I used to work out at a gym that had a bothersome, but almost comedic tendency: Whenever a piece of equipment broke down, someone would diligently and swiftly mark it with an “Out of Order” sign. The particular machine would usually sit like that (broken, that is) for weeks on end. Now, part of this is the result of compartmentalized work: The person whose job it was to properly label broken machinery literally is done with his job once that sign is in place…it’s someone else whose responsibility it is to fix it. But you almost got the sense through the entire club that that’s all that was necessary when something went wrong: label it as broken, and move on.
Likewise, I used to live in a neighborhood near Austin, Texas, where there was an intersection with a posted sign warning motorists (and pedestrians and cyclists, I suppose) that the crossroads was prone to flooding. Now, I’m not talking about tossing up one of those temporary signs like you see when a road crew is working that they assemble at the beginning of the day and then take up as they’re leaving. This isn’t like the “Piso mojado” signs they put up at the supermarket right when they’re mopping in the moment for temporary caution. The city had sunk a pole into the ground and affixed a sign to it with permanent bolts and nuts. Think about that: The city sent an actual crew of actual workers to permanently install a sign warning of a hazard. Why not send a crew of engineers to fix the problem?
This occurred to me recently when I was in a meeting with some folks from a group I’m advising. They’re a membership organization and one of the services they provide includes Customers entering certain information into the group’s system by way of an online interface. Just like if you’re signing up for something online or ordering from an online retailer or whatnot…there are fields you need to fill out in order to provide information. Well, one issue the group was having is that a lot of Customers were “filling the form out wrong.”
(Sidebar, I recall one organization I once worked with having problems interpreting their Customer survey results because they weren’t sure if their Customers defined certain terms the same way the company did. One team member lamented that Customers simply don’t understand the terms correctly. I had to ask, “so, geez. Wow. Your Customers aren’t even filling out the survey correctly?” He didn’t really get the irony of the situation.)
The project manager’s update on the issue went something like this: “Well, we clarified the instructions on the website next to the box where the Customer fills in the information, so they’ll know how to fill it in properly.” Hm. I inquired how often people get it wrong. “All the time,” was the answer.
I’m reminded here about the old saying that, if someone passes you on the right, maybe he’s just a jerk. On the other hand, if everybody’s passing you on the right, you’re the jerk. This guy is not a jerk, but I did think maybe he was missing the bigger picture: I asked, “so…how are people filling it out?” Without getting too far into the details of the story, therein ensued a short trip down a path that uncovered that the “clarified instructions” were likely not going to improve the situation (if anybody read them anyway…it seemed the previous instructions hadn’t done any good) because the ambiguity would remain. In fact, with a little coaching, he was able to see that the only reliable way to account for different manners of Customers entering information was (wait for it…) to make the intake system dynamic enough to accept the data in any input format.
We do this all the time, don’t we? We take half-measures, throw up signs, append caveats, try to guide our Customers to do things the way we want them to in order to meet our needs and requirements.
But it’s organizations that make themselves and their own systems responsive to (and flexible on behalf of) how their Customers want to interact with them that really shine through as Customer-centric. Think about how your Customers “get it wrong” or “don’t understand how” to do things properly. Then ask yourself: Do they need an education, or is it you?