© by MrB-MMX

One of my favorite local spots is a sandwich shop called Which Wich. They have standard sandwich options like the meatball sub and BBQ chicken, but you can customize subs to your heart’s content, with different cheeses, vegetables, sauces and so on. You order by filling out a paper sandwich bag marking your customizations. Afterwards, your sub goes down the assembly line and, about five or 10 minutes later, your order is ready.

Although the process is efficient, it can also be frustrating — I never knew where my sandwich was in the assembly line. Were they still adding the meat, was it in the oven, or were they adding the final sauces? I only saw 20 paper sandwich bags, pinned on a clothes line, moving down the line.

So I decided to mark the back of my bag with my initials. Now, I know exactly where my sandwich is in the process, and I can figure about how long it will take before my order is finished. It’s my own person kanban.

What Is Kanban?

Many consumers feel exactly the same way I do. Simple improvements, like adding initials to the back of a sandwich bag, can go a long way in making a customer feel more at ease, which leads to better retention rates.

Kanban is a tool pioneered by Taiichi Ohno, the mastermind behind the Toyota Production System. It’s a literal “signboard” or “billboard” — a tool that is used to visualize, organize and complete work. Ohno used it to quickly communicate to everyone how much work was being done, which state it was in, and how the work was being done. In short, Kanban is a way for a company’s process to be transparent with its employees. But how do you create that same level of transparency with customers?

Recently, I redeveloped my website, Great Black Speakers. A lot of effort was invested in the design of a new process which (I hope) will lead to expansive growth. Here’s why: in the past, I was so focused on the employee side that I had neglected to invest time into keeping my customers in the loop. I realized this when one of my speakers felt uneasy about staying on with my company because they felt lost and in the dark about what was going on. So no matter how much work we did for that speaker, it mattered very little to him, because he didn’t know what was happening or when it would be completed.

Companies That Use Customer Kanban

Global shipping companies like FedEx, UPS, and USPS are prime examples of using customer kanban well. The tracking of packages is an innovation that has reduced the perceived risk of shipping. Now, a customer can log on and see exactly where their package is on its journey to the final destination. Pizza companies like Domino’s also provide this service to track the delivery of a pizza.

One of my favorite industry examples is online customer service. For example, Authorize.net has a chat feature that tells me exactly how many people are in front of me in the queue and counts down until my number is called. It is not that my wait time has changed any, but I feel better knowing roughly how long I have to wait.

How to Implement a Customer Kanban

  1. Lay out processes from the customer’s perspective. The first step is to lay out every action that you want your customer to take, from getting them to buy your product/service, to using your product effectively once they’ve purchased it. It is hard to implement a new system if you do not know the preferred actions of the consumers. Entrepreneurs sometimes get so wrapped up in the technical details that they forget that the customer experience is the defining characteristic of their business.
  2. Consider what information should be conveyed at each step. Next, decide what is important to the customer during each step of the process. Should a customer fill out a form, click a button, watch an introductory video to your service or expect to receive a call from your sales representative? My formula is to lay out what just happened, the action that the customer currently needs to take and then, what will happen after that.
  3. Create systems to deliver that information transparently. Lastly, organize the people and tools you need to effectively communicate the necessary information. For an automated approach, email auto-responders work well. A company that excels in customer notification is Wufoo, an online tool for collecting customer data. Another approach may be to have an employee call the consumer for more of a personal touch. The most important thing is to communicate with the customer and not have vital information hidden behind the walls of your company.

Setting up an effective customer kanban process doesn’t take too much brain energy, but the long-term effects can be astonishing. The more you can ease a customers mind’s and reduce frustration, the more business you’ll do.

Lawrence Watkins is the Founder of Great Black Speakers Bureau, a company that helps organizations find African American public speakers for the different events that they have. He is also the Co-Founder of Ujamaa Deals, a daily deal site that promotes black owned businesses. Lawrence received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Louisville and MBA from Cornell University.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.