A recent article in the Harvard Business Review discussed an experiment to see if seeing the chefs in a restaurant work on preparing your food would increase the dining experience satisfaction. It also looked at whether seeing the guests from the chefs perspective would result in higher work satisfaction. It turns out that guests and kitchen staff seeing each other has a significant impact on the satisfaction on both ends. For the chefs, seeing the guests eat and getting direct feedback by understanding what guests like and what not helps them feel more connected to the work they put in the kitchen and the guests. Guests like the fact they can see the people that made their food and it increased their appreciation of the food they got served.
The article is part of a bigger study on 'operational transparency' - does seeing the customer motivate you to do a better job? I'll be watching for the results of the study to see whether this is indeed the case. I guess that intuitively we all would expect that to be true. Purely judging from personal experience, having worked in a helpdesk environment both as a 'first-line' support agent where you are in direct contact with customers experiencing an issue and comparing that to my time in 'second-line support' where this issue reaches you in the form of an incident ticket, the direct connection makes a lot of difference. An incident ticket is basically a note describing the issue the customer is experiencing as it was captured by the first-line support agent. I can tell you that the sense of impact and urgency conveyed by a live human on the other end of the line is dramatically different from reading an issue description without any direct contact with the customer. While direct customer contact is needed to really feel what the customer is looking for, it is also impractical to organize work around that direct contact. As a customer, you don't want to have to repeat your story to everyone in a firm working on your case.
To everyone working in a large company with different organizational layers, this sounds very familiar. There have been many good intentioned efforts to make organizations more customer centric and try to convey that direct contact in other ways. But, without feeling the emotions of a customer, angry, happy, bored or whatever, I think it is safe to say that very few organizations truly manage to do things in a way that really has a sense of direct customer impact hovering over them to keep them on track - direct customer contact or not. As customers, it should not come as a surprise that a recent study showed 80% of interviewed executives of 362 firms believing they were delivering a 'superior experience' to their customers, but only 8% of those actual customers agreed.
The reality is, especially when things don't always go well, everyone will avoid having to be in touch with unsatisfied customers. It's simple human behavior. So the challenge is to be ahead of that moment, to build in feedback at every stage. Amazon has tried to do this by keeping an empty chair at meetings, this is the chair of the customer who is the most important participant in meetings. The story goes that during every meeting this will help people to think about what the customer may think of whatever topic was discussed in that meeting. Putting the customer first is very logical but it is far from easy. Easy or not, there is clear consensus on what the most important thing is though, and that is to listen. Not listening for the things you want to hear, the things that will align with the choices you made, but listening to the hard parts, the things you need to improve on. Many firms have customers satisfaction surveys in place and with social media around, the possibilities to listen to your customers are endless. But for some companies, having that customer survey is just a checkbox exercise. Or that social media thing is just another way to show management they are having engagement with their customers instead of truly listening.
The key to listening is the intent to do something about what you hear from your customers. Just like those chefs that can take the direct feedback of their guests and improve their experience when they can actually see them. Start with that and then work towards an honest assessment of what you can do address whatever you heard. It may take a lot of work and time in the beginning but once you start, customers will reward you in the long run.