24 January 2013

“Did you find everything okay?”

It’s a question consumers hear on a daily basis, whether they’re at a grocery store, electronics store, sporting goods store or basically any kind of retail outlet.  Sometimes our answer is ‘yes’ and other times ‘no,’ but what never seems to change is the outcome from this little encounter.  Anyone reading this blog probably already understands why – because it’s not a service question, it’s a marketing statement.

(photo - cashier and customer "Did you find everything okay?")Much like “Welcome!” from greeters at many mega stores, this simple line is meant to project a customer-first attitude amongst a store’s employees (and at no additional cost!,) however, unlike a throwaway greeting, this question represents a much greater missed opportunity.

It is not that the asker (often a cashier) is disingenuous when asking this question, but rather the question itself is problematic and their training does not enable them to deal with the voices of customers they receive.  It is an avenue for feedback, but it almost always leads to a dead end.

The most immediate problem with this question is that it’s vague and open to multiple interpretations by different customers.  One of the main principles of asking good questions is making sure the respondent actually knows what’s being asked.

The first possibility that springs to my mind is, “Was the process of finding specific product groups and making selections easily accomplished?” This can be broken down in at least three ways as follows:
  • “Was our inventory organization logical to you?” 
  • “Was our inventory accessible to you?”  and 
  • “Did we provide enough information to help you decide?”  
There are likely more ways to break down the process of shopping, but it’s worth noting that an online store like Amazon, which has begun to enter the grocery business in some cities, can easily meet these needs without much extra effort through their existing online interface.  This makes it all the more important for today’s brick and mortar grocery stories to satisfy in these areas.

Another way to interpret the question is, “Do we carry the specific items you’re looking for?”  – either by item type or item brand. This is an issue of supply management and no amount of friendly customer service is going to help the customer get what they want on that current trip.

There might, however, be an easy and visible method for customer requisitions, which would not only please a customer but also guarantee a return visit when their item arrives.  This is often possible at electronics stores (although the process is far from visible or easy) but is rarely possible in grocery stores.  When a customer’s favorite brand of mustard or bread goes missing and they ask an employee why they no longer carry that item, they’re often met with an “I don’t know” which is neither helpful nor informative. The excruciating weakness of that response is that it could be!

Even when store representatives ask meaningful questions and their customers provide informative answers, they’re rarely trained with the necessary tools or provided a response channel to turn that voice of customer into helpful information.

Every time the question is asked, a store is in position to receive useful feedback, both positive and negative, yet that information goes nowhere; it gets stuck with a clerk who doesn’t know who to give it to or a manager who doesn’t want to receive it. “Did you find everything okay?” is a fa├žade of customer-first thinking, and fortunately there’re ways to improve it.

An easy start is to ask better questions, and to make sure your representatives know how to respond when the customer's answer is “no.”  A working response channel from customer to representative to management is important, however this is dependent on a customer’s time, mood and memory and may lead to skewed results.

For instance, feedback on message boards tends to occur more when something has gone wrong, rather than when something has gone right.  Questionnaires sent out by grocery stores tend to be focused on their own product or process rather than the customer’s experience (or their desired shopping outcome), and by the time customers receive them, they may not remember all of the relevant details from their shopping encounter.  Furthermore, even if a customer did have difficulty searching through a store’s shelves and a cashier was able to help them, what good would it do if the customer had already waited in line and was about to pay (as they often are when the question is asked)?

For these reasons, going to the gemba is the most effective way to find customers’ needs in order to improve their shopping experience.  True customer-first thinking means discovering if they “found everything okay” (and everything it entails) before they check out of your store.

Ken Mazur

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16 January 2013

When your EOB becomes an SOB!

When is information from a service provider (or any vendor) too little or too much? I'd like to share a recent experience with my health insurance company.

When It Is Too Little. 
My university offered me health insurance on an "opt-out" basis, meaning I was included unless I chose not. The insurance would only covered me and not my family, so I did not want it. I missed the opt-out deadline, and unbeknown to me, I was added to the university policy, which used the same health insurance company as my family policy.

This insurance company, seeing two policies under my name, automatically dropped my family policy. They did not call me, they did not write me; they just sent me a refund check in the mail.

When I received the check, I called them to find out why – it was a refund of my family policy which has been in place over decades with no lapse in premium payment, and yet they decided to cancel it without ever asking me. Stunned and outraged, I had to buy a separate "bridge" policy for my family from a different insurance company.

Eventually I was able to reinstate my cancelled family health insurance policy and get off the university plan, but it took a month of calls to both the insurance company and university and dealing with their bureaucratic processes before finally getting things straighten out.

When It Is Too Much. 
photo - Billing Statement
Yesterday, my insurance company just sent me a revised EOB (explanation of benefits), about a hospital treatment from a few months ago, for which they had already reimbursed since then. I have the original hospital bill as well as the first EOB showing a balance of $0.00.

However, the revised EOB I just received indicated that nothing had been paid to the hospital and that I was responsible for the full amount (it was expensive!).

I called the insurance company and they explained these details: After the original bill was reimbursed, the hospital lowered their price (hospital billing error) and re-sent a smaller bill to the insurance company. This triggered the insurance company to "take back" the original payment and send me a revised EOB explaining nothing had been paid.

Then, the insurance company paid the hospital the lower amount, and issued a "revised, revised EOB" showing that my balance was now $0.00 again. This revised, revised EOB will be mailed to me next week, they tell me. How confusing!

In other words, in this case the insurance company, for some internal reason, decided to write to me the intermediate information that I did not need to know. Because of this intermediate and incomplete information, I became very worried and spent a lot of time, trying to find out what happened. It would have been better had they told me nothing and just handled the transaction between the hospital and the insurance company. SOB!

11 January 2013

Kansei Engineering and Education

One of the "cousin" methods we use in Modern QFD is called Kansei Engineering, which I often translate as emotional quality (when used by itself) or lifestyle deployment (when combined with QFD).

The original concept creator, Dr. Michio Nagamachi, also uses it for ergonomics (both physical and emotional) in order to elevate a produce above its pure functionality.

In a January 5, 2013 article in the New York Times by Al Baker, "Ergonomic Seats? Most Pupils Squirm in a Classroom Classic", the subject of school chairs interested me greatly. It seems that even today, most schools see chairs as a means to corral children so they can learn in the traditional school settings that date back to the 19th century 5-S approach: sit straight, speak only when spoken to, study only the books we approve, store easily, and save money.

photo - school chairs

Saving money seems to still trump the others, as schools continue to buy chairs that will last 30-50 years. Despite a German study and recent experience that children's comfort and engagement are improved with more ergonomic and mobile chairs, schools are slow to change. Professor Galen Cranz in her 1998 book "The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design," wished child movement were accorded more consideration.

From a QFD and Kansei perspective, children should be seen as "customers" and users of the chair.  Today's classrooms, group work, electronics, and other educational tools should be observed in "gemba" visits (actually go to a classroom and see how teachers and students interact), so that 21st century chairs and desks can be created to help children achieve their educational goals.

I know observing children is problematic, and adjustments to the gemba methods must be made. You may find these papers helpful:
  • "Jurassic QFD" (1999) where children were observed in a petting zoo during the design of an animatronic triceratops

03 January 2013

Capturing voice of social network and using it

Brian X. Chen reports in the January 2 2013 Bits section of the New York Times, "The iPhone Goofs Up on Telling Time, Again," that the new Do Not Disturb (DND) function on iOS6 iPhone failed to turn off for many users on New Years Day.

This is a new feature that allows iPhone users to set a quiet time (like when you sleep) to block incoming calls and alerts. It is suppose to turn itself off at a pre-determined time so that calls, alerts, and alarms can be heard.This bug is even more noteworthy because it is featured in a new television commercial airing this week. NYT readers first blasted Apple for the bug, and then turned on themselves for whining about such a small inconvenience.

This brings to mind two QFD concepts. The first is the famous "Sales Point" column in the quality planning table room on the right side of the House of Quality matrix (or done independently in Blitz QFD®) where a selling point is given extra weight which eventually strengthens the improvement calculation for related technical requirements. Below is one example of a HOQ with Sales Points weights (the yellow highlighted column).

example - HoQ matrix (partial) with Sales Points weights

The purpose of the "sales points" column has been frequently challenged as it seems to do the same job as the relative importance and the level-up columns, and is thus redundant. Dr. Akao's purpose, however, was to add a sales point value when the associated customer need is going to be promoted, as in the case of this Apple commercial. The added weight would direct engineers and software developers to  pay more attention to its auto on/off functionality.

The second point, I commented myself back to the New York Times:
"I see the DND issue as one of software quality. Developers often have incomplete or inaccurate use cases around which they design their features and code. They do not fully understand how the feature gets used in real life, and so sometimes get it wrong. Like the proverbial mushroom, they are kept in the dark and fed s**t!
It is comments from users like you who post here that can provide the necessary insight to do the job right the first time. There are methods for analyzing the voice of the customer, like QFD, that actually build on your feedback and help marketeers and engineers do their jobs better. So keep on blogging and contributing your experiences - we will all benefit."

My second point is that every opportunity to get customer feedback should be welcomed by a company. Many companies do monitor social media as part of their customer relationships management (CRM) programs, but not all companies forward the information to new product development departments.

The customer voice table is the QFD tool for analyzing these comments. In order to give engineers direction for improvements and next generation products, negatives and complaints should be reversed into positive statements, and technical solutions should be translated into product independent customer needs.

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