Five ways to get value from customer complaints

Unpacking the way in which my complaint to the AA was handled shows how a more customer-centric approach would have helped.

My recent experience with the AA resulted in a complaint which resulted in me leaving the AA, only to return as part of a much better deal with my car insurance provider. My original experience was bad but the complaints handling was not great either. However, as with all bad experiences, there is much that we can learn – in this case how to handle complaints so that they add value to the organisation and the customer.

My experience and observation of the complaint leads me to highlight five do’s and don’ts that, if followed, will turn your complaints department into a source of value for your organisation.

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Why bother with customer journey mapping?

It’s a powerful technique, but only under certain conditions

Be honest now: if I were to ask you where your customer journey maps are kept, could you – hand on heart – tell me exactly where they are on your company’s intranet?

You can? Great! Now, can you tell me the last time they were used, in anger, to design or improve something that had a direct impact on your business’s bottom line?

If your answer is sometime within the last three months or so, then you can probably skip this article (or go to the comments and let everyone know what a bang-up job you’re doing). If you’re hesitating a little, then read on: I’m going to tell you how this powerful technique can really add value, not just to the customer experience but to the bottom line.

Travelling hopefully

Customer journey mapping is one of those things that you immediately associate with the work of the customer experience (CX) function, along with customer satisfaction/NPS reports, focus groups and surveys and all the competences such a department should possess.

In summary, a customer journey map lays out the elements of the customer journey which, as survey firm SurveyMonkey reminds us, is:

“the complete sum of experiences that customers go through when interacting with your company and brand. Instead of looking at just a part of a transaction or experience, the customer journey documents the full experience of being a customer.”

And this, to me, encapsulates the problem with journey mapping: it’s an all-encompassing approach, but the positioning of customer experience within a lot of businesses doesn’t always enable such an approach to be taken.

When CX is relegated to a department then customer journey mapping will be the technique used by that department. Problem is, other departments with their own commendable desire to improve what they do will adopt a different technique – lean six sigma or process re-engineering for example – and the goal of a comprehensive approach becomes that much harder to achieve.

The problem is that customer journeys are seen as existing only on the customer-facing parts of the organisation, with all the process/back-office elements being someone else’s problem.

This is a big mistake.

When you think about it, the things that go wrong in a customer’s experience are a result of disconnects between front and back office. Simple example: if you order something in a restaurant and it turns up as a cold, congealed mess then chances are there’s a problem in the kitchen’s order handling and communication process, not with the front-of-house staff and the visible parts of the journey. Your “end-to-end customer journey” is definitely affected though.

On a road to nowhere?

But where is this journey heading? The definition quoted above is wider than many organisations use in practice: it’s easier to bite off a more transactional journey. In my restaurant example the transactional journey – where my desired customer outcome might “feed me satisfactorily” is OK in a fast food outlet, but in a more up-market establishment it is more likely to be “provide me with a great evening out/relaxed lunch with friends” or something similar.

In the latter example, the journey requires many elements to be combined, some of which may be out of the restaurant’s direct control e.g. travel to and from the restaurant but will still have an impact on the customer outcome.

The key thing in understanding the journey – whether it’s the delivery of a five-star meal or a four-wheel drive car – is that all the elements in the journey need to be represented when any improvement work is done.

The route to better mapping

This cross-functional view is one of the key elements of any customer-centric change endeavour and therefore is needed to make journey mapping a success. There are some other success factors that you also need to adopt to avoid it becoming a redundant exercise in creating wallpaper for the customer experience department’s offices.

1. Get meaningful input

It follows from the above point that most important thing that you can do in starting a journey mapping exercise is to get input from all elements in the journey – front and back office – but for that to be meaningful there has to be a shared understanding and commitment that the way the current journey works is sub-optimal and that in redesigning it, some of the unnecessary elements, process bottlenecks and so on, will become redundant.

2. Drive from customer outcomes

One of the main dangers in journey mapping is that it links customer touch points and then improves those touch points in the hope that they turn into “magic moments”. This is like putting lipstick on a pig – it may be more attractive but it’s still a pig – if the underlying processes don’t get improved as well. The best way to focus the cross-functional effort required to drive this improvement is to have a clear sense of customer outcomes. It’s essential to do this work first, otherwise you will be designing the journey based on assumptions rather than real insight into customer needs.

Once you have a clear view of customer outcomes, the journey design question should be “what’s the best way we can deliver the customer’s desired outcome” which produces a much more radical approach to processes. (One good example of this is the UK car insurance firm Direct Line who design their customer’s journeys around their outcome of getting to their destination if the customer’s car is involved in an accident, not around having an efficient claims handling process.)

Outcomes also drive the digitisation of the customer journey, not by assuming that digital technology will be the cost-saving panacea (usually by the lazy option of pushing effort out to the customer under the guise of self-service) but by looking for the opportunities to rethink the journey with digital as an enabler.

3. Recognise that journeys and processes are the same thing

If the customer journey is seen as something that exists on the surface of a process, it won’t be designed in an all-encompassing way.

One way of thinking about it is to consider the underlying back-office process as having customers – this way of thinking has been around in quality improvement thinking for many years – and, yes, those customers have feelings too, so the emotional aspect of journey design is important here as well.

4. Use a common technique

This is so obvious it shouldn’t need saying but I witnessed one large organisation that managed to have two different approaches to journey mapping running in the same division – a classic symptom of an organisation where customer experience is relegated to a function rather than being part of a common culture.

I don’t have a favourite technique – whether you use brown paper and post-it notes or the latest process mapping tools the key thing is that everyone should have a common language for describing the journey.

5. Make sure you link mapping to the drivers of RoI

I’ve described how customer experience can overcome the perception that it’s a nice-to-have by linking improvements to the benefits that drive a real return on investment (RoI). I’d go even further to say that if your journey maps don’t flush out real opportunities to eliminate wasted cost and drive up revenue you’re doing them wrong and they’re in danger of becoming an overhead your organisation doesn’t need.

6. Embed in a culture of continuous improvement

“Continuous improvement” is one of those dull, unsexy terms for what is the core competence of all successful businesses. You can term it “cultivating a relentless discomfort with the status quo” or “waging war on mediocrity” if you like but the fact is that once you’ve redesigned your customer journey that’s the start not the beginning. Making sure you capture metrics on performance goes hand in hand with this and enabling people in the organisation to make improvements is essential – and brings the added benefit of greater employee engagement.

So, answering my question at the beginning, if your maps are gathering dust somewhere (OK that doesn’t literally apply if they’re on the intranet) checking back against the above conditions might help you make them relevant and a major factor in your journey towards customer-centricity.


Customer success: the cornerstone of “21st Century Capitalism”

It would work just as well for socialism too

It’s party conference season in the UK at the moment, a few weeks where I get a morally-dubious pleasure in watching the main political parties in the UK conduct an exercise of inadvertent self-sabotage in a seaside or city location. It’s rather like those episodes of The Apprentice where one or both teams begin to implode: you know you shouldn’t find it entertaining but you can’t take your eyes off it all the same.

In the search for a vaguely new-sounding idea that doesn’t have anything to do with Brexit, I was interested to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, outline something called “21st Century Capitalism”. It’s the cheapest trick in marketing to put “Modern” (© New Labour, 1997) or something similar in front of a well-used word to make it sound fresh but, indulging Mr Hammond for a moment, what could it mean?

Luckily, his colleague the Chief Secretary to the Treasury (if any non-UK readers have got this far, don’t you just love our job titles?) Lynne Truss was on hand to explain to the BBC’s lunchtime news. It’s got something to do with social media and all the e-stuff that that includes, apparently. That’s the kind of loose definition that I can live with and I think she might be on to something: new media, and the rapid pace of change that goes with it, gives capitalists – I’m using the term to mean anyone running or working for a private or public sector business in a market-based economy – opportunities like never before.

The problem, as people seem to be hinting at lately, is that pre-21st Century Capitalism hasn’t exactly delivered health, wealth and happiness in line with many people’s expectations. So, how can we make it work? I’m no economist but that doesn’t prevent me from offering this hypothesis:

Customer success will be the tool to making capitalism work

By customer success I mean the next generation customer experience or customer experience 2.0 approaches that put the customer at the centre of what an organisation does, how it thinks and how it behaves.

Why is this different?

You could argue that successful organisations have always put the customer first. We do have the examples of Zappos, Southwest Airlines and many others to illustrate that and, if you’re pedantic you could argue that some of these organisations were successful in the 20th Century too. I totally agree, but the fact remains that most organisations don’t completely orient themselves around the customer and people are disillusioned with the current economic model.

Of course, putting those two statements in the same sentence doesn’t prove that lack of customer focus is the reason that capitalism isn’t working as well as it could be but consider what the alternative might be like.

No quick fix

Customer-centric organisations have the following characteristics:

  • They have propositions that focus on customer outcomes and utilise technology to deliver these creatively (see my recent story about Deliveroo using customer behaviour data to set up dark restaurants)
  • They recognise that happy employees are essential to deliver happy customers
  • They have a strong sense of purpose.

This sounds like the kind of organisation that would be one that people would find rewarding to work for – and not just financially. And whilst creating many thriving customer-centric enterprises wouldn’t solve some of the structural problems that the UK faces such as infrastructure, health and house prices overnight, it could be a major contributor to success.

By the left

At the other end of the political spectrum I find it hard to argue against enabling the kind of customer-focused organisation I have described as part of a more redistributive approach to the economy. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that – to avoid the trap of the traditional, faceless bureaucracies that characterised nationalised industries back in the 1970s – a customer success approach should be just as essential to 21st Century Socialism as it is to 21st Century Capitalism.

Focus: a recipe for customer success

Sometimes you just need to stick to one thing and do it really well

Back in January I had a celebratory meal that illustrated the good and bad aspects of complaint management and so it was with some trepidation that we embarked on another celebration recently – but this time at a different restaurant. Fortunately the experience could not have been more different, and the key to success this time was the restaurant’s single-minded focus.

Le Relais de Venise is a small, international chain of restaurants that offers you a choice of one thing: steak-frites. And it’s great.

To be specific, there is some choice: you can have your steak (only one type of cut) cooked in one of four ways – well done, medium, rare or bleu (no sitting on the fence with medium-rare) and there’s a good range of wines and a choice of desserts, mostly variations on the combination of ice-cream, cream, cake and chocolate.

But if you’re averse to red meat for any reason then the message is clear: this place is not for you.

I’m happy to say that for this unrepentant carnivore, the proposition is bang on the money, so let’s unpack it and find out why it works.

Firstly, and most importantly, did it deliver my desired outcome which was a great evening out to celebrate my wife’s birthday? It did, because all the elements were in place:

  • A great product – beautifully cooked, tender steak with plentiful French fries and, oh joy! actual “secret sauce”, which we spent a few minutes trying to figure out the ingredients of (probably cream, anchovies, parmesan – who cares? It was excellent).
  • Friendly service – despite the stern “no medium-rare” warning – and even though we were in the Soho branch on a busy Friday evening, it was relaxed and unhurried.
  • Reasonable prices – portion sizes (you get your steak in two servings, so it doesn’t get cold) are generous so it feels like value for money.

Core competence

Of course, if you can do one thing really well, it’s tempting to think you could expand your product line to include non-red meat options and thereby capturing more potential customers. But actually, why bother? In the case of Le Relais they would lose their distinctiveness if they expanded beyond their core competence of steak frites even though I am sure their chefs could knock up a pretty good sole meuniere or Poulet frites if asked.

I don’t know if, in these vegan-friendly, clean-eating times the market for a narrow slice of classic French cooking is big enough to sustain or even grow their operation – in the UK at least times are tough for the restaurant trade, but I hope so, since I am keen to return in future.

Focus and grow

But having a narrow focus doesn’t mean you have to stay where you are. Remember that Amazon started out as an online book retailer but soon built on their underlying core competence in distribution to offer almost anything, with a wide variety of delivery options.

Finding out what you should focus on and making sure you deliver it brilliantly is a fundamental business challenge. I believe having a clear idea of what customer success looks like – a combination of customer outcomes and customer experience – is fundamental. The rest is down to execution – as our regular contributor Gordon Tredgold often puts it: “the right job, done well”.

Or, putting it another way: what’s your equivalent of steak-frites?