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Getting a Close Shave in Customer Service

Ed Fine is the President of FINEworks, a company that assists organizations in aligning their operations with their corporate strategies. The firm specializes in strategic planning and organizational design and development.

With so many companies investing heavily in customer service, and moving the customer experience “up the value chain”, consumers’ expectations for truly seamless service are rising sharply. So rapidly, in fact, that even strong (and expensive) corporate efforts at providing excellent service can prove disappointing to the consumer. A recent experience I had demonstrates this more complex consumer landscape.

Last year I purchased a Philishave electric shaver. It was bought on.line in a wonderful process that involved emails to me at each point of the order process (your order has been received, your order has been processed, your order has been shipped . . . .) By the way, this was my fourth Philishave in 35 years. So what if I am boring . I do like the product, and my decision had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that the latest model was featured in a recent James Bond movie. I had no expectations of attracting a bevy of winsome (if often lethal) young ladies. Not one. Not even dreams. No, the thought did not cross my mind – but I digress.

After less than a year it stopped charging (and I am not referring to my libido!). Of course, who can find the warranty papers? So I browsed the Philips websites. Among their 55 (yes, I counted them!) country sites I found Canada. From the vast range of their products and services, I selected consumer products and then Personal Care, Men’s grooming and somehow found a 1-800 number. I called one evening and was answered on the 2nd or 3rd ring. Way to go for service level and speed to answer! And the rep was clearly intent on helping me. After explaining my problem (or rather the shaver’s problem), I heard the magic words every unhappy consumer longs for “No problem, we will replace your shaver”. Just like that. No hassle.

She was a little uncertain about the precise procedures in Canada, so after checking with her supervisor (which took about a minute), she told me that I would be sent a letter (from the Philips centre in Atlanta) with instructions. When I asked if this could be emailed, I was told no, since the letter would contain a courier envelope to return the shaver for a replacement. Clearly, Philips has invested heavily in a gold-plated warranty system to ensure customer delight – not just satisfaction.

I waited for the letter – and waited. Hey, these things take time. A few weeks later, now sporting an itchy beard, I called again, and again was answered within 3 rings. The service rep quickly found my file (without need for me to provide a reference number – another plus!), and said she would follow up. Her prompting must have worked, because the letter arrived about 10 days later – about 1 month after my initial call. My beard was past the itchy stage.

But the letter contained no envelope. It did contain a form and a courier account number to use to return the shaver at Philips’ expense. Good process? Somebody in marketing may have thought so, but not I: after all, the information could have been emailed to me and the whole process completed by now.

I dutifully completed the form and returned the shaver and accessories. And waited. A service manager from
Markham called me to advise the shaver was on back order – it would be another 2 or 3 days. Another positive touch point. So I waited. And waited. Another follow-up call to the call centre again answered in 2 or 3 rings. The file was up to date, and I was given the name of the service manager in Toronto who had called me, and her phone number. (At this point, I am beginning to wonder what James Bond would do?) A call the next day resulted in telephone tag between our respective voice mail systems spanning 2 or 3 more days. When we finally connected, the service manager asked if I would rather have a replacement shaver or cash refund. I thanked her for offering to go the “extra mile” in customer service but I stuck to my 007 guns. I wanted a new shaver. My beard was now at the stage that travel to the USA would be difficult, if not outright dangerous.

The shaver did arrive a couple of days later, but not before I received a call from a market research firm to survey my experience with the Philips call centre. Was my call answered promptly (YES); courteously (YES); were the reps informed (YES); helpful (YES), and so on. On the 10 point Lickert scale I probably scored them at 8 or 9. On the same scale I would score my own satisfaction a 3.

Everyone involved was sincere and interested in providing good customer service. Too many steps, unclear procedures, policies and practices for what sounds like a low incidence occurrence. All added to the cost for the company.

So here was a company that had decided at a corporate level to invest heavily in after sales service and product satisfaction. However, it failed to take account of two important dimensions. The first is the complex interaction of other business processes involved between the initial problem call and its successful resolution. Operational staff was clearly aligned to the company’s objectives of providing high end service; however, they were not supported by business process design. What were the internal steps involved in getting a letter issued? What internal tracking processes are available to ensure internal service standards and timelines are achieved?

The second dimension is to understand more fully the ways that customers are interacting with the company and its products. For a complex enterprise such as Philips, should its websites be organized to facilitate internet searches? For example, Goggling Philips customer service Canada does not yield any of the Philips websites on the first page. (The second entry, “Philips banks on customer service” is about a Canadian named Phillips working in Denver). And why not enable the call centre to respond directly with email to initiate the warranty process?

Bottom line: I love the product, and based on my (too many!) interactions, I believe the Philips staff are very customer focused. And so is the firm. However, I am concerned that somebody may review these processes and (correctly) conclude that they are too expensive to justify. A less generous policy, however, may not align with the company’s strategic objectives, such as dominating the high end of the market. A more appropriate conclusion might be to re-engineer the business processes to improve service and reduce costs, and thus reinforce Philips’ position in the marketplace.

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