Better Customer Service Through Process Standardization

Ann All
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Last spring I wrote about a ContactBabel survey that found most customer service representatives genuinely wanted to help customers but often couldn't because underlying technologies and processes didn't offer them enough support - and in some cases, made it more difficult to solve customer problems.


I got that impression just this morning while trying to switch one of my subscription services to an automated payment option. When the agent asked me if I had a pen handy to write down a confirmation number, I asked him to email it to me, which he apparently couldn't do. To review my information, he put me on hold and transferred me to another agent who read my information to me. He also had trouble answering some pretty basic questions. I got the impression this may have been his first week - or even first day - on the job.


I couldn't help but contrast this experience to those I suspect customers of Carphone Warehouse enjoy. The company just snagged a Gartner BPM Excellence Award in the "Leveraging BPM Technology" category, I recently interviewed two folks from Carephone Warehouse's technology partner, Nimbus CEO and founder Ian Gotts and Nigel Kilpatrick, SVP, Major Accounts Europe Nimbus Partners.


Carphone Warehouse is part of Best Buy's European operations, along with the Geek Squad and The Phone House. The company expanded its business rapidly, largely by acquisition, from its debut in 1989 to 2008, when Best Buy agreed to buy a 50 percent share for 1.1 billion (about $1.8 billion U.S.) to launch the Best Buy Europe joint venture. Not surprisingly for a company with multiple business lines, especially one with lots of acquisition activity, Carphone Warehouse lacked process consistency.


Realizing this, it created standard operating procedures for more than 1,800 processes and rolled them out to more than 7,000 employees in 815 retail stores. Employees can easily access processes via a PC or other device. In essence, it puts an operations manual at their fingertips, as seen in this video of a Carphone Warehouse employee pulling up the step-by-step process for a product return. The employee can drill down for more information, if necessary, at the click of a mouse. (I can't help but think this kind of system would have helped me get better service from my apparently rookie service rep this morning.)


He also showed how each employee can access a "to-do list" that contains information on new products, policies and procedures, which he called "very good for communication." That's part of the effort to ensure procedures are as "current and up-to-date as possible" and employees get them in a timely manner, said the company's head of customer service in another video. It's especially important in a retail environment like Carphone Warehouse, where employees are challenged to keep up with all of the new smartphones, tablets and other devices hitting the market.


As the company's head of operations notes in yet another video (Nimbus has several showcasing Carphone Warehouse on its site), the end user interface was one of the main reasons Carphone Warehouse chose Nimbus. The company wanted the system to be easy to use for all employees, even those who are not technically inclined.


A screen shot in the video shows how icons such as keys for security-related processes make it simple to track down needed information. This approach is preferable, said Kilpatrick in our interview, to process projects in which content is delivered to users in EPC (event-driven process chain) or other traditional process formats, "with yellow and blue boxes and symbols people can't understand."


Another selling point was Nimbus' software-as-a-service delivery model, which the head of operations said freed IT from application development and other tasks. "Our organization couldn't have delivered change so quickly," he said.


The video also shows a call center agent accessing processes in a setup similar to the one used by the retail store employee. Giving employees ready access to standardized processes ensures customers "get the same experience no matter which advisor they talk to," the agent said. He works with two monitors, so he can have the customer record up on one screen while accessing the step-by-step process he needs on the other. As Gotts said in our interview:

Standardizing liberates people so they can apply their energies to delivering exemplary customer service. There are no struggles to find the right document, or the right policy or the right system.

Employees also seem to be happier. As Kilpatrick told me, the retention rate has improved as have internal employee feedback scores. Instead of individual sales commission, they now receive incentives based on customer satisfaction scores and on store performance and profitability. Such a system wouldn't work without the necessary process support, said Kilpatrick:

... You can track user complaints with Nimbus Control. That information is automatically sent back to the operational excellence team, which can collate the store complaints, address the commonalities in real time, do the process fix and in narrow time get it back out to the stores. ... If customers make a complaint over the phone, it works exactly the same way. In the old days you'd have a call center manager saying, "We've got a target of 900 complaints this week instead of a thousand." But Nimbus Control's database structure helps address the actual process issues. The excellence team can manage it no matter where the complaint originates. And there are real incentives for the whole operation to fix it.

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