How can Lean Tools and Systems help keep up with customer demand and help improve your Customer Services (CS) Operations? One of the many challenges of running customer service teams and operations is that demands on a team can exceed its capacity. If you are lucky, your customers will be understanding and perhaps in the absence of any alternative, stay with you and tolerate the delays. Otherwise, they might accept the switching costs and find another supplier who is more reliable and predictable.
The effect of only being able to give a poor service also takes it toll on the staff at the front end. Those who must resolve customer complaints and service failures, like the customer will also defect and find other work if the strain is too great.
Lean thinking is about putting customers and people at the center of our prioritisation and decision making. It can also provide some answers to performing at a much higher level.
Faced with a customer service team that appears to be under-performing against customer demands and team expectations, where should you start?
Understand your Customer’s Demand
From a Lean perspective, we would recommend first understanding your customer’s demand. In reality, this means breaking down the types of tasks and requests that are placed on your team. In a typical sales related customer service team, this could include a multitude of tasks such as order processing, stock availability, pricing and quotation requests, delivery queries and information provision, documentation request etc. In addition, the team will serve demands from their internal colleagues who will certainly place demands for tracking customer sales and product information.
Next to this, there is likely to be some level of failure demand. This can be caused by defects and errors in the organisation’s own processes that need a customer service intervention to correct. These problems include late, damaged, short, and wrong deliveries, incorrect invoicing etc.
Simply studying, breaking down and quantifying these three types of demand is a good first step.
Customer Value Demand – what is done to serve customers and help them buy.
Internally Created Demand – what the rest of the organisation thinks they need from the team (sometimes these demands are unfairly placed on the team!)
- Failure Demand – dealing with what goes wrong.
What to do next would be very much dependent on what you find in your analysis. As a priority, understanding and making countermeasures that resolve the causes of any failure demand should be an obvious first step. Simply fixing what is broken or breaks regularly is however not a path to building a high-performance self-managing service team. But it may be an essential first step.
Rather than assigning these issues to resolve by a person outside the team or the team’s manager, the Lean approach would be to work with the team daily to capture and set-up countermeasures. This is what will reduce the instances of quality and service failures. In fact, it is likely that the team themselves know the what and the why of many of these problems. Leadership in getting them resolved would make a big difference.
Customer Call Issues
Over the last few years, there has been a change in how most Call Centres handle customer calls. A few years ago, it was common to set CS team quota targets on the number of calls handled. This led to customer calls being terminated after a set time independent of resolving the caller’s issue.
Not surprisingly this just caused more demand on the service team as customers were forced to call in again and again to get their issue resolved. Simply aiming to fix as many issues as possible in one call is now more widely understood as the effective way to run a Call Centre. Actually, many Customer Service agents you call these days now end with “is there anything else I can help you with today”? Changes like this gives service work more meaning and undoubtedly leads to greater customer loyalty. The point here is that leadership, culture, and behaviour are sometimes just as important to understand and act on as the technical “defects” in the organisation itself causes.
The key to the success of any service team is being able to understand how well they are performing against the customer’s value demand. Let take simple request like processing and confirming a customer order. A team might be set up with enough capacity to process 100 orders in a day and have a back-log of 400 waiting to be processed. If this is not achievable, the team will most likely receive mails and calls from customers and sales people to expedite specific orders. Attending to these types of requests further reduces the capacity of the team. In addition, it serves to extend the time that orders wait to be processed, which in turn creates another level of failure demand.
To move this situation forward we must understand what an acceptable customer wait time is. The best way to do this is to talk directly to your customers about their expectations and set standards for the service system in terms of acceptable response times. Sure, sales and service people will have perceptions of the appropriate service level is, but really there is no substitute for direct engagement with customers.
Once a service standard is set, the situation at any point in time needs to be known and shared with the team. The team can then start thinking together about when and why the service standard is not being achieved. There are several ways that you can address these types of work queues.
Use a “Pacemaker”
It can pay to introduce a “Pacemaker” in the team to clean and make ready and allocate the work across the team. If a significant number of requests have missing or ambiguous information, it can make sense to assign someone (Pacemaker) the responsibility of working with the customers to complete and clean the information before it is given to the processing step. This has two positive impacts. First, it makes the process cycle time to process the service more predictable. Secondly, the customer contact on resolving any discrepancies happens soon after the request is received.
A Pacemaker assignment of the work across the team also helps by allocating customer requests to team members based on their availability, knowledge, and capability to process the request. This type of system of active queue management can help reduce the level of failure demand due to slow service. In situations when the queue time is longer than the standard, they can proactively manage the queue to level the load on individuals. This in turn can minimise any adverse impact on your customers and the team.
In many service situations, the amount of time needed to service customer request will vary from a minute to several hours. A Pacemaker process can be used to separate the requests according to the time needed. In this way, certain members of the team can process the short cycle request. Whilst the long cycle ones are processed by the more experienced and capable members of the team. Separating the work into two or more streams means that the short cycle requests are not held up by the long cycle ones.
This approach opens the way to making standard work for specific types of tasks. As a result, this should lead to reduced time to process the task which should give more capacity back to the team. Furthermore, knowing the average time needed and the number of demands for each type of tasks means a more accurate estimate of the capacity required. This is the basis to set the number that your team member really needs to perform excellent customer service based on customer demand.
In some situations, the Pacemaker can also be the one that takes most of the customer voice calls at specific times of day. This approach allows other team member to have periods of uninterrupted “deep work” when they are not distracted by incoming calls and can focus on processing the value demand. The business is then able to plan time for training. Over time, capacity in the team can be further enhanced by this cross training, which build more flexibility and capacity.
One critique of the Pacemaker process is that it can involve a “double handling” of the service request. In some situations, where the demand is stable (quantity and type), customer demands are generally correct and complete. Furthermore, the demand is matched to the capacity it can work to simply place all the customer demand into a single “inbox” and have team members draw the work from the inbox. Still, the team should manage the process. Indeed, the team should meet on a regular basis to ensure that the process remains stable and meets customer expectations.
In our view, there are three types of standard work needed to make the process work:
- For the tasks and activities in the team.
- For the flow of work, from and to the customer and between team members.
- For the team leader, to manage team performance and capability growth.
Even in a well-managed lean operating organisation, there will always be some circumstances that can create an unacceptable backlog of work. In these situations, the business may have to use a short-term strategy:
- Rather than upset more customers only channel “new work” through the service system.
- Sort the backlog in by complexity low / medium / high and package for deployment to the team in even sized batches (minutes of work)
- Set-up a special team with the required skills to tackle these back-log parcels, match complexity to the skill level.
- Set targets and chart progress and recognise the team’s success in clearing the work.
- Disband the team when the backlog is cleared.
Our view is that these types of approaches in CS mean that any back log is visible, measured (over time), controlled and predictable. Pace making enables the balancing skills experience and workload which can only be better than a random assignment tasks within a team. Visual management systems and continual improvement will enable the team to improve and adapt to changes in customer demand. Furthermore, automation makes a big difference to customer services, but Lean approaches enable it to be applied in a way that supports customers and team members. Any difference automation makes will also be immediately visible.
If any of the issues described here are of interest to you, please do get in touch with us. Our approach is different to some consultants, rather than come in and fix for you our aim is to build the capability in your team to improve continuously though training and mentoring the people in your organisation.
This blog post was written by Alex Gibbs, Lean Business Trainer and Mentor. You can view his profile and watch a video of Alex talking about Lean. If you need help on how to keep to keep up with customer demand using Lean Tools and systems, please contact us.
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