Ever Been Inspired by Mr and Mrs Average?
18 July 2006 Jamie Craig
Mr and Mrs Average, with their average-priced house and car and two-point-four children don't resemble anyone I know. By their very nature the Average family are fairly dull and uninspiring. Jamie Craig asks why, if the 'average' is so plain ordinary, do we often measure 'average' customer experience and base strategic and tactical business decisions on it?
As customers, we can be surprisingly enthusiastic about any truly enjoyable buying experience. Whether we are shopping on the high street, ordering goods over the phone, setting up a bank account or making an insurance claim, we are ready to be impressed by systems that work and people who make us feel they care.
Yet, all too often, our experiences are either so dire as to be memorable for the wrong reasons or so ordinary as to be forgettable.
RESEARCHING THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
Some recent research by Bain & Co. reveals that many companies deceive themselves about the levels of service they offer. While over 80% of CEOs claimed that their priority was to provide great customer service, only 8% of their customers agreed.
Research by Genesys in 2004 found that more than 50% of customers have given up buying from suppliers as a result of a poor service experience. 75% said that if they had been impressed they would have stayed.
When you consider the cost of winning the customer in the first place, the commercial argument for working harder to keep them once they are in contact with you is a no-brainer.
As a warm-up question at a recent series of focus groups, I asked the participants to give me examples of companies they had used that they felt provided good service and would be prepared to recommend to others. My flip chart stayed blank.
No one could think of a single organisation they could unhesitatingly recommend to others. There are certainly some high-profile companies that promote themselves on service, but amongst my, admittedly ad hoc sample, actual experience didn't match the brand promise or perceived reputation.
The difficulty for most organisations, and what lies at the heart of the disconnection between what CEOs and their senior managers think they are providing and what the customer sees, is in understanding what life is like on the ground: that is, the precise nature of the service your customers are getting from your customer-facing staff.
If you are responsible for a large organisation with multiple outlets and contact points you rely heavily on the results of research and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to tell you how you are doing.
Most customer research is reported in terms of averages, and that creates a fundamental problem: you don't know whether a customer satisfaction score of 75% means that all your customers were 75% satisfied, or whether there were extremes of experience and the 75% represented the average.
It's highly likely that there will be some people who were totally delighted, some who were totally dissatisfied and a high proportion who were completely indifferent. By definition, indifferent customers aren't impressed, aren't loyal and aren't going to contribute to growing your business.
AN ACCURATE AVERAGE?
The truth is that averages can be very misleading. There's the story of the statistician who drowned in a river that was, on average only 3ft deep.
On a more serious note, average life expectancy levels in some developing countries are very low at 40-45, but this figure is largely due to high infant mortality rates.
Anyone reaching adulthood has a good chance of living well beyond their 40s.
Quite apart from concealing the true nature of a situation, and possibly diverting attention from the areas that need focus and investment, average numbers combine such large volumes of data in a single figure that there is inevitably - and notoriously - an inherent limit to the insight they can offer.
THE STORY BEHIND THE AVERAGES
Many of the clients of the consulting firm I work for - Cape Consulting - have historically measured the percentage of people saying how satisfied they are with the overall experience of doing business with them.
They gather data across different customer touchpoints and different parts of their organisations and then combine the results to give one overall figure they aspire to improve.
The difficulty is that one poorly performing area of the business can drag the numbers down - or a really high performance can conceal genuine dissatisfaction.
Of course it seems straightforward to have one headline-grabbing figure. It keeps things simple, it appears easy to understand and can easily be rewarded if exceeded, but the real opportunity comes from understanding what makes up those averages.
Too few senior executives, in my experience, get exposed to the underlying story. That contributes to their customers continuing to experience indifferent or inconsistent service from their people.
An excellent example of the need to go beyond the headline average is the use of measurement in contact centres.
Managers of contact centres rely heavily on a wide range of statistical data measures and KPIs to see performance levels and standards across the business. Gathering, analysing and disseminating this information is often a full-time job. However, using the data to make a significant difference in experiences for customers is difficult.
We've all experienced those calls where an agent has done everything we asked, but didn't sound particularly interested in talking to us and was clearly more interested in gathering information for the database. Great! The agents did what they were asked, but they didn't differentiate the experience.
The result? We are not that inspired to give our business to the organisation again. A friend only has to recommend a great alternative and we are highly likely to defect. The point is that technical competence, in itself, doesn't add value and doesn't win customer loyalty.
A customer may give an overall score of 80% for satisfaction with a specific contact experience, but the call itself may have contained both high and low points. If the target is to achieve 90% satisfaction scores for a particular agent, then it is important to understand the specific aspects of calls that either impress or disappoint.
In a call I listened to recently a customer wanted to change some insurance details. He opened the conversation by saying he was calling because his wife had just died.
The agent didn't acknowledge this at all, but just asked for his name and policy number. We can all imagine what effect the agent's indifference would have on a recently bereaved customer.
In another call I heard someone called for roadside assistance because her car was on fire - a dramatic circumstance with someone in shock needing reassurance. But what happened was a click to dead air as the processing for a previous call was completed followed by 'registration number?'
What the caller needed was, "Ok, i've heard that, firstly is anyone injured? No? Good. We'll get someone to you as quickly as possible, I need you to give me some details."
PUTTING THE CUSTOMER FIRST
I'm certain that in both cases the agent's initial training had covered the need to show empathy, to listen to the customer and acknowledge their circumstances. But of course they deal with similar calls every day of the week.
It's so easy to lose sight of the whole purpose of helping customers and instead slip into focusing on dealing with processing the details. What's happening in these cases, of course, is that the agents are putting their agenda above that of their customers.
A more mundane but frequently observed example is that of customers trying to fill empty airtime by referring to the weather or making a joke, and having their comments completely ignored. How does the customer feel? Impressed, or ignored and just a touch silly?
AVERAGES AT WORK
Three contact centre agents all have the same average overall score of 67% customer satisfaction rating from a similar sample size.
The first contact centre agent, Sam, has 40% of customers who regard the service he provides as excellent, but an almost equal number of customers who think his service is very poor. What makes customers love or hate Sam, and how can you find out?
What is happening with another contact centre agent, Bill? Only 15% of his customers give him an 'excellent' rating and he has an equal spread of results across the scale. Does Bill have good and bad days? Does he know more about some products than others?
And what about yet another call centre agent, Toni, whom an impressive 50% of customers regard as giving an excellent service, and only 5% think her service is very poor? What could Sam and Bill learn from Toni?
IMPROVED STAFF TRAINING
By focusing on the factors that impress a significant proportion of customers we can coach other staff to deliver similar high standards.
Toni also has the fewest percentage of customers rating their experience as very poor, so what precisely is she doing that avoids irritating people and what is the learning that can be shared? What coaching does she need to gain an even higher number of customers scoring a perfect ten?
To find all this out you have to do two things.
One is to understand what aspects of calls most impress customers if these aspects are carried out properly, and train your people to deliver them.
The other is to stop focusing on averages and instead to break calls and customer questions down into the components that need to be addressed.
At least 50% of a contact centre agent's role should be to listen. Organisations are aware of this, and so most ask customers to 'rate the person you spoke to at listening well to what I had to say'.
It is possible to demonstrate listening skills by paraphrasing, summarising, actively listening and verbal nods.
However, do you then use the answer to this question to identify whether your people know how to really listen? What specific training in listening have most agents had? I suspect the answers will typically be 'not a lot' or 'none'.
THE REAL STORY
Being able to home in on the parts of calls that do not go so well makes it possible to create big improvements in customer experiences very rapidly - and improve overall loyalty.
By avoiding the temptation to focus on averages, and instead drilling down to agent call level, one of our clients managed to improve overall satisfaction by 7% and increase sales by £7 million per annum. And 10% more of their customers were prepared to recommend them to others - that's a recipe for business growth.
Ultimately, the point is this: behind any average measurement there's a real story. If you want your company to deliver great experiences to your customers you need to forget Mr and Mrs Average and start getting to know the real people behind the statistics.
After all, aren't those real people the ones whose loyalty you want to win?