Blue chip client – those three words are catnip to any professional whether sole trader or major firm. In a discussion on golden questions – the key questions a client should ask their consultant to ensure their best value – I was reminded of a blue chip client of a firm I worked for where their golden question could best be summarised thus:
A report into consulting skills for the next decade has lessons for all kinds of organisation
The Centre for Management Consulting Excellence, a pro bono organisation set up in 2017 to foster excellence in consulting through greater links with research, launched a report into Consulting Skills for 2030 this week. Drawing on interviews and surveys with consultants and “non-consultants” – i.e. potential buyers of consulting services (or if you’re being cynical, people with “real jobs”) the report comes to some interesting conclusions about what we will all be focusing on in 10 years’ time.
Respondents were asked to rank various skill/technology areas according to their likely impact, from very significant down to negligible. Perhaps surprisingly, Cyber Security emerged as the area that most respondents rated as very significant or significant, with AI – which is what the report writers had originally expected to be the most impactful – beaten into second place and Robotics ranked lowest, just below the Internet of Things.
Cyber Security is the biggest risk faced by organisations now and survey respondents felt that knowledge about the topic in most organisations is inadequate, with a poor understanding of risks and potential solutions. It’s thus a massive roadblock on the way to a productive digital future.
In terms of skillsets required, technical knowledge is almost certainly not sufficient as Cyber Security experts need to be able to combine a deep insight into the area with an ability to “sell” these ideas into the C-Suite and generate an understanding of and commitment to the security strategies as well as the complex regulatory and legislative environment that will prevail.
AI – who knows?
Although it came second in terms of impact, Artificial (or Augmented) Intelligence produced a huge polarisation of views from respondents, with a number thinking that the impact would be later than 2030 and others thinking that there would be considerable competition and impact for large and medium-sized firms in the period 2020-2030, as these firms would be investing in the area.
One potential impact is on the traditional “pyramid” model where large firms generate revenue from deploying relatively large numbers of lower-paid consultants on more routine jobs such a data and business analysis. These would be eroded by the increased adoption of AI technologies to automate these jobs – an impact likely to be felt in all types of businesses, not just consulting.
Whilst most of the skill areas highlighted in the report point to a deepening level of technical knowledge, the impact of, and need for “timeless” skills such as stakeholder management, project and change management was felt to be very significant by the majority of respondents. The subject matter will evolve over time, but these “softer” skills will be just as critical.
The classic consultant skill set is often described as “T-shaped” which is to say that you have a deep area of expertise and then a broad set of skills that you use and grow over time. Typically, these will be the softer, change and stakeholder management skills. The challenge organisations face is that there are an increasing number of areas that require deep skills and the people who possess them are “I-shaped” – deep technical specialists with fewer of the broad skills that will help them get their deep knowledge across. This is a challenge not only for consultancy firms but for the companies that buy their services or develop them in house.
The client knows best
One final point from the report is worth emphasising: those respondents from non-consulting organisations estimated that the impact from the new areas would be more significant than the consultants did. This suggests that consultants are confident in their ability to absorb new areas of knowledge (not as someone at the launch event on 20th March suggested, in the taxi on the way to the client), whereas the buyers of consultancy are perhaps a little more sceptical.
Predicting the future is a notoriously unreliable sport: no-one foresaw the rise of the likes of Uber and similar models when mapping apps were starting to be developed, so apprehension about areas of new technology may be justified. It’s the unknown quantity: people who can develop innovative capabilities on the back of these technologies that represents the greatest threat.
The consultancies that can successfully ride the waves of change that new technologies bring will be those that learn and adapt the fastest and pass that insight on to their clients.
Perhaps the question businesses should be asking of their consultants is not “tell me what you know, and what it means for my business” but “tell me how you learn, and how you can help me learn”.
For a really effective way to manage complaints profitably, you have to be prepared to learn
I don’t often look to fictional characters for management advice, but if you’ve had any exposure to the Star Wars universe, you’ll know that diminutive Jedi master Yoda is capable of some cornball wisdom that occasionally hits the spot.
When it comes to complaints management his line from The Last Jedi “the greatest teacher failure is” pinpoints the difference between organisations that thrive on complaints management and those that would rather sweep their customers’ gripes under the carpet.
As I’ve mentioned before, complaints are a goldmine of opportunity for turning grumpy customers into raving fans and gaining enhanced revenue as a result. But to do this you have to have a fully joined-up approach that covers detection, handling and learning.
Back in 1990, Peter Senge, then Director of the Systems Thinking and Organisational Learning Programme at Sloan School, MIT, published a seminal book, The Fifth Discipline, that introduced the idea of the “Learning Organisation”. Re-reading it, I’m struck by how much advice it offered appears to fall into the category of the “bleeding obvious” – but on reflection has still not been adopted by most businesses.
Maybe the concept of a learning organisation sounds too academic, non-action orientated, even un-business-like to have gained real traction, but in the world of customer complaints a learning organisation focused on customer outcomes is exactly what you should strive to become.
Let’s reflect on Senge’s five disciplines of a learning organisation and see what they tell us:
- Systems thinking – the need to view the organisation as a joined-up whole, where actions in one part may have a positive or negative implication in another. Forgetting to think systemically is a trap that complaints managers can fall into. Actions with a positive effect in one area may result in negative effects elsewhere. Looking at end-to-end process rather than silo boundaries can help prevent this.
- Personal mastery – the requirement for individuals to commit to a process of wider learning, as the basis of organisational learning and therefore impact. This is straying into Yoda territory, but you need people who are committed to their continuous development so whilst fairly obvious, is key to managing complaints effectively, particularly as wider perspectives can be considered.
- Mental models – the need to test the assumptions held by individuals and the organisation about the way things work. Challenging these is essential for customer-centric innovation, particularly in response to complaints.
- Shared vision – seen by Senge as essential in motivating staff to learn. Although vision is seen by some as an outmoded concept, anything that motivates staff – I’d prefer a strong statement of purpose (e.g. our purpose is to use our customers’ feedback as the basis for improvement) – is valid here.
- Team learning – this“Fifth Discipline” is where the organisation builds on its individual responses to learn collectively about how it can improve. The benefit of this approach is that the problem-solving ability of an organisation is significantly enhanced, so arriving at a solution to a complaint-generated issue should be easier with this discipline in place.
In the loop
My back-of-an-envelope analysis of Senge’s model says that at least 80% of it is critical to closing the loop on complaints, but what is this loop that needs closing?
Put simply, there is a virtuous circle that organisations can put themselves in where what you learn from a failure to delight your customers feeds into improvement activity and a renewed commitment to detect when customers are unhappy.
In fact, this process is a version – admittedly rather high-level – of Senge’s first and most important discipline, systems thinking. So, how do you inject this approach into learning from customer complaints?
Beat the system
Anyone reading this piece who’s involved in complaints will be familiar with the various quality and other techniques used in Root Cause Analysis (RCA). I won’t reiterate them here – like any tool different techniques are applicable in different circumstances – but there’s a danger with the RCA approach. You may be able to get solutions that address the complaint but miss the big picture – or the organisation may feel that the big problem that’s preventing a breakthrough in customer satisfaction is too difficult to address.
The organisation can then find itself in the opposite of a virtuous circle where the solutions implemented from RCA fix point problems in the customer journey but don’t have much overall impact. As a result, RCA will be starved of the resource it needs to do a thorough job on the complaints in its workstack, results will be sub-optimal, and the cycle will continue.
To avoid this, complaints organisations need to make sure that they focus on customer outcomes – i.e. the underlying reason why the customer was using the product/service in the first place before things went wrong. This big picture thinking increases the likelihood of everyone addressing the underlying issues and, if your organisation is practising the other disciplines, it will pull together to fix them.
Here in Britain we’re recovering from a crisis (I may be exaggerating) in the fast-food world. Fried chicken purveyor KFC found itself unable to meet demand for its fowl-in-fat products following a switch of logistics supplier. The situation was so bad that it had to close most of its stores while it sorted out the issues. This is a clearly a big cock-up (I’m not the first to make that joke) and the advantage, if there is one, is that the error is glaringly obvious and therefore getting to the root cause should be straightforward – and resources will be thrown at the problem to solve it quickly.
KFC have done a good job of responding, at least in terms of publicity, with a public apology and long-term probably won’t suffer too much.
However, what’s obvious, to me, is that KFC failed to pass on the learning from one supplier to another: the logistics involved in getting chicken hygienically from slaughter to fryer are highly sophisticated, apparently. I assume that their previously logistics supplier had refined their approach in response to customer and front-line feedback, but this learning clearly hadn’t made it to the new provider. In an outsourced environment, keeping the virtuous circle of a learning organisation in motion is even more of a challenge.
As Yoda might have said, “learning organisation the biggest challenge is”.
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