Technology, Process and the Customer Experience
Digitization Is Not Just About Technology
Every learning organization is trying to figure out how to improve the customer experience and is looking to technology for help.
Digitized processes and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are seen as saviors to challenging consumer problems and high volumes of consumer calls, but a recent article in the Financial Times did some truth telling: “...few sophisticated (AI) commercial applications have emerged. Much of what passes today are the tone deaf chatbots who respond to customer complaints by wishing them a GREAT day!”
Digitizing processes is only partially about applying new technologies. A “front end” AI technology is often only a partial solution to a deeper operational problem.
There are operational processes behind a technology that must operate well to improve a customer experience. When those processes are internally fragmented–or fragmented across multiple companies–the challenge of delivering a good customer experience dramatically increases.
Shouting at the Chatbot
I personally experienced the challenge recently when my home internet service kept dropping its signal. My internet service provider (ISP) had just outsourced installing a new underground cable to a “third party” contractor. Was the problem the new underground cable, the cable box or the internal Goggle network that operates inside our home?
I made multiple calls to the ISP and was instructed to perform a set of tests and reconnect multiple wires. After hours of trying, nothing fixed the problem.
Somewhere in the calling process I had, unknowingly, been moved to a chatbot. As I became angrier, I started to shout loudly into the phone-until my wife pointed out that there was no person on the other end of the phone line.
It wasn’t until the next day that a service person showed up at our home and diagnosed the problem. He was very knowledgeable and, sensing our frustration, left us his personal cell phone number. Fortunately, he lives in a nearby community, so I now feel secure there is someone to call who can fix the problem if it reoccurs.
The good news is the broad movement to improve customer experience is educating service people to do the right thing for the customer at the “moment of truth.” But even a well intended and knowledgeable service person cannot overcome the challenges of fragmented processes.
And fragmentation across organizations is becoming increasingly common. When an Amazon order doesn’t show up, does the problem lie with the product or service provider, an Amazon warehouse or a UPS truck? Technology can track a package, but the underlying operational processes must still work.
The Challenge of Fragmentation
I could see the problems of fragmentation in my original reengineering work in the 1990’s. Why did work take so long, cost so much and why were there quality breakdowns?
The answer was always in the design of the work: it had been broken into finite tasks and distributed across departments, under the theory of specialization. Work that took just 10 minutes to complete might take a month to get to the customer as it moved through the complexity of companies.
Work needed to be redesigned from a process, not a task perspective, with a focus on delivering a dramatically improved output to the customer. When fragmentation was attacked in the redesign, the customer could experience lower costs, shorter cycle times and improved quality.
Companies spent the ‘90’s doing this kind of redesign work, addressing internal fragmentation. But I now believe the problem of fragmentation is getting worse as outsourcing increases. Fragmentation is also baked into the structure of some industries.
The Dreaded Journey Through Healthcare
There is no better example of the challenge of fragmentation than healthcare delivery–where the “customer experience” is usually referred to as the “patient experience.” I use this example here to illustrate the challenges of fragmentation and to suggest some principles for addressing those challenges.
A patient’s healthcare issue can engage multiple players: a physician and physicians group, a hospital, an insurance company, a government agency, a pharmacist and a pharmacy, various specialists, home care services, and, of course, the patient.
A person of privilege might have some form of concierge medical care, through which all this complexity gets managed. But most of us must manage our own patient experience.
Recently, I saw the case of a patient who had spent four days working through a pharmacy’s processes and systems to get a badly needed, but toxic, drug, even after the drug had been prescribed by his physician and approved by the patient’s insurance company!
Toxic drugs must be carefully dispensed, but a patient should not have the burden of repeatedly providing information that is already available in a pharmacy and prescribing hospital’s systems.
If there was anything positive about this patient experience, it was that patient was in good enough health to manage through it and that everyone along the way was being polite and trying to do their best.
The first challenge was the process of prescribing a drug which crosses organizational boundaries (in this case, a hospital’s and a pharmacy’s). Healthcare records don’t easily cross those boundaries.
The second problem in this example was that the pharmacy’s processes and technology were primitive.
The most aggressive approaches to these challenges would be either a “single payer system” or the standardization of all processes and technologies across the healthcare system. But neither of these are likely to happen in the United States in the near term.
Here are some principles for addressing fragmentation-whether in healthcare or other industries.
Transparency: Give your good ideas away to your partners and customers and make information available across organizational boundaries.
Giving your good ideas away may seem counterintuitive. But working across organizational boundaries requires openness and what I call the “harmonization” of the processes that work across organizations. That cannot happen without openness.
Most organizations believe they must keep their operating designs confidential for competitive reasons. But the truth is, competitive advantage today is a matter of execution. So let the world know how smart you are, give away your ideas and focus on how you are going to get work done with partners and customers.
On the matter of information, healthcare poses a contradictory problem. The underlying operating assumption is that healthcare information needs to be kept strictly confidential. But from the perspective of a person who is ill and seeking treatment, that person wants the multiple players in their care to have open access to all their records.
They're tired of having to fill out the same forms from provider to provider disclosing what meds they take, when that information is readily electronically available if processes and systems were “harmonized” across organizations.
Fix your own processes first, then engage with your partners.
One of the major problems in the healthcare example I cited above was the pharmacy did not have well integrated internal systems. People handling the dispensing of toxic drugs did not have access to the pharmacy’s retail systems. The pharmacy already had most of the information it needed, but it was not easily accessed.
When your own processes or systems don’t work, outsourcing and having to work across organizational boundaries just makes the customer experience worse.
Don’t just change the front end of your business, go deep.
Consumers are now getting used to-and cynical about-slick home pages or voice messages that ask questions to direct you to the right place to solve a problem, but when you go there electronically, no one is there! There's no one to call, no one to email, no one to shout at.
The age of “digitization” will enable companies to build sustainable quality customer experiences, but it will require a combination of sophisticated technologies and the hard work of rationalizing internal work processes.
There is a bright future ahead. It will just take a lot more work than most companies are anticipating.