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


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 ………..



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



Operational Strategic & Operational



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



Functional Cross-functional



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?



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



Temporary Permanent



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   

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

Draining the swamp

March 13, 2013

draining the swampSometimes it’s referred to as fire-fighting; others will tell you that they are too busy avoiding the alligators to drain the swamp. But whichever figure of speech or analogy you use, the meaning is the same. You keep treating the symptoms and fail to address the causes.

I recently received an e-mail from a colleague in the UK who was bemoaning the fact that “companies seem to be perpetually in a flat-spin and using all their energies killing alligators.  There is little left for swamp-draining”.

We tend to associate swamp-draining with the big strategic issues and the belief that this is the preserve of senior management. Yet all too often we fall into the trap of increasing our implementation activities rather than questioning the goals that these activities are designed to achieve. As the Duke of Wellington is reputed to have said, ”having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts”.

  • So if sales are down the answer is to increase the call rate
  • If product quality is variable, increase the inspection rate
  • If the order fulfilment time is blowing out, change the transport company and increase the stock

But there’s an opportunity coming up that you should take advantage of…

Most businesses display some degree of seasonality and for many the pre-Christmas period is one of frantic activity followed by a welcome lull in the beginning of the year.

So how about using the beginning of the year to identify the swamps that need draining in your company?

Start with the assumptions behind the Strategic Business Plan.

Are they still valid? Because if they are not, no amount of implementation effort will succeed in realising the Plan’s objectives. So update the plan. Think through the implications of drought, a new competitor or new technology and adapt the Plan accordingly.

But if the assumptions are current, any problems must lie in aspects of its implementation. The symptoms of poor implementation take many forms but the cause is invariably a lack of organisational alignment.

Do all your employees:

  • Understand where the organisation is now?
  • Understand the destination and the journey?
  • Understand their role in getting there?

How do you find out? Ask them. Undertake an Employee Feedback Survey. Our surveys consistently show that the two most common areas of negative feedback are Communication and Participation in Decision-making.

When you are in the swamp up to your neck in alligators, explaining to everyone how you got there and asking them for their ideas for getting you out are not the first things that spring to mind.

  • In addition to feedback from your employees, what about feedback from your customers?
  • Is your understanding of their needs still current?
  • Is the new IT system really working from the customers’ perspective?
  • Do you do anything that is different and better than your competitors – from your customers’ viewpoint?
  • Do you have a competitive advantage – and how sustainable is it?

When it comes to customer satisfaction, the people who most influence this are not the senior management team. How your customers feel about their business relationship with you is dictated by how helpful the staff member in customer service is, how accurately their order is picked, how accurate the paperwork is, how hassle-free it is to do business with you.

So how effective are your workgroups? In all probability, they cover the full spectrum from groups of individuals to a high performance team.

Do you play golf? If so, you will know only too well that the key to a good round is avoiding the double and triple bogies. It’s the same with your workgroups. Your company’s performance will benefit more from effort expended on the poorer performing workgroups than it will by concentrating on the star performers.

How do you know how effective your workgroups are? Ask them using Towards Ten Thousand, our workgroup assessment survey.

One of the major reasons why we continue to treat the symptoms and ignore the causes is that the former tactic is more likely to result in an immediate “cure”. Uncovering the cause takes time and intelligent analysis. The reward is a cure that might take longer to take effect but which provides a permanent solution.

So why not spend some time in the beginning of the year making a list of swamps that you need to drain?

If you have the need, we certainly have the tools to get the job done – see

Strategic Market Management

March 13, 2013

planningWhenever I hear a radio interview with a public figure who speaks candidly on a topic without the usual spin, resists the temptation to offer black or white solutions and is prepared to admit that he or she does not have all the answers, a flood of text messages always seems to follow  from listeners saying how refreshing it is to hear someone speaking with such candour.  Rather than detracting from the interviewee’s reputation, it actually enhances it.

I wish more of this country’s politicians would get the message.

What triggered the above thought was the recent announcement by the government that bringing the budget into surplus in the current fiscal year was no longer achievable.  Most commentators had always believed that it was an objective doomed to failure and that Labor regarded it as a political rather than an economic necessity.  Treasurer Wayne Swan was at pains to point out that the government’s expenditure cuts had been outdone by the fall in tax revenue due to a variety of factors outside the government’s direct control.  I just do not understand why governments and organisations of all sorts make promises when their ability to keep them is beyond their power to manage.  All plans and strategies are developed on the back of certain assumptions and when those assumptions no longer hold true, it’s time to adapt and revise the plan to the new reality.

This is no more true than with business plans and the adoption of the Wagon Wheel Enterprise Operating System (EOS) provides executive management with not just a process for achieving great execution but also one for testing whether failure to meet the planners’ expectations is due to circumstances beyond or within the planners’ sphere of influence and control.  If the latter, the solution lies within the organisation itself; if the former, there is no alternative but to revise the plan – as Wayne Swan has demonstrated.

If the plan under consideration is a far-reaching one – a strategic business plan for example – the assumptions or the rationale behind the Plan need to be summarised in the planning document.  In the list of the 36 barriers to making it happen, Barrier No. 2 states – “The rationale behind the Plan was never incorporated in the final written document.”

Apart from providing a point of reference, this summary of the Plan’s rationale and the assumptions upon which it was based also pays dividends at the implementation phase.  Barrier No.18 states – “The rationale behind the proposed changes was not sufficiently explained to those most affected by them”.

Unlike the majority of organisational “visions”, Wayne Swan’s policy did have a clear objective so it was possible to do the sums and conclude that a budget surplus was no longer achievable without inflicting unnecessary damage to the economy.  Note that the budget surplus has not been wholly abandoned; it has just been put back a year.

In this age of on-going change and the global economy, it is inevitable that plans at best need constant adaptation; at worst, complete revision.  Yet so many organisations develop a plan and then fail to keep check on the assumptions on which it was founded.  Such organisations run foul of Barrier No. 35 – “Although we recognised that the external environment is changing. we continue to focus on implementation rather than revise the Plan”.

Successful plans and strategies are always a combination of doing the right thing and doing things right.  If a continuation of doing the right thing is still practical and realistic, then the emphasis remains on doing things right.  But if doing the right thing is no longer feasible then how well you do it is irrelevant.  You have to face the new reality and do what Wayne Swan has done – change the plan.

One Page Business Plans

July 10, 2012

One Page Business PlansAre you an aficionado of the one page business plan?  I’m not and here’s why.

The first question I have is – who is the plan written for?  If it’s written for those who developed it as a sort of aide memoire, then that is a worry.  It’s equivalent to the person I met who asked me what I thought of Mission Statements (read my blog post about Mission Statements.  So I asked him if his company had one and he said yes.  So I asked him what it was.  He couldn’t remember.

If it’s written to provide guidance to all who work in the organisation then the lack of rationale behind its content will render it ineffective.  I heard of an organisation that had the business plan printed in minute type on a card that staff were encouraged to have with them at all times.  Did that promote organisational alignment – the fundamental requirement for effective implementation?  I doubt it.

In addition to its inability to positively influence its target markets, it has many other shortcomings as well.

  • Given the lack of space, it’s odds on that it’s only a summary of “this is what we are going to do” – the markets, products, activities, competitive strategy and competitive advantage that make up the Hub of the Wagon Wheel Way Operating System.
  • It won’t detail the rationale behind those five components.  This is essential for effective implementation.  If you want your staff to embrace change, they need to know the reasons behind the changes proposed.
  • The implications of “this is what we are going to do” on every function in your organisation will not be tabled.
  • It won’t have an initial Action Plan.
  • It won’t address one of the key components of any business plan which is – how do we do better what we currently do?
  • It doesn’t address the factors required to implement the plan.
  • It suggests – particularly if you print it on a card – that the plan is fixed for the period it covers.  Business plans need constant up-dating.
  • It’s unlikely that it says anything about how the plan and its implementation is to be monitored, measured and adapted.

That’s my view – what’s yours?

Planning – The Key To Execution

April 13, 2012

Planning – The Key To Execution I know that I keep banging on about Organisational Alignment but it’s fundamental to the execution of any business strategy.  If management cannot articulate where the organisation is now, its destination and the journey, how can everyone in the company play their role in getting there?

I was talking to a past client recently who runs a business network and he was saying that his members are planned out and any mention of strategic planning provokes reactions such as “not again – been there, done that!” or at best stifled yawns.  I’m sure that their reaction is due to the following …

  • They see strategic planning as looking at the future through rose coloured spectacles with little relevance to what they are focusing on tomorrow and next week
  • They have got over the novelty of creating mission and vision statements that didn’t seem to achieve much
  • They view planning and execution as two separate exercises
  • They’ve spent far too long debating what they want to do and far too little time  debating how they are going to do it
  • They have this view that strategic planning is something they do in the good times – in the tough times, the focus returns to the short term
  • The environment in which they operate is changing so rapidly that any strategic plan is bound to lose its currency as the assumptions on which it was based no longer hold true
  • They did their strategic plan “three years ago” and its not time for a review yet

Let’s take these points one by one.

Yes – one of the major mistakes made by strategic planners is that they do not graft the future onto the present.  The first priority of any strategic plan is to nut out how you can do better what you currently do.  Otherwise, you might not have a future.

Don’t worry about mission and vision statements – there are many more important things to consider.

The key to effective execution lies in the quality of the planning.  The seeds of success or failure in execution are sown the moment the planners sit down to plan.

Time spent assessing the implications of “this is what we are going to do” on every function within the organisation is frequently woefully inadequate.  As a consequence the barriers to execution continue to mount until the plan is quietly abandoned.

What is more important – having a plan for growth and good times or one for survival and tough times?  Does having a plan for survival make it any less of a plan?

If the assumptions on which your plan is based no longer hold true, then change the plan – don’t spit the dummy and abandon strategic planning.

If you had new tyres fitted to your car which the suppliers guaranteed for 60,000kms and you had two punctures after 20,000kms, would you drive around on flat tyres for another 40,000kms?

Organisational alignment is the first of the five requirements for effective execution.  Each one is dependent on the factors that precede it.  So what’s the first one – organisational alignment – dependent on?  The quality of strategic planning, of course.

So the logic runs like this.  You only get rewarded for what you do – your ability to execute.  The most fundamental requirement for successful execution is organisational alignment and that in turn is dependent on the quality of the planning.  Thus having a relevant up-dated and widely communicated strategic plan at all times is the basis of success.

Does Your Organisation Have A Vision? Does It Matter?

February 25, 2012

Does Your Organisation Have A Vision?  Does It Matter?People’s views about Vision statements vary widely.  Those organisations that spend hours of executive time crafting them must clearly subscribe to the view expressed by one of spy novelist, John Le Carre’s characters who was wont to say – “visions are like the stars; we cannot reach them but we are inspired by their presence”.  In contrast, Eileen Shapiro in her excellent book – Fad Surfing in the Boardroom – defines a Vision statement as:


What Moses experienced when he wandered for too long in the desert; coordinated and persistent hallucinations characteristic of dementia and paranoid schizophrenia

My own view is closer to that of Eileen Shapiro’s.  What’s the purpose of them?  Presumably to inspire theiraudience with a call to action.  But who are they targeted at?  It can’t be the customer – most organisations do not publicise their Vision externally.  Perhaps it’s the shareholders – do they feel comforted by the Vision statement in the Annual Report? Do they think that a company with a Vision statement is better run than one without?  What about an organisation’s suppliers?  Do they have a preference for dealing with customers that have a Vision statement?  I doubt it.

No – my perception is that they are targeted at the organisation’s employees in a largely futile attempt to achieve greater employee engagement – to enhance the employee’s emotional connection to the organisation that results in greater discretionary effort.  The problem is that they are just words and on my hierarchy of influence, words are way behind “actions” as a way to positively influence attitudes and behaviour.  Indeed in a disturbing number of cases there is such a gulf between the lofty Vision and the reality that the Vision statement becomes a symptom of the credibility gap that separates executive management and the rest of an organisation’s employees.

My guess is that the only group who get excited by a Vision statement is the group of executives that created it in the first place – those that spent hours of debate over the nuances of each and every word.

I have a little more time for Mission statements providing they are simply a summary of the organisation’s activities, the markets they serve and the products and services they provide.  Yet all too often they meet Eileen Shapiro’s definition.

Mission statement

  1. A short, specific statement of purpose, intended to serve as a loose musical score that motivates everyone to play the same tune without strict supervision;
  2. Frequently, an assertion of underlying commitment to some amalgam of “total quality”, “low-cost producer”, “empowered workforce”, “excellence”, “continuous improvement” and other bizbuz shibboleths that, although written for a specific organisation, are equally applicable to an aircraft manufacturer, a software development firm, a community hospital, a department store chain, or a local dry cleaner;
  3. In some companies, a talisman, hung in public spaces, to ward off evil spirits.

 Don’t you love it?

The only thing I really have time for are Values … but that’s the subject of another blog.

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