.

Employee Engagement

I spent four years of my working life as a member of a high performing team.  They were easily the most satisfying years of my career prior to establishing my own consulting practice.  If one accepts the definition of employee engagement as “the employee’s emotional connection to an organisation that inspires greater discretionary effort”, then our team had discretionary effort in spades.  We were engaged in the execution of one of the company’s key growth strategies; we determined the direction of the changes required and implemented them; leadership was shared by the team members and teamwork was essential as we each contributed specialist knowledge – and deadlines were tight.  We grew to respect and trust each other but it wasn’t all hard yakka.  There was plenty of laughter as well.  We had no formal training in teamwork and the phrase “employee engagement” had yet to be invented.  But were we engaged?  You bet we were!

The point is this.

Employee engagement is the most dependent of the five requirements for great execution.  So there is no point in undertaking an engagement program unless the prerequisites for engagement are in place and these go right back to the planning process itself.  And if they are, you might find that a stand alone engagement program is no longer necessary.  Similarly, unless the organisation is aligned, programs on managing change, leadership, etc will not yield the hoped for benefits.

Communication

Communication is not referred to as “the good oil” for nothing.  It is the essential lubricant for keeping the wheels of execution rolling with the minimum of resistance.  I was careful to write “rolling” not “spinning”.  There are many who think that the Holy Grail is a harmonious organisation that tolerates everyone’s point of view and which abhors conflict.  Trouble is, that kind of organisation – if one ever existed  – doesn’t actually go anywhere.  It just spins its wheels.  Friction is needed for forward progress, and in an organisation that means keeping everyone informed, promoting, not stifling debate and listening to the staff at the customer interface of your operation.  Good communication results in a contest of ideas; poor communication in a contest of personalities.  And always remember that the most powerful form of communication – for good or evil – is not what you write, nor what you say but what you do.

Graham Haines is the principal of Plans to Reality, a consultancy that specialises in the effective execution of business and strategic plans.  Identifying and linking every stage in the execution process has led to the development of The Wagon Wheel Way Enterprise Operating System, the world’s first management framework that covers the complete operational cycle. He explores the whole issue of execution in his book – “Execution to Die For – the Manager’s Guide to Making It Happen”.  See http://www.executiontodiefor.com  He can be contacted via his web site ghaines@planstoreality.com.au   

 


Teams ain’t what they used to be!

June 27, 2013

I don’t think anyone questions the value of teams and teamwork.  Whether it’s a political party, a sporting team or a workgroup at your place of work, everyone knows that small groups of people working together can achieve much more than the same number of people working independently of one another.

But let me ask you a question – would you regard your workgroup as a high performing team?

If you do, you are very fortunate because the majority never experience the satisfaction and enjoyment that comes from being a member of a close-knit band that work together to achieve a common goal.  The reality is that, despite all the advantages of teamwork, our work environment actually discourages the development of teams.  I know this to be a fact because my consultancy has a survey instrument that measures how effectively team members work together.

Actually we do not use the word “team” except in very special circumstances.  The collective noun we use is “workgroups” and we have identified six levels of workgroup effectiveness.  Starting at the bottom with “a Group of Individuals”, the next level up is “Embryonic Workgroup”, followed by “Developing Workgroup”, “Established Workgroup” and “High Performing Workgroup” in that order.  The last and ultimate workgroup rates as a “High Performing Team”.

The fundamentals are changeing

One of the many reasons why team development so often founders is that management sees Teams and Teamwork as an end it itself, rather than as a means to an end.  In fact the whole rationale behind teams has changed significantly over the last 30 years or so as this table demonstrates[1].

                        Workgroups (Teams)

Emphasis from ……… Emphasis to ………..

Rationale

Rationale

As an end in themselves As a means to an end
Quality of working life Organisational performance

Focus

Focus

Operational Strategic & Operational

Purpose

Purpose

To get along better To improve workgroup performance
Employee engagement Organisational alignment

Structure

Structure

Functional Cross-functional

Usage

Usage

Outside main organisational structure Main building block of organisational structures

Measure of effectiveness

Measure of effectiveness

How do we all feel? Have we achieved our goals?

Training

Training

Team building groups, interpersonal skills Team skills, quality tools, problem solving tools, personal growth tools, communication skills, process skills

Performance appraisals

Performance appraisals

Individual Workgroup & individual

Lifespan

Lifespan

Temporary Permanent

Culture

Culture

Elitest The way we do things around here

Taken as a whole, this table signals a very significant change in emphasis.  When organisational teams became the focus of research after the end of the Second World War, the primary purpose in their formation was to benefit the work life of the individual members.  The spin-off was enhanced organisational performance.  Today, it’s the other way around.  The primary benefit of teams is seen as enhanced organisational performance with the spin-off being quality of individual work life.  I’m not sure that consultants and trainers have caught up with these changes.

Graham Haines

Graham Haines is the principal of Plans to Reality, a consultancy that specialises in the effective execution of business and strategic plans.  Teams and Teamwork is one of five requirements for really effective implementation, the others being Organisational alignment, Management of Change, Leadership – at all levels – and Employee Engagement.    He explores the whole issue of execution in his unique book – “Execution to Die For – the Manager’s Guide to Making It Happen”.  He can be contacted via his web site ghaines@planstoreality.com.au   

[1] The above table builds on one taken from “Managing Teams” by Lawrence Holpp


Communication – the good oil

April 15, 2013

Implementation Plan | Implementation Management | Strategy Implementation | Implementation Process

I’ve watched two documentaries on SBS recently  – the Dust Bowl and Hurricane Sandy – the Perfect Storm.  Ironically, in one case there was too much water whilst in the other, there wasn’t enough.  But what struck me once again are the communication skills of Americans.  This wasn’t Barack Obama or Martin Luther King or JFK speaking, these were ordinary Americans relating their experiences of these natural disasters – helped in one case by the actions of man.  What makes the average  American so eloquent compared to his or her Australian counterpart?  If you know why, I’d love to hear from you.

Last month in Victoria, we saw the resignation of Ted Baillieu who, even before the publication of the Nutt/Weston tapes and the resignation of Geoff Shaw, was languishing in the polls due, in part, to his inability to communicate with the electorate.  I’m not suggesting that what you say is more important than what you do but my experience is that employees complain more about the lack of communication from management than any other single factor.  This is not, perhaps, surprising as a manager’s ability to communicate is probably his or her most important asset.  In my book – “Execution to Die For” – I describe “Communication” as the Central Nervous System of any organisation.  Damage it and paralysis is the result.

Communication – the Nine Deadly Sins

Such is the overarching significance of Communication in The Wagon Wheel Way™ Enterprise Operating System, it does not feature directly in the Wheel’s construction (planning), operation (implementation) or maintenance (monitoring, measuring & adapting).  Instead it is depicted as the grease on the axle that allows the Wagon Wheel to roll with the minimum of resistance – hence Communication – the good oil.  Given that everyone recognises the significance of Communication, the question has to be raised as to why many organisations do it so poorly.  Here are the most common reasons.

a)     Management believes that the Plan will meet with resistance so the fewer people that know about it the better

b)     Communication takes up time – lots of it, particularly if you want to communicate effectively

c)      Senior management sees itself as the “thinkers” – the rest are the “doers”.  Why involve the “doers” in the “thinkers” role?

d)      The Planners limit their thinking to – “this is what we are going to do”.  They do not consider the implications of the Plan on each of the functions in the organisation, neither do they consider whether the Plan is practical and can be     adequately resourced

e)      Management withholds information on the basis of the “need to know”

f)      Management withholds information because information is power

g)     Management is afraid to initiate communication because this will invite questions to which management does not have an answer

h)     Management is fearful that the bulk of the contribution from staff will be negative so inviting communication is to invite criticism

i)      Management do not appreciate the contribution that the staff at the front line of the organisation can make, particularly to the second phase of planning – “how we are going to do it”.

I can guarantee that no one reading the above will be innocent of one or more of these communication crimes and everyone will have experienced the frustrations, anger and anxiety that such omissions in communication cause – whether deliberate or otherwise.

 

The above list of Communication offenses is taken directly from Section 2.6 of “Execution to Die For – the Manager’s Guide to Making It Happen.  This Section also discusses the two basic types of communication, what to communicate about and how some forms of communication are far more effective than others – if you want to achieve “execution to die for”.  The book is available in hard or soft copy from Amazon and in hard copy from my web site http://www.planstoreality.com.au


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