Learn how you can take customer service into account in business process design

Last year I bought a new house. This was at least my fourth mortgage process with the same lender, a major national commercial and retail bank, but the process was different this time.

In the past, I’d been asked for a pile of information, which I either faxed or handed over to a mortgage officer. This time, I was given a login to a website where I found a massive list of information I was asked to upload to the site.

If I had a question, I still had to submit something along with my question, no matter how pointless – and it was sometimes several days before I got a response. Some of the questions were repetitive, and I found it impossible to clarify certain sticking points. I found myself missing the fax machine.

I imagine from the bank’s perspective this was all just fine. It was an efficient workflow process that eliminated the need for expensive, experienced mortgage officers. Their smaller and more specialized mortgage staff could handle a larger load of mortgages in this re-engineered business process.

But it was a terrible experience for the customer.

What’s Wrong with Today’s Process Design?

Business process redesign has passed from the Michael Hammer craze of the 1990s into standard practice. Few in business question the need to look at process efficiencies when implementing a new system, business function or service.

A few of the classic principles from 1993’s “Re-engineering the Corporation” by Michael Hammer and James A. Champy:

  • Organize around outcomes, not tasks
  • Integrate information processing work into real work that produces the information
  • Link parallel activities in the workflow instead of just integrating their results
  • Put the decision point where the work is performed, and build control into the process

I love these principles. They are an engineer’s dream. They are about efficiency and rationality, and as a recent TV ad coined, perfect for “efficiency enthusiasts.” That’s me.

However, those are the engineering principles, the key instructions given to the team reviewing the process.

As process re-engineering – or business process improvement – became standard, it also had to take on pragmatic business principles that defined what it would take to get acceptance for the new process.

Those less formally stated principles included:

  • Design to the happy path
  • Design to reduce costs and cycle times
  • Process design should support technical investments

These points are management principles and are really more about money than efficiency. At first glance, though, this doesn’t matter. Hammer’s efficiencies would seem to translate directly to reduced costs and cycle times.

As for the happy path (i.e., not designing to exceptions), this is pure pragmatism in getting something delivered. If more than 90 percent of your instances, you will follow a standard path and make sure that’s as efficient as heck.

Redesigning Processes with Customers in Mind

There remains a gap between these two principles, however. It so happens that the customer lives there.

First of all, a lot of Hammer’s focus was on behind-the-scenes processes where there was no external customer to worry about. Internal customers, it was presumed, could be encouraged to support the new and efficient processes.

Second, think about how companies have reduced costs in customer service. Automation is a big part of the answer, with menus sorting customers out as much as possible before they talk to a human being. Better still, some customers never have to take up valuable human time at all.

There are two problems with this thinking:

  1. Most customers think their problem is special. They don’t think they belong on the happy path.
  2. You can design to a standard flow, but if you’re trying to build an automated process, you have to think of EVERYTHING.

So what do you need to do to include customer service in your business process improvement?

In my mortgage example, the process missed a few things:

  1. The people I had contact with didn’t have the knowledge or discretion to handle special cases, so they could neither solve the problem nor adequately advocate for me.
  2. The automated workflow process created the illusion of progress, even though significant issues remained unresolved.
  3. Additionally, I expected to be treated better by a company that I’d been a customer of for so long. At the very least, I figured that the bank shouldn’t have needed to ask me for so much information; after all, they know more about me than my mother does.
  4. Better still, I would have thought that the process could have been streamlined to respect either loyalty or knowledge of my personal finances.

Here are my suggestions for how to take customer service into account in business process design:

  1. Allow for discretion by your customer service team. You can’t – and shouldn’t – design for every contingency. Empowering your team is good for their morale and can drive positive customer experiences.
  2. Don’t make a workflow or automated menu system something your team hides behind. Every step is a trade-off of efficiency at the expense of customer satisfaction, especially when you have a frustrated customer.
  3. Give the process some flexibility in handling long-time repeat customers. This is not just a different phone number for your “elite” members. It should allow for what you already know about your customers and what sort of questions a repeat customer will ask.
  4. Don’t try to upsell someone who wants to cancel your service or return a product. You win with your customers by showing respect and trust, aggravate them by deflecting their concerns. That’s not respectful or trustworthy.
  5.  Allow an entry into your process for someone who’s not a customer. Don’t make the first question in your automated response system: “Enter your account number.” They might not be a customer now, but a good experience might convert them.

Solid, efficient process design is a powerful tool to create business value. With these suggestions, you can help them create additional value through positive customer experiences.