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We hear a lot of organisations – both public and private sector – talking about how they’re changing to become more customer-centric. Many millions of dollars have undoubtedly been spent over recent years on business transformation, cultural change and strategic leadership initiatives that keep internal staff busy and management consulting firms afloat.

Customer experience is repeatedly listed as one of (if not the) top management priority for senior executives. Private sector businesses focus on it, whilst governments have legislated and regulated to demand public sector agencies raise their game to match the expectations set by the private sector.

So has your organisation hit the mark or not? How can you tell?

I’d like to provide a simple, practical test which every executive, manager, politician and front line employee can use to see whether their organisation has met this goal, or still has work to do.

It’s not a hard test. It’s actually not new either, as we’ve all been talking about “walking a mile in the customer’s shoes” pretty much since customers, and indeed shoes, became a thing. But the fact I’m writing this article after all those millions of dollars have been spent shows there’s still a need to ask the question.

It’s a two-part question:

  1. Did I answer the question the customer asked?
  2. Did I make the customer’s life easier?

Apply this test to any customer-facing situation. If the answer isn’t yes, then there’s still work to do. Regardless of what those management consultants told you in the end-of-project report from your latest “change initiative”, you’re still not there yet.

Customer-centric organisations make life easier for the customer. Customer service gurus like Ken Blanchard have been writing about this sort of thing for years. I’m guessing you may well have clicked a ‘like’ button on a post about the topic on LinkedIn, Facebook or whatever social media platform you tend to use.

But are we there yet?

Let’s look at some simple real-world examples to illustrate the concept. I’ll share two to get the debate going. They’re small examples, but it’s the little things that make customers feel good or bad about dealing with organisations. “Moments of truth”, if you will and I’m betting you’ve heard of those by now.

Example one: Government

I recently submitted an Official Information Act request (also known in some jurisdictions as a Freedom of Information request) to a Government Department. I wanted some statistical data for a research article. I provided an Excel template and asked if the data could be provided in that format.

The wheels of Government turned, and within one hour of the 20 working day deadline, I received the response. I had my data, but rather than sending it to me in Excel, I was sent a PDF copy of the Excel spreadsheet, stamped with the official verbiage about it being “Released under the Official Information Act”. I replied, asking if I could have the original datasheet as well.

Predictably, “Government says no”.

Yes, I get that Government has to be certain the integrity of the data it releases, but does this preclude making my life easier by providing both a PDF and a copy in Excel (just as a simple suggestion)?

Let’s imagine we’re the civil servant responsible and apply the customer-centric test:

1. Did I answer the question the customer asked?

  • Well, sort of. The data has been provided, the 20 working day service level hasn’t been exceeded, but the customer did ask for an Excel spreadsheet and we’ve sent them only a PDF copy. When they’ve asked, we’ve replied that Government only provides PDF copies for reasons of data integrity.

2. Did I make the customer’s life easier?

  • The customer, having supplied an Excel spreadsheet, now has to manually copy and recreate the PDF tables we’ve provided back into Excel. They also have to read the text underneath the watermark “Released under the official information act” that’s stamped all over the top of their data. But at least they have data, right, so what are they complaining about?

On both counts, “well sort of” doesn’t cut it. More to the point, the fact that other bits of Government do send out Excel spreadsheets also tells the customer that this department is less efficient than other departments and you just don’t talk to each other much. It’s not a good look.

This undermines the customers’ trust – which is central to building positive relationships and a good customer experience. Sorry Government, but there’s more to be done in practice. You’re not quite customer-centric yet.

Sometimes, being customer-centric means thinking that little bit outside the process box and doing something above and beyond the minimum you’re required to. We’re back to “walking in the customer’s shoes” again.

Realistically, what is the risk is posed by sending a response in Excel along with the PDF? Does that risk outweigh giving the impression of Government as being ruled by a “computer says no” mentality?

Example two: The private sector

With Government looking to the private sector for inspiration, surely organisations with competitors snapping at their heels can do better? How about my insurance company? After all, they’ve transformed their performance by moving services online so I can look after – and renew – my own policies at my convenience.

I’m now able to open my renewal documents online and go through an online renewal payment process. Right up to the point that having entered all my data, I get the helpful message saying “Oops something went wrong, please phone our call centre.”

Being in the business of helping organisations improve, I thought I’d give them feedback, so I filled out that form too. It all went well, I spent my time completing a feedback and comment form to help them improve. Right up to the point the ‘submit’ button refused to be clicked on an Apple Safari browser.

Let’s apply the tests…

1. Did I answer the question the customer asked?

Well clearly not. The customer hasn’t renewed online because they can’t pay. They can’t tell us about it and our business case for (presumably) reducing call centre call volume has also collapsed, as they’re still calling in with their renewal payment. Not only that, we’ve probably lengthened average handling time (and hence call centre costs) whilst they tell us about the failure they experienced with the online service.

2. Did I make the customer’s life easier?

No. Wasted time, frustration, a second call and we’ve still not fixed the technical problems a year after the customer told us about it at last year’s renewal. I’ll pass it on again, but I’m holding out no hope for next year either if I’m honest.

It’s like my preferred airline’s web team, who responded to the problem of “Empty request” every time I try to book a flight using Apple’s Safari browser by suggesting that they could find nothing wrong and I should download and use Google Chrome to solve the problem. Bad customer! We’ll leave that advice and the lessons for technical people on responding to customer complaints as a separate blog post altogether.

What can we learn from these experiences?

Being ‘customer-centric’ is more than a buzzword. Whatever your organisation’s investment in “change”, you won’t see the results of a positive customer experience until people at the front-line of customer service think differently – sometimes beyond those processes and rules. It’s about having a mindset that puts the customers’ experience of effort and service first.

At a basic level, there’s a lesson to just test your processes and technology, before you inflict them on the customer! If, like one senior manager who once told me “we don’t have time in the plan to test it, just roll it out”, you plan to let your customers do the testing for you, make sure you have your seat-belt fastened. It’s going to get ugly, and fast. Especially in a world with social media.

So just apply the test to everything you ask a customer to do:

  1. Did I answer the question the customer asked?
  2. Did I make the customer’s life easier?

If customers have to ask again, or do it twice, you’ve probably failed the test. Fix something, and try again.