July 20, 2010

John as The Six Million Dollar Man

Steve Austin, astronaut, had it all. Then, a horrific accident. His injuries were grave. But “we can rebuild him; we have the technology.” Thus, the six million dollar man was salvaged, as was Lee Major’s career.

In the past eighteen months, I’ve had a torn rotator cuff repaired, a quadruple heart bypass, and just nine weeks ago, a hip resurfacing. If I were living in the nineteenth century, uh, well, I most likely wouldn’t be. Medical technology continues to surpass expectations, and it does it quietly. While most of us are excited about our new iPad computers and Droid touch screen smartphones, many of us are beneficiaries of technology that dwarfs home computing advances.

My new hip is a case in point. Made of titanium, it’s stronger than anything organic. The resurfacing surgery lasted about an hour and a half. The hospital stay was four days. Day one I was up and walking on the new parts. Painful at first, for sure. But a mere six weeks later, I was walking better than the day before the surgery. And that’s saying a lot. Without going into the gory details of the surgery, you might imagine what it takes to replace the “ball and socket.” It’s not like unscrewing the old light bulb and replacing it with a florescent one. No, there are a lot of parts to move around to get to the spot. Then there’s the sawing, planeing, cutting, stitching, and gluing! Good thing I was out cold.

Before the surgery, it was all I could do to get out of the car and walk to the hospital lobby. A couple hundred years ago I would be stuck in the cave, not able to hunt, not able to run away from the attacking hordes. In short, I wouldn’t have survived very long.

(By the way, the long wait and poor quality of this surgery in socialized medicine countries Canada and Great Britain are huge problems. So maybe I’d still be in the cave. But more about that another time.)

Medical advances are all around us. My heart bypass back in November of 2009 is another amazing example. It started with a blip on my electrocardiogram (EKG) at my primary doctor’s office (thanks for noticing, Dr. Bill!) I then promptly failed the stress test the next week when he referred me to a cardiologist. That same week, into the hospital for a quick angiogram. Lying on the table, I watched the monitors as my doctor inserted the probe in through my wrist, up through the arteries, and into the heart. It was a strange but incredible experience. Of course, I was hoping for a “simple” stent, which would open any clogged artery during the same procedure. No such luck. So, a quick consult with the chief of thoracic surgery, and into the operating room within two weeks as he opens my chest and reassembles things on my heart while a machine keeps me alive.

Wow. We are blessed with the most impressive medical system in the world, and most of us don’t even know it. Kinda puts technology in perspective for those of us who work in business data processing.

I might not be worth six million dollars, but for the huge investment of dollars and human capital in medical technology, for which many of us are grateful recipients, I say thank you America.

May 22, 2010

Is Customer Service Dead?

I seem to be asking myself this question more often lately. My latest experiences were with La-Z-Boy furniture in Amherst, and Dunkin Donuts in Williamsville, NY. These were two very similar experiences, but very different outcomes.

My Dad owned a La-Z-Boy recliner for 30+ years. It was a comfortable chair, but nobody better be sitting in it when he came into the room!

I wanted to purchase a new recliner to use during my recovery from hip surgery. I was hoping they’d have something in stock, but could certainly understand if it needed to be ordered. The problem is, as I was told, it takes 6-8 weeks to order one. That seemed like an excessive amount of time to order a “stock” recliner. After all, I wasn’t ordering a Mercedes-Benz with custom measurements for my hips and butt! (although that might be a great line of business for someone who actually knew about customer service).

I asked the somewhat-disinterested store salesman about the length of time required. Surely, I thought, another store would have this model in stock. Was there any way to transfer stock to this store? I’d even consider going to another store in the area if they could check for me.
No can do. Six to eight weeks. End of discussion. No “sorry, I wish I could help you,” or “let me see what I can do for you.” Just “nope.” Come on. I can seriously order a custom-option car in less time than that!

Needless to say, I told him that unless he could find a way to speed up the delivery, it would end his sale prospects with me. No response. Oh well, I guess I can live with my old recliner for a while.
I wanted to relate this experience to the corporation. I know if one of my staff provided this kind of customer experience, I’d like to know about it. Here’s my response:
Dear Mr. OKeefe:
Thank you for your inquiry and interest in our fine products.
La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries are independently owned and operated. Unfortunately, we do not have access to what they have available in stock or on display. Our normal production time is 6 - 8 weeks for a custom order.
We suggest you contact store management at the Amherst location to discuss the lack of service you received.
 Regards,La-Z-Boy Incorporated
Let’s look at this one.
  • From “Incorporated.” Really?
  • “Fine products?” Maybe. A bit outdated I have to say. As much as I liked my Dad’s recliner, the new ones were almost the exact same mechanicals (clunky and loud). But that’s ok. They should be proud of their products.
  • The company line sounds familiar. They really don’t have access to their own stores? Do they know the phone numbers? Wow. And I wasn’t ordering anything “custom.” I didn’t even know that was an option. I don’t think it really is.
  • They “suggest I contact store management.” Isn’t that what I did? Maybe you could help that process along? No, push it back on the customer.
I wonder if this company has a Customer Experience Officer (CXO)? Doubtful, huh?
Here’s a contrast.  I am a Dunkin Donut coffee fan. We have to drive a bit out of the way to get coffee at one of their stores. I love cream and sugar in my coffee, but Beth takes it with cream only. She was on her own, and stopped to get a cup on the way to work. “Medium coffee with cream, please.” Again, another long story, but the customer service was less than friendly, and worst of all, they put sugar in her coffee. To her, that’s undrinkable. Unfortunately, she was well on the road before she tasted it. So she had to toss it. No coffee that morning.

She wrote an e-mail to Dunkin Donuts similar to mine. Dunkin Donuts is also a franchised organization, by the way. Here’s her “corporate” response:

Dear Beth, 
We would like to thank you for taking the time to contact us about your experience at the Dunkin' Donuts shop located at xxxxxx.We work hard to maintain the highest standards in guest satisfaction however, it appears we have let you down and for that we apologize. We have forwarded your comments to the owner of this location as well as our Dunkin' Donuts field executive to make them aware of your experience and request that the owner of this location contact you.We hope that you visit us again soon and give us the opportunity to serve you.Thank you and have a great day.
StephanieCustomer Relations Associate

  • From Stephanie. A real person?
  • Thanks for contacting us about the “experience.”
  • “We let you down.” Wow, they understand.
  • “We apologize.” Unique. “La-Z-Boy Incorporated” didn’t apologize to me.
  • “We have forwarded to the owner.” OK, saved me the step. There was no “not our problem, it’s yours” type of response as in the La-Z-Boy version.
Within a day, she had a phone call and apology from the owner, and ten dollars in free coupons to Dunkin Donuts.

La-Z-Boy, see the difference? We’re still Dunkin Donuts customers. We will never buy a La-Z-Boy again. And we’ll tell all our friends about both experiences.

Customer service isn’t dead, but it’s on life support.

February 11, 2010

Out From Under The Covers

I enjoyed the show Undercover Boss that aired after the Super Bowl. In the pilot episode, Larry O'Donnell, President and C.O.O. of Waste Management, works alongside his employees, cleaning porta-potties, sorting waste, collecting garbage from a landfill, and even being fired for the first time in his life.

As his eyes were opened on several levels, he began to understand the impact that his board room decisions were having on the rank and file. Cutbacks meant that staff were working two or three different job duties. He learned from one of the women who worked on the garbage truck that she has to urinate in a bottle along the route because there were no other facilities.

By the end of the show, Larry was a new boss. He understood. He was changed.

Of course we won't know the depth of what changes might happen at Waste Management as a result of this experience. My fear, however, is that the focus on a specific employee or employees who happened to encounter Larry during the filming of the episode won't be pervasive across the company if only attacked at this narrow view.

The reality is that empowerment (yes, that overused and under implemented word) is the only way to ensure that good (and maybe even some bad) ideas get implemented. The President got a fractional taste of the kinds of things that "corporate decisions" impact at the staff level. Sure, the one woman got the promotion, but only because she was in the right place at the right time. Who is making sure that each of the 100s of other employees, also going "above and beyond," are getting noticed? And that someone is actually listening to the women (and men) who don't have a place to urinate on the job?

Management, especially middle management, must take responsibility for soliciting, organizing, facilitating, and implementing staff ideas and recommendations. And if those recommendations need a champion, that manager must be brave enough to stand up for them.

It's a good show to watch. I'd love to see a follow-up on each of these companies 6 months later.

January 13, 2010

The Need for the Governator

The word governance in business is one of those terms that is so ubiquitous it has become almost meaningless. It can be applied in many ways, starting with simple process documentation to an iron-clad, locked-down model of authority for all things process-related.

To me, it's common sense that in order to automate something, we all better understand the current business process. That understanding is sometimes a responsibility that gets delegated to a business analyst or a process modeler. Too often, however, that critical step is brushed or skipped over completely. Then the proverbial Chris Alexander cartoon below comes fact.

"It's great, but this isn't what we wanted" the business person says.

"But it's what you asked for," the IT person says in exasperation.

Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. The technically elegant solution may give little business value. So what went wrong?

For a while now, my passion has been on how those of us in IT can step back from the sandbox of cool technology toys and figure out what will really work to solve business challenges.

We sometimes expect the "business folks" to be separate and distinct from those crazy "IT folks." IT is part of the business. It shouldn't be off in the corner. IT needs to be intimately involved with both the strategic and tactical operations of the business. Some companies have gone as far as to define a best practice where programmers physically work inside the department for which they typically write software. For example, you might have programmers who locate in the Finance department, or in Customer Service. The programmer still reports to the IT CIO/CTO's organizational structure so they get the technical support they need, but they are involved in the business departmental team meetings and other activities. They even participate in departmental parties. They sit with the customer support reps on the phones, and may even take customer service calls.

For many IT departments, that immersion just isn't possible because of the wide range of required skills and supported departments. But the principle still holds true. Only if you walk in someone’s shoes can you appreciate their pain.

But when it comes down to building the systems, we hit “The Rub:” We often find that the business processes (rules) we want to automate aren’t really “rules,” but “suggestions.” We find two departments define things slightly differently. For example, “sales commission” may be defined by Finance as “x percent of sale plus payroll tax.” Sales may calculate it exclusive of payroll tax. The governance team needs to define which is the true business rule. They are called “business rules” for a reason. They should not be left for IT to define.

Documenting those business rule definitions are the job of the Governance Team. There can be many teams; IT Governance, Information Governance, SOA Governance, etc. The bottom line is that governance is not just about adherence to rules and process, but about alignment to the business.

This is also where the Use Case documents are so useful as they capture each scenario in detail for those processes. Only when there is agreement on those use cases and business rules should the software design start.

Business Governance needs to ensure that this alignment is taking place consistently. That communication gap that exists between the “business folks” and “IT folks” has to be addressed. Some of it is just agreeing on a standard lexicon. Yes, many of us in IT are geeks - and that gap can be a stretch for some.

The responsibility lies with the business executives to define a process that makes that alignment possible. Business managers should sit on IT committees and teams that work on technical solutions. Unless the “Business” is driving the change, we’ll continue to have to deal with the glorified tire swing that IT thought was asked for.