Faced with a number of people earnestly competing for upgrades to First Class seats, the airline gate agent called for attention and made a succinct announcement. “These four people,” he said, and read off the names, “have a chance for the available upgrades. All others should board the aircraft. Be aware that if another upgrade became available, I won’t be able to go into the aircraft to find you — the only way you can be considered is if you are still out here at the gate.” A CEO of an accounting firm, overhearing this, snorted: “He can’t say that! He’s supposed to be in a Customer Service role!” I turned and replied: “He is in a Customer Service job. But that’s not the same thing as Customer Retention. And he has no perceived Profitability role at all.”
Policy Drives Procedure
The look on the CEO’s face was shocked, for he’d never considered the difference before. We introduced ourselves, and I continued: “That agent’s job is to get people loaded onto the plane as efficiently as possible, and he’s doing it, minimizing the upsets as best he can in the process. Once loaded, and the plane’s away, he’ll go on to get another plane loaded. That’s what his Management has hired him to do, to fill the seats they’re selling.”
Every day, throughout Corporate America (and beyond), there are many thousands of customer service reps doing their all to provide the best level of service they can with the available resources and within the constraints of their company’s policies. Their mantra is transactional: “Solve the Problem, Satisfy the Customer” — in that order. Their performance is measured by a variety of largely irrelevant metrics involving time, customer expressions of satisfaction and/or abstract notions about how the job should be done so as to smooth the operation of the service group.
Those hard-working CSRs did not set up the rules of the Break/Fix game that they were hired to play. The C-Level officers of their companies, whose job it is to define the strategic and relationship policies and connect them to continuing profitability, didn’t deliver. The result is a significant gap that will be filled over time by the effects of uncounted tactical decisions made by people who are not accountable for the results. In the eyes of the Senior Management team, there is no perceived connection between the language of a gate agent and the overall profitability of the company.
Products, or Customers?
I stood in a long line at another airline gate on a different trip. I was at the end of the queue, almost up against the desk of a competitor. The competitor’s gate agent recognized me by sight despite the very long interval since I’d last flown with them. “Where are you going today?” she asked. I told her, and expressed a fear that my flight was going to be seriously delayed and the connection missed. She held out her hand for my ticket. Looking it over quickly, she said: “I can’t get you there today better than what you already have — but I wish I could. Are you going to be traveling more this year?”
The difference between the two gate agents was not due to policy reasons, for both were in the same job with the same metrics. The second differentiated herself personally; she liked dealing with people that she knew, and did what she could to make them want to come back. She is customer-centric, but her company is product-centric, in the business of selling airline seats. Unfortunately, her refreshing manners are almost certainly not going to be sustainable against the consistent pressures of her job as defined over the long term.
Which is more strategic, in your company; products, or customer relationships? It’s important to be accurate, for the truth can’t be hidden. And when the customer’s expectations are not consistent with their experience, their reaction to the gap can have significant impact upon your profitability.