Applying Process Improvement to Customer Care

As appeared in the IMPACT newsletter

A customer is a person who purchases goods or services from another; the related word, custom, can be defined as a habitual practice as a result of prolonged patronage. Customer care is therefore the business strategy that exists to ensure continued patronage of goods and services. The success of customer care lies within customer relationship management, also known as CRM, or your organization’s ability to recognize when internal business processes have the potential to impact customer satisfaction and retention. If the organizational values are built upon strong interdepartmental, or cross-functional partnerships, then our customer relations strategies should be built on the same partnerships. Customer relationship management is a coordination strategy to synchronize the functional players or departments within your business, in an effort to connect all business activities to create a single valuable product or service. I should warn you, there are a number of CRM technologies that claim to be all-inclusive solutions. However, technology is only part of the answer. Customer care requires a focus on business process improvement in order to define those aspects of your business which have the ability to impact the customer. Sure, technology can add efficiency to your CRM strategy, but only if aligned with business standards of practice. In order to create a customer care business process, one which incorporates CRM, we must first define the numerous relationships that exist as a result of current business systems.

Facing Operations

Facing operations are those operational practices that affect the customer experience at the frontline. In the absence of technology (e.g. Web sites, emails, and automated services) this refers to the functions of your business that are face-to-face with the customer. Managing relationships within these functions is more personal and service oriented. Using a familiar example, ask yourself how you would value a restaurant whose wait staff is rude, apparently lazy, and uninterested in your dining experience. Would it matter how well the food was prepared, or how appealing the atmosphere was? No, more times than not you’d probably decide to dine somewhere more customer-centric. Customer care practices should be designed to ensure optimum service levels within these functions. Minimize your one-to-many relationships in order to improve communications between your organization and the customer. Using the restaurant example, the more inviting establishments have more wait-staff, limiting the number of tables each waiter is responsible for in order to reduce the one-to-many relationships and further increase the employee’s ability to communicate effectively with the customer. Aim to understand the needs of your customer in order to better serve, and develop personnel with strong people skills so that they are equipped with an ability to quickly recognize dissatisfaction in order to improve performance and ultimately retain the customer’s patronage. Business processes for the facing operations should focus on repeatability and routine monitoring of customer satisfaction.

Collaborative Operations

Opposite the facing operations are collaborative operations, those operations commonly referred to as the “back office” that directly impact the facing operations’ ability to improve customer satisfaction. These functions often include IT, accounts payable and accounts receivable, sales, marketing, and logistics planning and control. Business processes should be developed which support the facing operations and create an ability to record and retrieve feedback in order to adjust standards of practice geared towards improving customer perception. A good example of back office limitations is when a manufacturer’s representative, who is a facing operation, commits to a customer’s sales order only to find out that manufacturing is unable to meet the agreed upon lead time. This problem could stem from a more fundamental breakdown in capacity planning or revenue forecasts, but if this customer is of value to the business, and the business plans to retain their patronage, then CRM must be capable of signaling the improvement process within the back office.

External Operations

These operations represent the external supply chain that is required to meet customer expectations. External operations include those cooperative functions, married through vendor management programs or contract service providers, whose performance, or lack of, will indirectly impact the customer’s experience. Care should be taken when defining vendor agreements to ensure that vendor or service provider lead times are consistent with order quantities and customer lead time expectations. Through Lean practices embedded in capacity planning you often find that the use of kanban, or safety stock buffers, greatly improves your ability to level production flow, but in this context it also maintains customer relationships through confidence in on-time deliveries. When defining your external operations business processes, be diligent to identify where your vendor’s own business processes could potentially impact your customer in a negative way. Define your internal process controls and countermeasures in the event that the vendor’s process is inadequate.

Performance Managers

This final group of relaters contains those functions or roles within your organization that design and monitor business performance based on customer expectations. A logistics manager who is responsible for on-time and in-full delivery of goods would therefore capture and record exceptions that might reduce the perceived value of your organization as seen through the eyes of your customers. Similarly, those interdepartmental managers who are responsible for performance within the value chain would also need to evaluate key performance indicators in order to illustrate their contribution to customer satisfaction, facilitating, again, early identification of opportunities to improve operational practices.

Understanding the relationships of each functional department within your organization as they relate to customer satisfaction is one of the first steps towards improving your supply chain. Applying a business process re-engineering methodology is a simple way to illustrate interactions.

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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