I'm sitting here looking at my cell-phone PDA. It's an older model with a dim screen and anemic battery. I really should replace it—but I won't until I'm forced to, because I know from past experience that I must get the new device to sync with all my databases and I'll probably have to change my phone provider. And then I'll wait on the phone for customer support that can't help me get everything to run right anyway.
This seems an apt metaphor for today's life as a consumer. The objects we buy are more impressive all the time. They get great ratings from J.D. Power and Associates, today's respected arbiter of quality. But getting them all to work in harmony is always one more expert away.
I find this situation perplexing. How can individual goods and services get better and better while the experience of using them doesn't? My perplexity has led me and my longtime coauthor Dan Jones to analyze what consumers really want and how companies might provide it. What we found was not, perhaps, so surprising: It begins with our time, which is finite. And it ends with solving all our problems completely and without hassle. By contrast, most companies want to measure themselves today on the quality of individual products and isolated services. In short, they focus on their Power ratings, where the ranking of companies may change, but most appear to be getting steadily better.
We think something can be done about this. Equally important, we believe that businesses make more money by actually saving customers' time while solving their problems.
Let's see why and how by examining the bizarre dynamic of telephone "help" lines. This massive activity might better be called the "failure industry." It exists—usually outsourced and increasingly offshored—to stand between the producer and the consumer when goods and services fail to work properly. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that it exists to get rid of customers as cheaply as possible. When you look at the business model, it's not hard to see why.
The help-line operator is usually paid a flat rate for each complaint fielded—so the quicker and cheaper the customer is disposed of (to clear the decks for the next flat-rate caller), the higher the margin. Given this curious logic, operators have developed scripts to answer common problems quickly and have found lower-cost labor offshore. The one thing the business model does not have is any incentive for the operator to reduce the number of complaints coming in.
Consider, then, a new model recently pioneered by Fujitsu Services in Europe. This latecomer to the help-desk industry started by asking what the consumer really wants. The answer was obvious: The caller—that's me with my new cell-phone PDA—wants never to need to call a help line.
So Fujitsu made a proposition to its customers, big computer and telecom vendors: "Don't pay us by the complaint handled but by the number of potential complaints—the number of products in consumers' hands. And let us focus on your problems rather than on your customers' to figure out why they need to call in the first place. Then let's eliminate the need."
Doing this requires a new sort of customer-service representative, one with the skills to get to the root cause of the caller's problem and who's also closely linked to the provider of the product to arrange to get the problem fixed. This means that a domestic location usually makes more sense than an outpost of service reps on the opposite side of the world.
At the same time, Fujitsu proposed creating a positive experience for customers who still needed to call. Why not use the opportunity to tell them about product features they might not be aware of? Or how about probing deeper into what callers really want? These efforts in turn became the source of new-product ideas for the provider.
Using more-skilled customer-service representatives and taking more time with each caller meant that the initial calls about a new problem cost much more to resolve. But the number of calls—and the total cost—quickly declined or fell to zero. Customers were better off. Fujitsu enjoyed lower costs (in part because its service-rep turnover was just 8% a year compared with a 40% industry average; actually solving people's problems, it turns out, is more satisfying work). And its customers were more closely linked to consumers' problems and desires. The happy upshot: Fujitsu's business has grown rapidly.
The concept of saving consumers' time while reducing provider cost can be applied to a wide range of activities—repair and maintenance services, retail, health care. Providers discovered years ago that better product quality—the sort measured by traditional Power ratings—is free. We believe that smart companies soon will discover that good service actually costs less.
Then it will be time for some new Power ratings. Instead of asking, "Did you have a problem with your product?" and, if you did, "Was the service experience satisfactory?" new surveys will ask, "Did the provider waste your time?" Or better, "Did the provider solve your problem completely with no hassle?" We'll then be on our way to a true solution-based economy. And I may finally replace my old cell-phone PDA.
Or You Could Just Play "Trouble"
From the table of contents of The Big Book of Customer Service Training Games, by Peggy Carlaw and Vasudha Kathleen Deming (McGraw-Hill, 1998).
Participants focus on identifying words and terms that qualify as jargon or slang.
Participants learn what to say when they put a caller on hold or transfer a call.
Groups of participants take turns playing out telephone customer-service vignettes while others determine what went wrong.
Tennis Shoe Alien
Participants learn to give clear instructions by verbally instructing an "alien" to put on a sock and tennis shoe—they aren't able to demonstrate.
Are You Alive?
Participants practice using transitions to avoid long, awkward periods of silence when talking to customers on the phone or in person.
I Feel for You
Participants work in pairs to rewrite dry, rote statements to show more empathy for customers.
Accentuate the Positive
Participants learn to let customers know how they will benefit from the way their requests and needs are handled.
Service Means Not Always Having to Say You're Sorry
Participants learn when to apologize and when to simply acknowledge the customer's feelings.
James P. Womack, president of the Lean Enterprise Institute, is author with Daniel T. Jones of Lean Solutions: How Companies and Customers Can Create Value and Wealth Together (Free Press, 2005).
A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.