Education is …

“Love is the most important”
She had said,
“and next is education.”

Education is choice.
Education is freedom.
Education is sharing.

Education is the wisdom of the world
laid out gently in front of you.

Education is a blanket
that warms and protects.

Wrap it tight around you,
learn its lessons well.
It will look after you,
for the rest of your life.

Education is 7 billion hopes


Field Service – life on the margin?

I first became involved in the world of mobile workforces in 1993. I was working  as a consultant and was asked to select and implement a best-of-breed CRM application for a client with a multi-national field service operation. From that tiny beginning, I spent 13 years working with, and for, software vendors in this market.

Through this period, the question of whether “Service” should be managed as a cost- or a profit-centre sparked into life, generated lots of arguments and rumbled on – largely unresolved. Since then, I have spent five years working in the world of customer experience and enterprise feedback management. This period has given me a fresh perspective on this question – which I have found is still very much alive.

Mostly, the debate has been characterised by a lot of heat (emotion), but not a lot of light (insight and action). The present situation in many organisations can best be described as an uneasy truce. Service leaders are in a stand-off with financial and other senior executives; each suspicious of the motives and actions of the other. This impasse does not bode well for a quick or a friendly resolution. But, what lies behind this unhelpful situation? It is worthwhile taking a step back and looking at the origins of the debate.

It is a fact that delivering field-based services is expensive. Building the necessary infrastructure (people, vehicles, communication systems, parts inventory) means significant initial investment. Plus, the ongoing costs of maintaining that infrastructure, together with the actual day-to-day running costs, mean that dispatching an engineer to fix a customer issue (a “truck roll”) is likely the most expensive action the company will take when providing post-sales service. It is no surprise then, that people charged with protecting the organisation’s finances take a keen interest in the Service Department. There has always been, and will always be, pressure to minimise the cost-to-serve.

I do not know who first came up with the notion of flipping the regular conversation regarding cost containment on its head and suggested converting service into a profit-centre, but what a storm was to be unleashed! Superficially, it is an attractive idea. If Service is costing a lot of money, simply get the operation to generate more money than it spends – and everyone is happy. Often that is interpreted to mean additional revenue generated from new product sales, alongside so-called “added-value” services.

Except that, in practice, usually no-one is happy. Many service professionals do not readily relate to the idea of having to make sales, and see it as contradictory to their role. They are not motivated by being forced into uncomfortable territory – often not trained in newly required skills – leaving them frustrated. Performance is below the targets set to make service turn a profit, so senior management are not happy either. Most disturbingly, the customer is likely to be unhappy too.

To illustrate why the customer’s may very well be unhappy, here are a couple of examples from personal experience. The roadside rescue mechanic who having got my car started, proceeded to try and sell me a new battery. He was insistent that he needed to “advise” me on how urgent it was to replace the battery before it happened again, whilst I fumed at being made (even more) late for a meeting. Outcome? Embarrassed mechanic, no sale, and a longstanding customer lost to a competitor.

More recently, our dishwasher needed repairs a couple of times. On the second visit (an unrelated fault!) the engineer who came advised the potential cost of repairs before starting and suggested we consider replacement, as an old machine in such a hard water area would be likely to suffer more failures. He did not try to sell us a replacement, but performed the ‘trusted advisor’ role well by giving relevant information and allowing us to make our own decision. Result? we bought a more expensive replacement machine from the same manufacturer; and have told a number of friends of our positive experience.

There was no suspicion that the dishwasher engineer was motivated by any monetary reward, in fact we were not even charged for the call-out, and we trusted what we were told – a professional opinion straightforwardly given. The roadside mechanic, on the other hand, destroyed my trust in the brand by his behaviour and obvious unease with what he being made to do – in order to meet targets and generate bonus payments.

So, what should the purpose of a post-sales, field service operation be? In my opinion, there are three interlinked objectives:

  • to repair and reinstate service for the end-user (or avoid future problems if a preventive intervention);
  • to restore and recover lost reputation, by delivering a good experience to the customer;
  • to protect loyalty by being a brand ambassador.

And, if the technician is not enabled and supported to carry out this role effectively and customer trust is destroyed, then the negative impact can be hugely costly. In fact, the true extent of the damage is invisible and unmeasurable to the business. Future revenues are destroyed and the ripples spread through negative stories told in person or, increasingly, through social media. Usually, this downside hugely outweighs any short-term upside from trying to generate additional revenue from service visits.Trying to sell during service is a mistake.

Does that mean that we should just accept Service as a cost centre, then?  Certainly not!

Service can make a massive positive contribution to success. Their attitude and behaviour during visits to homes or business locations, and building on the relationship that already exists between company and customer, is a big influence on future revenues. So, rather than try to measure short-term sales, we should consider the lifetime value of the customer and monitor the contribution that a service operation makes to that.

To paraphrase the philosophy of a well-known coffee brand: are you serving a $4 cup of coffee or a $6000 lifetime value customer? The answer to that question will determine a lot about your attitude and behaviour towards customers, and equally how you measure and reward service success.

Images: Ethan Hein

Keeping service performance TRACQD

Recently, I have had the privilege of working with some leading British brands, assisting them to understand and improve both their customer experiences and their business performance. One thing has become very clear – there is some great work going on in the retail call centre environment.

Now, it is true to say that the companies I have worked with are not necessarily representative of the entire industry. The general public’s attitude towards call and contact centres is broadly negative, but I have seen some wonderful examples of both best-practice thinking/process design and supporting technologies. But, more importantly, I have witnessed great customer interactions. Simple, genuine human engagement that delivers on every level – for the consumer, for the business and for the agent. All are left feeling satisfied, that they have achieved their individual objectives and with a positive ‘brand memory’. A story that should, by rights, spread by word of mouth to amplify the benefit of that agent’s work.

Photo by John Ferrie (c) 2008. Used under CC licence

I have been left wondering how many such experiences are also delivered by mobile employees and which go unrecognised? It is easy enough to spot these interactions in the confines of the call centre, to call them out and reward the individuals involved. But, it is not so easy when those individuals are in customer premises and effectively invisible to management and the centres of the service organisation.

For a long time, I have pondered over the uneasy relationship that often exists between office- and field-based staff, with a feeling of lack of visibility/control at one end and a simmering resentment at perceived ‘interference’ and ‘big brother’ attitudes at the other end. Seeing how contact centres resolve some of these issues and thinking how this might influence the mobile world, I have devised this framework – TRACQD. I am in the IT business and so this has to be an acronym! At the moment, it is little more than that, but I hope to develop the ideas over the coming months – if time allows ….

  • Trust: the biggest issue for mobile staff is lack of trust. It goes both ways and is very corrosive. It must be the foundation of any relationship. It takes time and effort to build – and is lost in moments if people do not continually work to reinforce it.
  • Respect: this is about respecting people as individuals, their skills and expertise – both technical and as human beings. Each of us brings unique combinations of characteristics to our work and these need to be fully appreciated and utilised. But, also respecting the fact that we are all human and will inevitably make mistakes. We need support and help to cope with that – from all our colleagues peer team members as much as management.
  • Autonomy: many technicians and engineers choose the mobile life precisely because of the (perceived) freedom of not being tied to a single location. That does not automatically make them shirk their responsibilities or stop wanting to do a good job. Yet, often we treat them as naughty children and remove any autonomy or seek to limit any decision-making. Strongly allied to ‘trust’.
  • Collaboration: field-based staff work in isolation and often do not have any ways to work collaboratively with colleagues – even when other people might be able to help them solve customer issues more quickly and effectively. The improving mobile network connectivity and capacity, plus the escalating capabilities of mobile handsets mean that there should be no technical barriers to making a distributed, collaborative workforce work. But, there are few examples of this is practice. Often, there are informal connections made between colleagues on the basis of product knowledge, but these need to be built systematically to ensure scarce knowledge is shared effectively.
  • Questioning: How often do we see examples of processes and working methods that have been in use far too long? Answer, *far* too often! Change projects work to implement new ways of working and new technologies. Once the project team is disbanded, those shiny new processes rapidly atrophy and become unfit for purpose. Everyone should be enabled and encouraged to question the status-quo. There needs to be a spirit of restless dissatisfaction – is this still the best way of achieving this? Business and economic circumstances change rapidly, organisations need to respond and adapt with equivalent speed. Flexibility is a critical attribute of many successful companies.
  • Delivery: At the end of the day, all that matters is what has been achieved. Did we do everything to our best ability? Did we deliver for every customer? Did we deliver for every employee? It is all very well to pontificate on the theory (and indeed this framework) but customers needs are there every minute of every day – judge us be what we deliver.

Might this framework be useful? Only time will tell …


Photo (c) 2008 John Ferrie, used under CC licence

Is improving service agent experience mainly an issue of trust?

I have worked with mobile field service engineering companies for many years, initially managing a small team of computer hardware engineers but subsequently as part of the software industry delivering applications to improve efficiency and customer satisfaction. More recently, I have been involved with large call (contact) centres and the problems they face in anticipating and satisfying customer contact. The challenge is to maximise the productive time of the company’s employees (engineers or agents) and not have excess resource capacity – whilst at the same delivering the best customer experience. And that is not easy – massive understatement! – in either scenario.

one-finger-raisedOne very obvious difference in the experience is the immediacy and impact of the phone-based interactions. Whilst engineers working on-site with customers are in direct contact with customers every day, all of the feedback that is received back at base is filtered through the eyes of that particular individual and inevitably delayed due to the physical logistics. Calls into a contact centre however are happening in the ‘centre’ and can be monitored in real-time – and immediate reactions and adaptations are possible in the light of the agent/customer interactions. Indeed the advent of advanced speech analytics tools means that large numbers of calls can be analysed and the customer experience understood extremely quickly. A responsive enterprise can have in place the necessary processes and behaviours in place to adapt quickly to these insights.

But, most organisations do not have such advanced speech analytics tools in place; they are expensive to implement and there is still a lot of scepticism about their accuracy and true capabilities.  So, how do you build that same level of responsiveness without them? More to the point, why are our service organisations designed to behave in that way naturally?

We build processes and procedures for control and conformance. We want repeatability. We want consistency. An industrial mindset. Perhaps not surprising most call centres are developed to replicate a ‘factory’ with discrete tasks for individual agents – small cogs in the big wheel. We would apparently like our mobile field teams to act the same. We crave visibility of what is going on, and often not for the right reasons. Many managers do not want real-time feedback so that they can improve the customer experience and promote future loyalty. They assume that a significant proportion of their workforce is actively trying to avoid work unless goaded and cajoled and constantly chased up.

Guess what? If you treat people like naughty children, then they behave like naughty children!

My recent experiences in call centres confirm my belief that inverting that mindset pays real dividends. Trusting that people want to do the right things (but making sure you train for the ‘right things’ and reinforce it in every action and communication) – and they do. Give them the freedom to act in the best interests of the customer and company – and they will make good judgements about striking the eight balance. We have an innate sense of ‘fairness’ and it can be relied on to deliver good results. And the same should apply to the mobile field force too – although I have not often sen it in practice.

This, of course will not deliver 100% right behaviours or outcomes. But then neither does the command and control mentality. But, building a positive culture of trust is a lot less stressful – and exhausting – than the constant vigilance that seems to characterise most service organisations today.

Give it a try, you might just be surprised how trustworthy people really are!

All carrot and no stick

When we are thinking about managing teams, we often talk about how to motivate team members to be more productive, more effective. We exhort everyone to give 100+% for the sake of the team objectives – whatever targets we set, or have been set by own managers. And we talk about balancing “carrot” and “stick”, some notion of reward and punishment that we think will produce the best results. But, are we looking at this the right way?


The “carrot” part of the equation is often expressed in financial terms, a bonus or other cash incentive that is believes to drive improved performance. But, there is some research, and indeed practical experience, to suggest that this is only effective so far. For many, non-sales related roles, the effect is probably overstated and you rely on it at your peril. Certainly, the value that praise and positive verbal feedback can have is undervalued. Think for a moment about how powerful a simple thank-you can be, particularly in a peer group setting.

And, it is one of the things we are told about the younger generation of employees coming into the workplace (Generation Y). Their education and upbringing has taught (conditioned?) them to expect ongoing and overwhelmingly positive feedback. Not for them the idea of waiting until a job is completed before seeking confirmation, or criticism, as was the case for so-called baby boomers. It is easy to see how praise is good for self-confidence and improving self-image.

The “stick” part of the formula is about criticism or reprimand. A notion that holding out the promise of punishment in return for an under-par performance will also motivate good performance. In my experience, the effect is illusory, the performance will only reach the minimum standard required and the work grudgingly done. Certainly, not the kind of employee behaviour we want. It will not drive customer satisfaction or deliver memorable customer experiences. Quickly too, this kind of negative sanction spirals into disciplinary and formal procedures – which again reinforce poor attitudes and resentment at “management” behaviour.

But what if we decided to offer 100% “carrot”, i.e. not enshrine any form of negative feedback. To wholeheartedly embrace the idea that failure is genuinely an opportunity to learn and improve, an inevitable and valued part of every day work by removing its opposite. I am pretty sure that I do not know how to establish the necessary culture to allow such an idea to flourish, but it is an interesting idea. I wonder if the concept of self-managed teams comes close? I know there are some companies, and indeed national cultures that encourage this approach.

I’ll investigate and report back. In the meantime, if you have ideas or comments that can help me explore this please contribute – I am confident that sharing will be at the root of this idea!

Machines must but people might

Talking with a potential client the other day, a household brand name in the consumer market, was very illuminating. I have spent most of my professional career working with B2B companies and this was a very different conversation.

packaging machine

The topic of conversation was the use of automation in call centres. That is, using technologies such as IVR to replace, or rather supplement, human agents. My contention was that they can be positively detrimental  to customer satisfaction if badly implemented. Often they have too many options, and are difficult for callers to understand or navigate successfully. This leads to frustration and negative emotions – that ultimately get landed onto the poor unsuspecting agent when the caller is finally connected to a human being.

Whatever the initial motivation for making the call, the overlay of anger, confusion and bewilderment only exacerbates the problem in the caller’s mind and complicates the agent’s task. This leads to extended call times and worse success rates than without the IVR in the first place.

The counter-argument from this senior call centre manager went something like this. IVR might seem to degrade the caller’s interaction, by postponing the direct contact with a agent, but it does a great job of routing the caller to the right queue, for the right team to deal with the issue/question. And that a lot of time and effort is spent in designing menus and options which minimise the risk of confusion and clearly help the caller through an initial screening.

Suppressing a chuckle about this seeming disconnect with the real-world experiences that people talk about, I suggested that actually the real benefit for her company was a reduction in costs – deploying the technology being cheaper than employing people. She did not agree.

So far,so familiar.

What intrigued me was a specific phrase she used to describe the difference between using software rather than people to answer callers. She said “machines must answer the call in 3 rings – because that is what they are programmed to do. But people only might answer the call that quickly”. That did not strike me as a particularly strong reason to automate that part of the interaction, until I discovered that Speed of Answering had been a key metric for some years. Using IVR improved their results dramatically!

Yes, we need measurements, but not when it drives behaviours that distort the relationship between customer and supplier. Now, more than ever, we cannot afford to lose customers.