Should Processes Trump Customer Loyalty?


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Over the last 20 years, there has been a huge push on process improvement.  There was the TQM (Total Quality Management) mantra, which preached a stifling discipline of striving for perfection.  Then the Lean movement, which was all about streamlining processes surrounding ‘customer value.’  Then, of course, the mother of them all – Jack Welch’s cult-like Six Sigma.

Processes have a great appeal in the executive level of most organizations because they are both controllable and quantifiable.  You can put metrics around them.  You can put dollar numbers on things.  You can streamline and better control your costs.  Processes look great on paper.

The problems arise when people start to get excited about the efficiencies to be had with a process,  then manage to convince themselves that those efficiencies are more important than the overall customer experience.  Here’s a great personal example involving the hotel industry:

I travel a lot, often spending over 100 nights a year in hotels.  A lot of it is one-night-stands in different places around the world, as I fly in and out for speaking engagements.  There are, however, a few hotels that I find myself in on a fairly regular basis, year after year.  They’ve become almost a second home.  I know the staff, and most of them know me.  When I show up, I get a genuine warm welcome, and I feel as though I have a great relationship with them.

These hotels work hard at keeping this relationship.  When I call to make a reservation, for example, the employees recognize me.  They know my room preferences. And if I happen to be driving and can’t give them a credit card number fo confirm a reservation, I get, “No problem Mr. Belding, I will make sure there is a room when you get here!”  I really get the feeling that they value having me as a customer.

So, why would I ever stay anywhere else?  Ask anyone who travels a lot for a living, and they’ll tell you the same thing.  Makes sense right?  The more solid a relationship between a guest and staff, the greater the loyalty will be.  This would strike me as something a company wouldn’t want to mess with. Right?  Right?

Wrong.  A couple of days ago, I called the local number of the Four Points Sheraton in St. Catharines, Ontario to make a reservation.  I picked the local number over the toll-free number specifically so that I could connect with someone in the hotel.

When I asked the cheerful front desk person who answered if they had any rooms for the night, her response was, “Absolutely!” followed by, “let me just transfer you to reservations.”  And with a click of a button, I was then forwarded on to the Sheraton call centre somewhere in the Southern U.S.

Really?  Did you just do that?  Did you just take a potential opportunity to strenghten a bond with a customer who stays in the area about 25 nights a year, and transfer him to a call centre?

It wasn’t the front desk person’s fault, of course.  That is the Sheraton process.  Somewhere along the line, someone convinced them that this was a better way to do things than just having  individual hotels do it themselves.  No doubt there were Very Compelling arguments.  Centralized call centres make it easier to ensure that phones are answered in a timely manner.  It’s easier to monitor scripting and the sales process.  Most importantly, no doubt, it is likely tremendously cost-efficient.

The compelling thing about those arguments is how easy it is to measure the apparent payoff.  We can point at ‘results’ and talk about the grand successes in cost recoveries, reduction in labour hours and so on.

But what about the things that are harder to measure?  What about the customers, like me, who now have a little less of a link to that hotel and less of a bond with the staff?  How will this impact my decision process in the future, or the likelihood I will recommend a hotel in the future?  Is the payoff in this process really that much greater than the loyalty that is created by the people? And that’s the real question, isn’t it?

The people who would defend the process will refer to the Very Clever IVR systems these days that can ‘seamlessly’ transfer customers back and forth between the hotel and the call centre.  They will brag about how most customers won’t even realize that this is going on.  Yup, as long as we can fool the customers, they will tell you, then all is well.

They will tell us that their Starwood and other ‘loyalty’ programs more than compensate for this old-fashioned concept of loyalty.  Do these ‘loyalty’ programs work?  Absolutely.  Until, that is, one of your competitors comes in with a better deal or a better offer.

Don’t get me wrong.  Outstanding, well-thought-out processes are vital to creating a world-class customer experience.  But as a general rule of thumb, I’m not convinced that any organization should ever entertain a process that negatively impacts its ability to create stronger relationships with customers.  

Be careful of the lure of bright, shiny Big Data metrics.  Beware the rationalizations that cause us to stop looking at customers as individuals, and the individual relationships we need to have with them.  Ask yourself every day, “What reason does Mr. or Mrs. Smith have to be loyal to us?”

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Excellent perspectives on an important subject. The only caveat, or thought to suggest, is that in truly customer-centric organizations, there is a fair amount of collaborative process design or redesign (between customer and company, part of journey and transactional moment mapping) to optimize customer experiences and strategic relationships.

  2. Shaun: I fully agree that processes can look great on paper. And also agree with “beware the rationalizations that cause us to stop looking at customers as individuals, and the individual relationships we need to have with them.” I too find that corporate culture often infects people by rewarding them them for being beholden to processes, rather than for being beholden to outcomes.

    But there’s one thing missing from your points about the benefits of centralized call centres. While I can’t comment on Sheraton’s motivation, my experience has been that such design can improve customer service.

    Case in point. You arrive at your hotel late at night after a long trip. There are two harried hotel staffers working behind the desk, and both are on the phone. One quickly looks up and says, “I’ll be with you in just a minute,” and then continues on with the call. She says to the unknown customer, “we don’t have anything with twin beds for that night, just king . . . ” Pause. Then, “The following week we’re sold out. . . ” “Then, I could try our other property to see if they have availability. . . ”

    And so it goes, while you do a slow burn, because you’re tired and all you want to do is check in. Similar vignettes have happened to me more times than I care to remember. And when you’re standing at the front desk – waiting – you’re incredulous that the hotel doesn’t offload this tedium to a central reservations operation that is much better equipped to handle the load, thereby enabling front-line staff to provide – customer service!

    As I discuss with all my clients, one of the characteristics of strategy is the acceptance of trade-offs. But in the case you described, it doesn’t have to sacrifice the personal touch that many of us value. There’s no reason the Sheraton central reservations system couldn’t (or shouldn’t) recognize that you are a frequent guest at the St. Catharine’s location. That you prefer rooms on the second floor, and that your newspaper preference is the local paper, not USA Today or The Wall Street Journal. Even though the person handling the reservation has never met you, these artifacts can enter the conversation, and personalize the interaction.

    What’s needed, as you point out, is that companies have to stop their mentality of driving cost out of conversations to the point where customers are not served. Process designers should quit using fuzzified terms like “average customer” or “caller.” They need to look beyond the simplistic, singular process “happy paths” they have created, and recognize that personalized service cannot always be scripted, or driven through one-size-fits-all algorithms.

  3. Really good observations. The big concern I always have is the “When all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail” phenomenon. Andrew, your example of the tired traveller and the long wait is really valid (and one I can totally relate to!). But in today’s metric and process-focused world, we now look exclusively to processes to fix these situations. And I’m not convinced it’s always the right approach.

    Organizations, like hotels, need to look beyond the simple, “Let’s flip them over to the contact centre” solution, in hopes that all the cool and trendy CRM tools will compensate. Yes, sometimes, it’s the right solution. It is certainly the easy solution. But often it is not the best solution – not when it comes to creating personal relationships.

    In the example you cited, for instance, what would the other options be? Better training for the employees in customer service and triage? More employees on the floor? Cross-training so that other employees could fill in? Do you set up a system where you give the guest a key, and tell him you’ll sort things out later? I won’t pretend to know which is best, but if I were the hotel GM, responsible for maximizing bums-in-beds, I would certainly want to exhaust personal relationship-based options before I resorted to process-based options.

    I really like the term ‘fuzzified,’ by the way. Can I use it?!

  4. I hereby assign Shaun Belding unlimited rights for the use of ‘fuzzified,’ ‘fuzzification,’ ‘fuzzify,’ or any related permutation. Grantor assigns no restrictions, and requests no attribution or royalties, other than a single 12 oz. (or preferably, 16 oz.) draft beer, should we have the opportunity to meet in person.


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