Remembering the Customer

By on July 26, 2016
Remembering the Customer

Recently I had two experiences that brought home loud and clear the impact of forgetting the customer and the incredible power of remembering the customer. I’m sure all of us have had comparable experiences. Here they are…

Forgetting the Customer

At the counter of one of the national car rental agencies, I was given the keys to the vehicle I’d be driving. I put them in my pocket, walked out to a parking lot in front of their office with one of their employees, got a cursory briefing on the car’s controls, did a walk around to confirm there were no dents, got in the car and drove off. It was a very pleasant drive to my destination. Good music on the radio. Smooth ride on an uncrowded highway. Clean comfortable car. I was primed to really like the car rental company. Two hours later, arriving at my destination, I got out of the car, took out the keys, put them in my pocket, and walked into my client’s office. Rental Car KeysSounds okay so far, right? It didn’t stay that way. As the day wore on, the large bundle of keys in my pocket became more and more aggravating. During a break in meetings, I tried to take off the two keys I didn’t need and discovered that this bundle of keys couldn’t be disassembled.

When I returned the car the next day, I told the person at the counter that I found carrying this large bundle of keys in my pocket to be annoying and asked him why I had been given so many. With a slightly condescending look on his face, he responded, “We have to do it this way because our cars sometimes get dropped off at a different location and all of the keys need to be with the car.” The fact that his customer was annoyed by this procedure was completely off his radar. He never said anything close to, “I’m sorry but…

Remembering the Customer

My wife, Dee, and I were on a flight back to St. Louis from Baltimore. Our trip to the airport was through heavy traffic, the air was muggy, and the airport crowded. As we made our way slowly through security and then to the gate area we were feeling more and more harried. At the gate area there were more lines to stand in. Standing there waiting to board, our ears were bombarded by a cacophony of sound. Screaming kids added to the auditory chaos. Finally, the lines started to move and we walked down the ramp to the plane. Upon boarding we were greeted by a smiling flight attendant who said, “I’m Marie let me know if I can help you.”

We got into the plane, taking the first two seats that were available. Settling into our seats, we were hot, tired, and feeling more than slightly short-tempered. Flight attendants did their customary briefings. We taxied out and took off. We were primed to hate this airline. After reaching altitude, flight attendants started down the aisle. This is when we experienced Marie’s very friendly demeanor again. With a really infectious smile on her face, she handed each a bag of peanuts and asked what we’d like to drink. I asked for a coke, Dee, a gin and tonic. The drinks were delivered and we settled in for the flight back to St. Louis.

Twenty minutes or so later, Marie came down the aisle, collecting empty glasses and peanut bags. She noticed that Dee’s glass of gin and tonic was still almost full and asked, “Was that drink a little too strong?” Dee said that it was. She replied, “That’s not good. Let me bring you one that’s more to your liking.” Moments later she reappeared with another drink, saying, “I think this is one you’ll like.” It was. On her next trip down the aisle, Marie, still with a smile on her face, said to Dee, “I’ll bet that one was a lot better.” Dee acknowledged that it was.

Building Sales

You and I have had hundreds of experiences like the two I’ve just described. Some of these experiences have caused us to say “Wow, that’s a company I want to do business with again.” or, conversely, “I’ll do everything in my power to not use them again.”

What drives these two very different reactions? I’d suggest that there is one prime underlying cause. Back to the experiences I described. When the employee of the car rental company said, “We have to do it this way because our cars sometimes get dropped off at a different location and all of the keys need to be with the car,” he was focused on serving the internal needs of his company. On the other hand, when the flight attendant said, “That’s not good. Let me bring you one that’s more to your liking,” she was focused on meeting the needs of the customer.

Should I serve the company or serve the customer? As we’ve seen, the way in which an employee answers this question can have a very potent impact on customer satisfaction. That said there really shouldn’t be any distinction between serving the customer and serving the company. The company’s internal procedures should be totally congruent with serving the customer. The answer to the question, “Should I serve the customer or serve the company?” should be “Serve both.

Achieving this high degree of congruence between serving the customer and serving the company can be achieved through the use of Lean thinking and work processes. Here’s a good example of this. In his 2012 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, recounted this story:

“We build automated systems that look for occasions when we’ve provided a customer experience that isn’t up to our standards, and those systems then proactively refund customers. One industry observer recently received an automated email from us that said, “We noticed that you experienced poor video playback while watching the following rental on Amazon Video On Demand: Casablanca. We’re sorry for the inconvenience and have issued you a refund for the following amount: $2.99. We hope to see you again soon.” Surprised by the proactive refund, he ended up writing about the experience: “Amazon ‘noticed that I experienced poor video playback…’ and they decided to give me a refund because of that? Wow…Talk about putting customers first.

On the floor of a factory, the Lean process Bezos describes is referred to as an “Andon Cord.” When employees on the line spot a problem in production, they pull the Andon Cord and production stops until the problem is solved. Amazon has automated the Andon process.

Serve the company by serving the customer. Lean thinking and work processes can make this happen and when they do the result will be happy customers and more sales.

C’mon, car rental company, your customers really shouldn’t have to carry those large bundles of keys. Put the tools of Lean to work and they’ll solve this problem. Lean will deliver for you just as it has for Amazon.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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