I was invited to a meeting where the guy at the front of the room was trying to improve group performance by talking himself into a froth. He had invented a ratio and convinced himself that a three percent improvement would mean something, otherwise they were going out of business.
When somebody loses it emotionally, people tend to pay attention, because we’re not sure what he’s going to do next. It’s a protective behavior. However over time, no matter how high the emotional level, people tune out.
I started thinking back to breakthroughs I have seen that changed a company or an industry. They weren’t based on questionable ratios and miniscule improvements. Indeed that kind of noise keeps people from thinking about important solutions.
Back in the eighties, I was privileged to take part in the launch of the first McCaw Cellular One in San Francisco. We didn’t have money, or customers, or a system, or much understanding about what we would do.
We did have an exceptional CEO who expected people to do great things. They believed him, so they did great things.
I remember a meeting about our worsening customer satisfaction. We had supply problems, we couldn’t control our signal, and our competitor enjoyed having us as the much weaker supplier. Grim meeting.
Kathleen ran customer service, so she had the ugly job of quantifying our situation. She did a thorough job, and added some interesting analysis. She didn’t like her job, and no one else wanted it.
Jim thanked her for presenting the situation and pointed out some of the better points she had taken the time to quantify. Then he asked the table what we could do.
There were a couple of behavioral placeholders, but nothing of substance.
Finally Kathleen said she had an idea, but was concerned these older men wouldn’t like it. She stopped.
Jim told her to press on.
Kathleen wanted to change the name of her group from customer service to customer care. The hair on the back of my neck went up. That was the first time I heard that term.
What happened after that was miraculous. Kathleen published the cost per minute of arguing with a customer. We began to promote giving the customer what they wanted (usually a small billing adjustment) and thanking the customer for using Cellular One.
The new Customer Care reps were talking about their better jobs than when they were Customer Service reps.
The customers started trying to deserve our appreciation, so they told spouses and friends. Customer Care was tracking and thanking referrals.
Our customer acquisition got better every week. We were doubling new customers every quarter.
One day Jim called me into his office and showed me the paper. The Chronicle wrote that obviously Cellular One was the highest quality cellular service in the Bay area. The paper stole our tag line! Since it was now in the paper, it must be true!
Mark and the engineers were going through their final frenzy to put up our own cellular network. We were still piping signal through the competition.
We were obviously doing other things right.
That tagline had been percolating since before it was true to remind us what we we wanted.
Jim had been a military chopper pilot, so at least one of our stations was delivered on a mountain top by chopper, with appropriate public and media coverage.
I was working overtime taking our dealers to victory celebrations.
But that one distinction, from customer service to customer care was a snowball that started an avalanche.
I thought of Kathleen when the computer scientist from Comcast told me that the reason I couldn’t get internet one morning was because my computer was too old. Go buy a new computer. I finally found out that some server cowboy had erased my address file...but not my billing file.
Or when the Verizon salesman called the cops because he didn’t know how to sell us a new phone. His boss was even more embarrassed after the cops showed up.
Most of the time we can’t tell what the best solution is going to be, but overwhelmingly it hasn’t been studying made up numbers or inconveniencing customers.
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