Involving the Customer in Problem Solving
'Hold That Call'
The supervisor of a payroll processing team had a real problem. Due to staffing shortages, illness and the installation of new technology, a backlog was building, and in turn this was having an impact on the accuracy of the payroll. Mistakes were occurring in people’s pay packets. We discussed the problem. The main concern was that, whenever staff tried to address the backlog, the number of incoming calls was such that they were always distracted from the task. So we decided to go with the following idea. The supervisor wrote to all the company’s staff, firstly apologising for the payroll errors; secondly, explaining why the errors had occurred; and thirdly, making a request:
“We would like to dedicate one hour a day, between 8.30 and 9.30 am, to tackling the backlog. We would therefore appreciate it if you could save any calls you want to make to this office until after 9.30. If the matter is so urgent you do have to call before then, that’s fine. But if it can wait until after 9.30, we would appreciate it.”
The result was amazing.
Within a week of the email, internal telephone traffic dropped by 78%! Within a month the backlog had been removed, and the system was back to error-free normality. The supervisor wrote to all staff again, explained all was now back to normal, and thanked them for their support.
There is an even more surprising twist to this tale. Six months later I happened to be visiting the same supervisor, and discovered that internal incoming telephone calls, between 8.30 and 9.30, had stayed low, despite the follow up email. Incoming calls during that hour were still 50 to 75% lower than before the first email! This meant that her team were able to plan ‘maintenance’ type work, team meetings, etc, during that hour, knowing that phone traffic would be relatively light then….
We often complain that ‘we are driven by events’ rather than that ‘we drive events’. But people are not mind readers. If there is no predictable shape or pattern to the day, it may be because we haven’t asked for one. Not only did the supervisor ask for a pattern to be created, she did so by firstly, apologising for the error, and then explaining how the pattern would help her readers, her customers. So not only did she ask for a pattern, but she gave her customers a reason, a benefit, for conforming.
The other key lesson is that a pattern, once established, tends to continue. We are all creatures of habit – of routine. It is easier to maintain routines than break them.
We often complain that ‘we are driven by events’ rather than that ‘we drive events’. But people are not mind readers.
There are several take aways from this story:
- Sharing can pay off
- How to get customer support
- Patterns persist
Sharing can pay off
A crucial factor in the success of this example is the willingness of the payroll supervisor to share her problem with those who were most affected by it. She took her customers into her confidence: she apologised, explained the reason for the problem, explained her solution and asked for their support. These fours steps were central in gaining her customers’ understanding and support. Too often we feel we have to keep our problems to ourselves – when in fact, sharing your situation with those affected by it can be very helpful. Until we had our conversation, the supervisor had been focused entirely on how the team, internally, could fix the problem – without considering how the customers might help. It’s a general truth – often not recognised or followed – that anyone affected by the problem has an interest in solving the problem. And so it is worth consulting such a group, for their ideas and support.
How to get customer support
There were a number of things the supervisor did that made it more likely she would be successful in enlisting her customer’s support:
Customer focus: her whole approach was to make things better for them, not for her and her team. This means being customer focused, rather than provider focused. Customers want a solution, not an excuse.
Taking responsibility: the supervisor only provided the reason for the problem as a means to explaining the solution, not as a way of avoiding responsibility.
Empathy – maybe even sympathy: the reasons for the problems were ones that most of her customers would understand and accept, since they may have had similar situations themselves – so they were already primed to be empathetic.
Asking for help: Crucially, the supervisor was asking for her customer’s help in solving the problem; after our conversation it became clear that such help would be a massive contribution to the payroll problem
Being SMART: her request was an excellent example of being SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timeframed – so the customer was very clear about what they were being asked to do, and that it was totally possible to deliver
Providing benefits, not problems: the supervisor made the customer benefit clear, in a classic ‘if…then…’ presentation: if you can do this, then you will get that…: if you can hold your calls, then you will get what you need and are entitled to…
The supervisor was surprised (and grateful) that the new pattern of incoming calls persisted beyond the initial request. But patterns persist; all those customers who had responded positively to the request had in effect, set up a new daily routine, which, over time, became the new pattern, the new habit. And once a habit has formed (often as the result of a routine), then it becomes unconscious and automatic. And unless there is a really good reason to change back (which clearly there wasn’t) then the pattern is - and will be – likely to persist. This is one reason why instituting a new routine – even if it isn’t immediately easy or welcome – will, if persisted with, have the opportunity to become an automatic habit.
We are all creatures of habit – of routine. It is easier to maintain routines than break them.
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