Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A commitment, not a license

I spent an hour or so at the Washington State Department of Licensing last week getting my driver's license renewed.  It's a task we all sort of dread, but I have to give my State credit--even while cutting back the number of staffed licensing offices due to budget they have increased the things we can do on-line, even renewing some licenses.  Mine was not one that could be done from the comfort of my computer however.

After taking a required vision test and getting a new mug shot, the agent gave me my temporary license and told me if should receive my permanent license in about two weeks.  That was fine--I don't have any travel scheduled until later in June, which was why I wanted to get my renewal done.  But in Saturday's mail my shiny new license was delivered.

Now I should be happy about that, and I am.  But it really made me think about where we've gone with customer service.  "Under-promise and over-deliver" has been a tactic that has served me well over the years, but I'm afraid it has been abused to become a license for inefficiency.

Good customer experience is a commitment by the giver to the receiver.  "Did I solve your problem today?"  "Is there anything else I can help you with while you are on the line?"  It's a promise to value your time and your business.  But the laziness that has been created by companies and agencies purposely padding times to assure meeting a service goal has taken my old mantra to a place it was never meant to be.

I'm sure you hear about it all of the time.  In Washington State it often shows up in government.  A new bridge construction project is awarded to a contractor, who pads the time it will take to complete and then negotiates a bonus for finishing early.  A weekend road closure turns into a one-day project and the State announces "we've finished early!".

If you work in an e-commerce company you may see it in bloated engineering man hours for the project you are sponsoring.  Or in inflated heads needed for Customer Support to meet the response commitment SLA.  This concept not only costs you money, but it limits how much can get on your product roadmap and allows your competitors who work efficiently to out-perform you.

The fear of failure often drives the padding of delivery times, whether it be for software or services.  And the permission to fail that can offset this downward spiral has to come from the top.  I'm not blaming the folks on the front lines as the main culprits here.  As is often in what separates good companies from mediocre, it's the culture that is created by senior management.

"Under-promise and over-deliver" is a commitment to excellence.  It's saying that I will work hard to exceed your expectations.  But it's not a license to become a society where everyone gets a trophy and there are no real winners.  And it's not an excuse for inefficiency.

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