Four Who Know How

Best-practice answers to the four key customer service questions.

1. Do you treat customers differently?

Company: Willow Creek Community Church

Service Innovator: Lee Strobel (leeps206@aol.com), teaching pastor and director of communications

Customer Service Program: Seeker Services

When Bill Hybels started the willow Creek Community Church in 1975, he was preaching to about 100 people in a converted theater in Palatine, Illinois. Today he attracts about 17,000 churchgoers every weekend to a 78,000-square-foot auditorium on a 145-acre campus in South Barrington, Illinois. Willow Creek is a superchurch that has tackled the peskiest customer service problem of all: How can you convince people to use your product or service without compromising the integrity of your mission? That's an even tougher challenge when your mission is to turn atheists into missionaries.

To meet that challenge, Willow Creek offers seeker services — church services geared toward people who don't usually go to church. Lee Strobel, a teaching pastor for Willow Creek, is one of the church's atheists-turned-missionaries. He converted to Christianity in 1981, after almost three decades as an atheist. "I don't think I would have converted had I set foot in a traditional church. I had a bad church experience early in life," says Strobel, who started examining Christianity after attending one of Willow Creek's seeker services.

Strobel has preached at Willow Creek's seeker services since 1987 and works as the organization's director of communications. He explained to Fast Company how Willow Creek has grown by treating different "customers" differently.

In the beginning, church founder Bill Hybels understood the need to create two services — one for seekers and one for believers. The idea was to optimize what could be done at each of those services. It was an intuitive look at the situation. The problem he saw was, How can we worship God at a church service when lots of folks don't even know God? The answer he came up with was, Let's create a worship service that is purely a worship service. Let's also create a service for spiritual seekers to help them understand who God is.

We thought about the seeker service from the perspective of the unchurched person. If you're already a follower of Jesus and you're looking for a church, you're looking for brothers and sisters of Christ who are going to love you and invite you into their community. But seekers are almost the opposite: their biggest value is anonymity.

During our weekend seeker services, we provide anonymity; it's a nonparticipative experience. We use art, drama, multimedia, dance, and video to open up the issue of the day. It may be parenting, marriage, the workplace, or relationships — practical, everyday issues. The design of the auditorium is neutral. There are no crosses, no religious symbols. It's just a regular auditorium.

We also have a seeker service for Generation X, the Baby Busters. The question we ask is, How can we translate Christianity into a language and an art form that Generation X can relate to? They're a different generation with different experiences — so they need a different service. We have a Saturday night service designed for them, with their music and their drama. We address different topics and break the sermons up into smaller pieces.

Another innovation is a new ministry called "seeker small groups." Here we're addressing the epidemic of loneliness — people becoming alienated from one another, people not sharing their lives with one another at a profound level. We're seeing an increasing number of people who don't want the anonymity of our seeker services. Studies show that 23% of unchurched people have some interest in processing their spiritual journey with others. They want to investigate Christianity in the context of community.

As teaching pastor, I preach at our seeker services, where I look into the eyes of people who are like I was — people who are skeptics, confused about Christianity, or investigating. I can look them in the eye and say, "I know what you feel. I've thought what you've thought."

We're going to continue to innovate to keep our focus — turning atheists into missionaries. And we'll use whatever method is appropriate to the changing culture to accomplish that goal. New ways, but the same message.

2. Do you create a learning relationship with your customers?

Company: Hitachi Data Systems

Service Innovator: Al Mascha (mascha@hdshq.com) , vice president of service operations

Customer Service Program: Customer Advisory Panel

In the world of new product development, user groups and customer advisory panels are nothing new: car companies, software operations, even sneaker manufacturers have been using them for years. But the service business? For some reason, service companies have been slow to appreciate the insight — and foresight — that listening to customers can provide. One exception is Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), a $2 billion mainframe, storage devices, and service company headquartered in Santa Clara, California. Says Al Mascha, vice president of service operations at HDS, "Because we're in such a rapidly changing industry, we need first-hand information, directly from the customer."

To get as close to the customer as possible, Mascha developed and launched a customer advisory panel (CAP). In early 1993 he brought together about 20 of HDS's most significant customers for a three-day meeting to discuss service issues, new technological developments, and emerging strategic directions at their companies. Fast Company talked with Mascha about the ideas behind the CAP, its implementation, and the lessons HDS has learned from it.

The CAP allows a small group of customers to get together to discuss service issues, problems, and new ideas. It's straight talk, direct to us — our customers talking about where they're going and what services they think they'll require. There's no pressure and there are no salespeople present. Even the agenda is developed with the participation of the customers.

We've learned a lot about what it takes to make a CAP work. The most important thing is to pick the right people. You have to select the members very carefully — which means that you need to know your customers very well before you even start this kind of a program. We want people from companies using state-of-the-art information systems for critical applications — companies that are really stretching the technological envelope. Usually they're the ones who are under the gun and need leading-edge services. So our CAP has several large banks, an airline, a large shipping company, and other big information technology users.

Overall, we want no more than 20 companies to participate. And from each company, I'm not looking for a buyer; I'm looking for a technocrat. I want a technical recommender — someone who knows about the technology and how it's used within the company. Most important, all members of the CAP must be outspoken! We want strong opinions and heated debates, because that's how you get useful information.

We're looking for these people to give us clear signals on what state-of-the-art service means to them. They help us design different delivery structures, different training programs, different service offerings. For instance, we asked them to talk about product reliability and availability, and ended up redesigning the specifications for one of our products because of what they told us.

The full group meets every nine months at a different location, which we and the CAP members select jointly. Sometimes we bring in an outside speaker to stimulate their thinking. One thing we have learned: you cannot have a full agenda. These are people who want some freedom to decide what they will talk about. So we leave a lot of white space on the agenda.

Now that we've been doing this for four years, the customers are using the meetings to make presentations to each other. They share their own best practices or identify improvements they've made to their own operations.

The biggest benefit to us is clear: we get direct input from our customers on what they think we need to do — what services we should design and deliver. But there are also real benefits to our customers. When a product comes out, for example, they get it before anyone else. For three or four months, they're ahead of the rest of their industry because they have the product first and know it better than anyone else.

They also benefit from communicating with each other on a regular basis. They have ongoing conversations among themselves about technical and service issues. The CAP is a community of companies that not only help us improve service performance but also help themselves.

3. Do you keep your customers?

Company: General Electric Medical Systems

Service Innovator: Jack Albertson, applications program manager

Customer Service Program: TiP-TV

Most people look at general electric Medical Systems (GEMS) and see a $4 billion global manufacturer of technologically advanced medical equipment: X-ray devices, magnetic resonance (MR) and computed tomography (CT) scanners, and other diagnostic imaging machines. Jack Albertson sees a company whose real business is service. "We need to be there for the entire life cycle of the product, to keep in touch with the customer on a regular basis," he says.

When Albertson became applications program manager at the Waukasha, Wisconsin-headquartered company in 1990, those customers — mostly large hospitals and clinics — told him that GEMS was out of touch. "They said, 'You don't touch us nearly enough. We like some of the training you do, but you're not communicating enough with us,'" says Albertson. In fact, when GEMS did customer surveys, it discovered that customer training was the highest "dis-satisfier."

Fast-forward to 1997. Thanks to a comprehensive program created by Albertson and dubbed Training in Partnership — or TiP (a trademarked name) — GEMS's customer education activities now rank as its highest customer "satisfier."

The most innovative and far-reaching element of the TiP program is a television network (TiP-TV) that carries live training broadcasts into subscribers' workplaces. TiP-TV now has 1,950 subscription commitments; for general interest programs, it has drawn as many as 18,000 viewers. Fast Company asked Albertson to describe TiP-TV's unique role in helping GEMS solidify its contact with its customers.

If you go out and ask your customers, they'll tell you what you're doing wrong and how to make it right. In our case, they made it clear that they wanted more "touches." They wanted someone to hold their hand, to see them as often as possible, and to walk them through the use of every product. We knew we couldn't do all that training in person — it simply wasn't cost-effective. But we had a lot of technology available to us. We had interested customers who wanted to get information from us. The question was, What kinds of high-tech training could we develop?

We created a series of Training in Partnership, or TiP, products. TiP-TV is one of our best-known programs. From the beginning, the primary purpose was to train radiologists and other technologists to use the equipment more effectively. All the broadcasts are live and interactive, using physicians or trained GE technologists to demonstrate the correct procedures. Our customers can call in and get real-time answers to their questions.

It's simple for the customer to use —and it provides us with a ready-made feedback loop. Every site that's going to watch a program signs up in advance, telling us roughly how many people will be watching at the site. Then, about three weeks before the program airs, we send a syllabus - one for each person at each site. It could be as long as 60 or 70 pages, and it previews all the material in the program. With the syllabus they also get pre- and post-program tests and a survey. Now the only way they get their continuing-education credits is by sending all that information back to us.

There are a number of direct benefits to our customers from TiP-TV. First, we deliver information to them that reduces the number of retakes — times when a physician decides that an image isn't right and orders that it be taken again. Those retakes are very expensive for hospitals. Second, we help our customers cut down on procedure time. Today procedures involving an MR or CT take an average of 20 minutes each. What if using the right protocols would let you cut that time down to 10 minutes? That would represent a huge savings to our customers. And third, we reduce the cost of continuing education for our customers.

Of course, it's also a win for us. We want to keep that ongoing "touch" with the customer. We estimate that the average number of "touches" per customer has gone from 9 days per year four years ago to 21 days per year today. That's how to develop loyal customers.

It turns out that, like any network, we're in the ratings business. We ask our customers to rate our service on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being very poor and 5 being excellent. When we started this program, we were in the mid-3's. Since then we've gotten better and better, and now we're about 4.4. It's hard to get a perfect score from our customers — they're very tough.

4. Do you organize around customers?

Company: PeopleSoft Inc.

Service Innovator: Sebastian Grady (seb_grady@peoplesoft.com) , vice president of customer services

Customer Service Program: Account Managers

Since its founding in 1987, Peoplesoft Inc. has organized its operations around customers. Not products. Not sales. Customers. The developer of enterprise-wide application software is on target to bring in $1 billion next year. To get there, it's relying on more than 300 account managers — employees within PeopleSoft's customer service and development division — to put the customer's interests first.

The account manager is a customer's primary point of contact, acting as a liaison between the customer and the company's other divisions. Unlike account managers in many organizations, however, those at PeopleSoft are not commissioned sales staff. Instead, their performance rating is based on how easy it is for customers to implement PeopleSoft's software and on whether customers remain happy.

The stakes are high: PeopleSoft's average software sale is $1 million. Its clients include such giants as Ford, Dow Chemical, Siemens, Wal-Mart, and PepsiCo — so far, they're all smiles. In PeopleSoft's 1997 customer community survey, customer retention and satisfaction consistently push 100%.

"The account manager is really our differentiator," says Sebastian Grady, vice president of customer services. "It's the glue that holds PeopleSoft and the customer together." Grady joined Pleasanton, California-based PeopleSoft in 1993 as an account manager and now manages customer services for the company. Fast Company talked with him about the role of account managers, their relationships with client companies, and how they increase customer loyalty.

The account manager focuses on two things: helping customers get up and running with PeopleSoft products so they can see a quick return on their investment, and making sure that we've got referenceable customers — happy customers.

Account managers aren't paid for selling additional products to their accounts. Their only job is to make sure the customer is completely happy with the product after it's bought.

Each account manager handles anywhere from 1 to 10 customers; the average is probably somewhere around 6. One customer would be too few — you'd lose the chance to leverage one customer's experience into another's. But 60 accounts would turn account managers into purely administrative people. The idea is that an account manager in the health care industry has 5 or 6 accounts — mostly hospitals or medical centers — and can become an expert in that industry.

Our customers know that any time they've got an issue that's not getting handled in another part of PeopleSoft, their account manager can help them cut through the red tape. Around here the account manager is like E.F. Hutton in that old ad: when the account manager speaks, people listen.

The account managers are on the hook to make the customer successful. They know the customer's business. They're a powerful reality check for the rest of the company. They can call foul when we're doing something we shouldn't be doing, and because they're out in the trenches with the customer every day, they can tell us what is and what isn't going to work.

The account manager and the contact person inside the customer company are extremely close — like Siamese twins. They count on each other. If the customer doesn't call the account manager, the account manager calls the customer — whether or not there's a reason to call. Customers get so dependent on their account manager that when one gets promoted or moves on, we have to make sure there's a smooth transition. It's up to the old account manager to introduce the new one.

Customers get so comfortable with these people that they think they're part of their company. And the account managers are such customer advocates inside PeopleSoft that sometimes we wonder which company they really work for.

In our latest implementation report, we asked our customers, "Would you select PeopleSoft again?" The answers are amazing: 99.6% of those using our human resources management systems, 98.6% of those using our financial systems, and 100% of those using our distribution systems all said they'd choose us again. Survey professionals tell us that a response between 85% and 90% would represent maximum customer loyalty. Account managers are the biggest reason our customer loyalty is so high.

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