Preaching the Human Sigma Gospel

A few years ago, the BBC ran a series of programmes looking at the real world of customer experience. They used a concealed camera to record a journalist’s encounter with a variety of staff in different organisations. You may remember the frustrated steward in the Virgin Atlantic “Upper Class” Lounge who got pretty fed up with having to keep on restoring the executive toy train set back on its rails, and the young girl, who aspired to be an air hostess, who was sent by the cabin crew to offer our journalist friend an aspirin mid-flight! At least Richard Branson was candid enough to accept the issues and promised to do something about them (he went on to walk through economy and ‘palm’ a backpacker’s watch off him (all in good spirit, of course)).

One of the other interesting examples was the pub chain (I seem to recall it was Whitbread but I could be wrong) who had developed an elaborate range of measures of the customer experience for punters going into their pubs. One that I remember was the time it took from entering the pub to getting eye contact and an acknowledgment from a member of staff. They had some pretty tough standards and the training to back it up.

Well, times move on, and these days many of our experiences as customers are online or, at least, on the phone. As we all know, many of these services have been outsourced to other countries where labour rates are lower. Even though I am well used to this phenomenon, I was taken a little by surprise the other morning when a call on my home phone turned out to be from an Indian gentleman speaking very poor English (obviously from a script) and asking for a range of information about my company. After several refusals until he told me why, he said that he was calling on behalf of Dun and Bradstreet verifying this information. Now I have no way of knowing whether this was true or not. I used to hold D&B in high regard, but this encounter has certainly dented their reputation as far as I am concerned. In just the same way as it is easy to build a presence on the internet, it is also very easy to damage your brand through cheapskate outsourcing.

But these online and phone based customer contacts are here to stay and it’s time someone specifically addressed the impact on business of poor ones. So, the article in yesterday’s Business Week, entitled “Preaching the Human Sigma Gospel” was fascinating.

John Fleming and Jim Asplund are the co-authors of Human Sigma: Managing the Employee-Customer Encounter. They believe that when it comes to the human experience – a company’s employees and their relationships with customers – businesses have really lost the plot. Their view is that by moving the customer experience away from face-to-face, bricks-and-mortar channels and into call centres and Internet sites, companies have ripped the soul out of business. John and Jim contend that companies can put people back in business while simultaneously increasing value and profit provided that they do so swiftly and in a planned manner. They claim that by introducing a systematic approach to customer employee encounters, backed by clear and simple measurements, and a supportive improvement programme, companies are achieving growth rates of 26% in gross margin and 85% in sales value, above those of competitors who do not invest in such a programme. As they say, this isn’t exactly Six Sigma, but it is informed by the same rationale and ethos.

So, what has your experience been? Do you know of any companies that have invested in these interfaces in recent years? If so, what kinds of improvement did they achieve?

Best wishes

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