The Final Journey: CX and the Death of my Dad

My dad passed away last January. A lifelong insurance man, Roger was well organized, well-liked, and, I think, a well-respected community member. He was a tenacious fellow who, when confronted with even the bleakest scenario, always managed to claw his way out. This time he couldn’t muster that final climb and, while it is never easy to lose a loved one, at 78, he’d had a pretty good run.

You never really think about this aspect of life until you are faced with it. After the funeral and friends disperse, you are left with the reality that Dad is no longer here. However, what you might not expect is the twisted bureaucratic latticework left in the wake of their passing.

Dad was a very organized person. Everything had its place and nothing made him happier than a well-filed cabinet or an organized dishwasher. A dedicated jig-saw puzzle fan, he left a number of difficult mysteries behind for us to piece together. There were usernames, passwords, accounts, and agreements… to which we had no access. Passwords and accounts were scribbled and crossed-out a dozen times on an old yellowed index card he had used to keep track of his accounts. Gaining access was difficult, but that was only the beginning.

In working through all of this, what was surprising to learn was the wide range of preparedness, or lack thereof, of companies in dealing with this relatively common situation. Some were good, most were bad, and some were horrendous, but let’s start with the good.

The Good

Dad passed away in the middle of a large research project I had. While driving down from Boston to my hometown in Pennsylvania, I had to start switching airline flights, car rentals, and lodging to accommodate this new sad curve ball life threw at me.

Driving down I-84, ever watchful of my speed and the state troopers, I dialed up Delta Airlines. I was eventually connected with an older call representative with a rich baritone voice and the clipped articulation of a military officer. I was reminded of Lt. Richard “Dick” Winters of the 101st Airborne from Band of Brothers fame.

The real retired (and deceased) Major Richard 'Dick' Winters
The real Lt. Winters of the 101st Airborne

“How can I help you today sir?” asked Lt. Winters.

“Well I need to change my airline flight and I am hoping you can help me… because I know this is last minute … but my Dad recently passed away and … and …”

Right there I totally lost my composure and got a bit choked up. I don’t know why. I think it was just reality setting in.

Sensing my discomfort, Lt. Winters cut in. “I am very sorry to hear about your loss Dr. Fish, I lost my father a while back, so I know how you are feeling. We will get you taken care of…”

It wasn’t a fake empathy. This guy meant it.

He went about changing my flights, waving whatever charges he could, and wished me the best with a verbal man-hug. I am fairly confident he bent more than a few rules on my behalf. He was a brief warm light in the cold January sky on that lonely highway.

CX Tip #1: Be Like Lt. Winters

It wasn’t a process really; it was his sincere willingness to help a vulnerable stranger in a tough spot. The lesson here is that your everyday representatives, waiters, checkers, tellers, and salespeople will all run into tough life situations that their customers are going through. While I’m not sure you can train for that, you can prepare them. You can also hire good caring people-centric people. That’s the basic ingredient to CX even in the darkest hours. I will always remember the kindness of Delta’s Lt. Winters.

The Bad

Financial security is one of the first things people start to worry about when a spouse of 50+ years leaves this planet. In the case of my mother, this was no exception. While she is all set now, the uncertainty of the moment added stress to an already overwhelming experience. The key to reducing this anxiety for your customers is to remove that uncertainty as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, that is not what had happened.

My Dad was insurance man for 40+ years, as his dad before him. He had a number of policies with his own company which he touted his entire his life as being ‘the best’. One would think that, if any organization would have a good process for the death of their customers, it would be an insurance company; particularly when the insured was an employee. Unfortunately, one would be very wrong in this case.

In trying to get answers as to what policies he did and did not have, we were moved around from department to department to get a straight answer over many weeks. While we were doing that, the local agent (or someone) had informed the parent company that my father had passed away. In response, they promptly stopped payment. No warning, no letter, no nothing…just no direct deposit. They just cut off my 78-year-old mother’s income completely.

Several months later, after we had procured the right documents and contacted the right people in the right departments, and after several three-year-old type meltdowns I had with their reps, we finally got it resolved. What they did right was to escalate this issue until I finally got to talk to a human being who could do something about it. What they didn’t do right is have any process for the death of an employee in this situation…in this case, their own salesman.

CX Tip#2: Communicate with those Alive

Journey map the situation that happens to millions of families every single year. Your customers will literally die. Figure out what you are going to do about it and make it easy for the survivors. Have a consistent process, a consistent communication approach, and keep people informed. My father’s company had either not done this homework or failed to execute it. Also, remember that communication in a crisis situation is critical. It doesn’t change anything, but at least it gives perceived control to your customers, which is a welcome port in that sorrowful storm.

The Reprehensible

My mother has a car…which was registered in my father’s name. In retrospect, this was a catastrophic mistake. It turns out that the captive finance company responsible for the lease were not at all prepared to deal with the very common process of changing ownership from a spouse who has died.

While I won’t bore you with the details of our 3+ month adventure in trying to get this simple task accomplished, some of the highlights include:

  • Dealership personnel knowingly misinforming my mother of a procedure because it was “complicated”
  • Call center personnel not knowledgeable of their own policies or reasons for those policies
  • Lack of follow up, issue tracking, and case management
  • Being passed around from department to department
  • Losing important, confidential documents (like my father’s death certificate – twice!)
  • Sending physical documents to the wrong location after the address was updated
  • Losing faxes transmitted minutes beforehand
  • Only being able to communicate via inbound phone or fax (no email, no direct numbers)
  • Making it necessary to hold a séance to get the password for his online account

It wasn’t until I escalated this issue in a Twitter rant that I finally was contacted by someone from their executive offices to help. She was excellent; she helped and did so with professionalism. Having my mother’s credit app finally approved, she wished me well, as all that was left was to pay a $75 transfer fee. Unfortunately, as of this writing, this issue is still not resolved, as they could only take a physical check mailed to their location. Fingers crossed!

 switch board lady

This company lacks the tools, policies, training and the processes to handle a fairly common situation effectively. This could almost be excusable if it wasn’t for one other important element: empathy.

With the exception of the specialist from the executive office, the default position was that I was the cause of the issue. I had entered the wrong policy number. I had mailed it to the wrong place. I had not followed their procedure. I did not understand their policies.

Worse, when I explained my situation for the 20th time, almost every call representative would say “I’m sorry for your loss” in the same way a fast-food employee might say “you want to super-size that?” I am not expecting a moment of silence or psychotherapy. Perhaps just the common courtesy of giving a rat’s ass.

CX Tip #3: The Right People, The Right Team, The Right Plan

First, hire the right people, develop the right process, train them, and ensure they have the right tools to do their jobs. Second, in crisis situations, have a dedicated team to deal with these issues. It is in the best interest of everyone to resolve these situations quickly.

Finally, do not train your customers to use social media as their last resort. I was happy I got attention, but this “squeakiest-wheel” approach is not only dissatisfying to the customer (why did it have to come to public shaming?), but most likely also hugely disruptive to the company. What could have been resolved in one letter or phone call for a few dollars, took 20+ contacts and what I assume was a great expense for the company.

Also, I have been kind and haven’t revealed the company in this article, but I can assure you it isn’t the first time I have related this experience and have not afforded the same courtesy in its telling. Do it right the first time.

The “One” Thing: Empathy

The real differentiator in all of this is what matters in any job: giving a shit. Call it commitment or engagement or whatever, but if your employees don’t care about what they do and don’t care about their customers, you will suffer the consequences in high servicing costs, high acquisition costs, high turnover, and high customer churn.

Don’t overlook those less frequent but highly emotional times in your processes and procedures. In these cases, your company will either shine or fall precipitously from grace, never to recover.

As for my Dad we all miss him, but life moves on. I think he might have liked it that I wrote an article about how to persevere, correct processes, and advocate for human empathy; virtues that he both loved and lived. Perhaps a small tribute to a great guy. See ya, Dad.

Photo by Dave Fish

How to Keep Your Brand Human at Scale

“Heeeeey!!!”

“Dude, Dave shaved his beard!” Benji, shouted over his shoulder laughing.

His friends shook their heads smiling in the background.

“It was getting itchy,” I said.

“Duuuuude….you have to give it time,” he said smiling brightly, “the yuse?”

“Yup,” I said.

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.

With three locations and a fourth in the works, 7Brew founder Ron Crume had the customer at forefront in both interaction and the design of his locations when arrived here from Grants Pass, Oregon. “Drinks are a byproduct of what we sell, it’s all about the experience,” Crume shared.

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.

df_restaurant_eval

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.

How to Get Your Front Line Focused on CX

Probably the biggest under-acknowledged challenge in launching a new CX initiative is engaging front line employees. Real time data collection is pointless if only an exclusive group of technocrats in HQ can see the results. We can’t start to think about action if the front line does not have, understand, or feel the information is meaningful to them. But how do we get the word out?

Dashboards

Dashboarding has become very popular of communicating complex data simply. Companies such as TableauDomomTAB, and Dapresy have some very impressive dashboarding tools. These can be assembled quickly and inexpensively. Here is a nice interactive example in Tableau Public of a fairly comprehensive dashboard designed by Gustavo Alberto for the fictitious Krusty Burger chain, albeit in Español.

Most CFM providers have a configurable dashboarding component as well. The fact that most of these tools are also mobile enabled helps field engagement with the information as well.

However, even dashboarding can be asking a bit much for the busy frontline worker. The average working joe or jane who is out in the parking lot, behind the register, or in the call center really might not have the time, interest, or know-how to consult their NPS dashboard to see how well they are doing. How can they find out?

Making CX Public

We know that engaging the front line can make or break the success of a CX initiative. They are the intersection between the brand and the customer in most instances. How do we make them aware of what is going on?

The answer may be simple. Why not go public with CX results? Let’s put our report card on a very public refrigerator for the world to see.

This accomplishes a number of goals. First, it puts CX attitudinal and behavioral metrics right under the nose of the very people who can make a difference. Most motivation theories such as Expectancy Theory and Job Characteristic Model hold that feedback is very important in improving performance. It also makes a good deal of sense. How do I know if I am improving if you don’t tell me on a regular basis?

Second, for customers it provides a degree of transparency about the performance of that location and gives them assurances that this is a good place to shop. The fact that a store isn’t perfect is not seen as a negative any more than your credit score or your score on the vintage Donkey Kong machine in your local pizza parlor. A “Not Perfect” provides motivation for those in the store and creates a sense of trust with the customer that the books are not, in fact, cooked.

In Store Public Displays

Many companies have taken this to heart. This example shows Weis Grocery store displaying their CX efforts in a low-tech but effective manner.

df_feedback_weis

Here we see some challenges in the Produce and Seafood departments but some recent victories in Bakery, Deli, and Pharmacy. This information is posted right in the front of the store for all to see. To associates it is a constant reminder of what still needs to get done and to customers it says we are serious about customer experience and are always striving to improve.

The other nice feature of this simple approach is it involves everyone. Ostensibly the GM and/or department heads are physically updating their scores and changes on a regular basis. As a result, I would imagine the employees in the department discuss regularly and are attuned to those scores. Finally, customers see it every time they shop. In short, it engages all stakeholders where it matters; on the front line.

This second example comes from the London Midlands Railway in the central Britain. This is posted right at the station, not hidden away in some corner of the station, but right next to the ticket counter.

df_feedback_midlands

You can see here they display operational data (e.g., on-time performance), along with the trend. Right next to that information you can see how they handle the human side of the business with information about information provided and “staff attitude”. A very nice summary of all results can be found online here as well.

Online Public Displays

Publicly displayed information about Customer Experience need not be relegated to physical locations. While digital reviews are fairly ubiquitous not everyone has the fortitude to let all reviews get posted unfettered. In some cases, corporate sponsored CX metrics systems either cherry pick reviews or filter out the bad ones. This practice, however, has consequences. The biggest of which that consumers will stop believing them if they appear to be tampered with.

Here is a nice example from Best Buy that lets the CX cards fall where they may. You can see that the reviews are verified (they have to be purchasers). If you were to scroll down you would see many that are not so stellar.

df_feedback_bestbuy

This level of transparency not only helps customers make a good choice, it allows for self-policing of CX so long as it does not degenerate in a quid pro quo economy where there are favors (i.e., incentives) traded for good reviews. That is a topic for a whole different post.

Many others, particularly in hospitality, have adopted a similar approach, thus creating a natural selection system for CX. While some ratings site have been criticized by having reviews suppressed and others have been accused of not being vigilant enough in preventing fake reviews, other companies like SureCritic Reputation.com, and others act as intermediary of reviews that seek out to post the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Driving Engagement and Trust

We live in a time of information transparency. It is expected by customers and integral to consumer decision making. A recent report by Deloitte found that almost 80 percent of consumers have interacted with brands before they even set foot in-store.

While CX information is important for consumer decision making, it also has a large role in driving both employee and customer engagement. Those dashboards and reports sitting back in HQ do little to get buy-in from the field. The private curation of data is seen as Big Brother paternalistically trying to keep tabs on regions and outlets that clearly cannot be trusted.

You can start to turn the cultural ship a bit by democratizing the data. Push CX and operational data down to the lowest level and get the front line’s buy in. If it’s under everyone’s nose every day and they feel like they have some part in influencing it, it will help drive behavior.

Second, I personally prefer the low-tech version in lieu of, or in addition to, technology based solutions. The grocery example is easy to set up, requires about $29.99 of investment and requires local management and front-line employees to engage in the process versus being passive recipients of data.

Third, make CX simple and embed it into the culture. I know many hotels and retailers start the day by reviewing customer feedback. This a great practice that gets everyone focused on the customer rather than the score. It includes everyone in the solution; and most importantly those who can make the biggest difference.

Finally, the practice of cherry picking, tampering, incentivizing, or modifying customer feedback before it gets to the public domain is a very bad one. People aren’t stupid and will catch on to these shenanigans. It will reduce perceptions of trust and they will, over time, dismiss the information as bogus, transforming an entire feedback mechanism into an enormous waste of everyone’s time and money.

Making it Visible

Getting unvarnished customer experience feedback out in the public, in a simple to understand, and non-punitive fashion will help engagement with employees and also engender trust in customers that you are dedicated to making sure they have a rock star experience. When people have access to the data, believe in it, and understand its impact they will be much more apt to do something about it. And action is the whole reason for any CX initiative