This wasn’t my co-worker. It wasn’t one of my students. Benji is the barista and all-around go-to guy at our local coffee drive-through 7Brew right here in hoppin’ Bentonville. He knows me, my wife, my kids, and even my dog.
Making sure he designed his locations to maximize human the interaction, there is plenty of glass used in construction, and a two-way traffic pattern with people approaching the drive-thru in both directions. Mobile order takers are out and about in all kinds of weather joking and talking with customers.
Beyond the physical and process aspects, are the people. 7Brew is quite particular who they hire. “We are very careful who we hire and want to ensure a good fit with the culture and with the team,” says Crume. Prospective employees are interviewed both by managers and the team to ensure that fit. They are looking for people who are good with people.
The crew at 7Brew are not locked into a narrow approach to customer service where they have to say some contrived tagline, are required to wear a certain amount of “flair”, or ensure they are hitting some kind of behavioral checklist. They are afforded the autonomy, within reason, to make the call for the customer. In short, they can be human. “Our goal is to change the world with one smile and act of kindness at a time,” Crume shared.
The Case for Certainty
However, a willy-nilly no-holds-bar approach to customer service can create chaos. If every barista decided how they wanted to make a mocha or deal with a distraught customer independently companies would quickly lose the ability to scale effectively. They would also lose the ability to deliver consistency, something customers absolutely hate.
As human beings we are evolutionarily hardwired to want to know what is around that next corner or over the hill. This need for knowing has been successfully translated in such psychologically fulfilling but otherwise useless tools such as the Domino’s Pizza Tracker. After all, the Pizza Tracker doesn’t help get your pizza there any faster, it just tells you when it will be there. Not too many people order a pizza and then slip out for a 1-hour jog. You order a pizza because you or your family is hungry.
At Curiosity we have found that consistent delivery even trumps an occasional good experience. There is ample evidence that people would rather have persistently mediocre or bad experiences than one that is good one time and bad the next..
So how do you overcome this chaos in customer service? Even a simple business model requires front-end training to be effective, but training is expensive and takes time. With front-line service workers and call center agents generally less educated and a higher turnover rate amongst this population, comprehensive training is difficult, but left untended creates huge variability in service.
The answer for many is to develop a standards program. Standards programs are where the organization a priori identifies behaviors and processes they want employees to follow and then enforce them through rewards and “incentives”. While we still must train, much of the grey area in service delivery can be simplified.
In using standards to develop a set of defined and simple to understand procedures and behaviors seem like a common solution. “Greet people with x minutes of arriving”, “Answer the phone within y rings”, “Keep on hold time below z minutes” are all laudable axioms and derived metrics to shoot for which are known to positively impact the customer experience.
If done well, those behavior standards are linked to explicitly customer expectation research. For example, we would know the relative impact of hold time going for 5 minutes to 10 minutes and the impact on business outcomes. This is knowable data and helps businesses optimize the cost-benefit equation.
Many businesses were able to rapidly expand their franchise and outlet models through rigid adherence to standards. Standards program were, and are, applied to even high involvement and complex interactions such as automotive sales and service, financial services, insurance, and wealth management.
In this setting the venerable “mystery shop’ is then many times used to assess behavioral and operational compliance. In the one-two punch of traditional CSAT system, direct customer feedback satisfaction is then used to evaluate the evaluative attitudes of customers. In this way we can understand and monitor if we are enforcing the right thing. “Is compliance related to the customer experience?’ and “Is the customer experience related to business outcomes?’ are both questions we can answer with a high degree of certainty.
As you can see in the very typical sample from The Performance Edge, mystery shops get to a very detailed level of behaviors. With a heritage from the world of I/O Psychology and Behavioral Anchored Rating scales (BARs), the intent is not to be overly prescriptive, but to very explicit as to what is the expectation is and what associates need to do to achieve.
This approach can be very effective, but frequently comes at a price. First, if done poorly it comes across very mechanistic to customers as if employees are “going through the motions’. We have all gotten the flat “I am so sorry sir/ma’am, but I can’t help you” response.
Second, research in psychology has shown that this approach can have the effect of decreasing the implicit motivation of doing good work by substituting an external motivation for implicit one. In this way, fun quickly turns to work for even the most spirited employees.
Finally, many front-line employees I talked to hate the experience. “I feel like I am being treated like a child…it’s ridiculous” one waitress at a local steakhouse told me.
Empowering With Purpose
So how do we minimize the chaos but maximize the humanness? Here are five proven approaches to balance humanness and still provide the consistency that the human species desires.
Robots to the Rescue!
Interestingly one solution can be found in technology. Perhaps we let the robots do the mechanistic jobs that require very specific behavioral parameter; answering within so many minutes, have a response time of y minutes, and so forth. Let make the robots the automatons like the good servants they should be. Let humans do what they are good at; being human.
Tear Down Unneeded Hierarchy
Second, you can dump the old school command and control hierarchy and empower your employees. My first job was with Carlisle Tire and Rubber implementing self-direct work teams in the production cells. It’s amazing what people will do when not treated as a child or cog in a machine…when they are respected and afforded the same freedom they enjoy in their work lives as they do in their personal lives. Sure, there has to be a “boss’ but does there have to be so many of them.
Also, empowerment isn’t just but blowing up the organization and letting people do whatever they want. Former submariner Captain David Marquet offers some excellent insights about how to empower employees effectively. In his article “6 Myths About Empowering Employees” he points out that empowering employees is not something you have to do, that they already are empowered, you just must allow them to do their jobs. However, you just don’t do it in a wanton fashion but ensure both the leadership and the employees have the competence to do so.
Obey the Spirit of the Law, Not the Letter
Third, you aren’t throwing process out the window. You are throwing needless and overly prescriptiveness processes out the window. The good folks at 7Brews have a way they take orders, they have a way they make coffee, and they have a way they take payment. It is clear, consistent, and simple. There is very little variability. However, there is room to test. In talking with the crew there, they seem encouraged to think about new ways of doing things and not just go through the motions. Micah Solomon describes how standards are viewed and used at the Four Seasons resort:
“Standards help ensure that every part of your service reflects the best way your company knows to perform it – a prescription that you autonomously performing employees can then feel free to adapt to suit the needed and wishes, expressed or unexpressed, of the customers they’re actually facing at the moment.”
Train and Inspire
Fourth, is an investment in training. Every great service organization I have encountered invests in and continuously train their employees, this includes 7Brew. The customer experience manager for the high end One and Only resort (of which there is ironically several) told me they conduct training quarterly to every month for all their employees. This training doesn’t necessarily need to be sitting down in the classroom but can be meetups for best practice sharing. It is a continued investment in the front line.
Also ensure you have the right reward and recognition in place to inspire folks. This doesn’t have to be money. Figure out what makes your workforce tick and use that to help motivate them.
Start with The Right Raw Material
Finally, and most importantly, it is getting the right talent for the job from the get-go. Some people do not belong in a customer facing role, just as some people do not belong conducting multi-nomial logit modeling. The right tool for the right job applies to human capital as well. This is well captured in Soar with Your Strengths by Don Clifton and Paula Nelson, where they encourage people to reinforce and chase after what they are good at, and stop worrying as much about what you are bad at.
Whether Benji and the crew at 7Brew in rural Arkansas were born as genuinely gregarious and happy people or learned it from their environment is a debate to be had in academia. In the world of great customer experience, you want these folks on the front line. You want them following processes that make sense but allow for autonomy and room for front-line innovation. Most of all you want to pick the right people for the job, training them, and then let them be them.