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Six Sigma and more: David Schwinn
'Under promise, over deliver'

“Under promise, over deliver” is a phrase taught to me many years ago by my friend and colleague, PQ Systems’ own Michael J. Cleary. It may have always been true. It may always be true. It is certainly true today.

I am in the middle of a sabbatical that requires me to buy and learn to use new high definition video and arrange interviews, transportation, and lodging all over the world. Although the sabbatical is a lot of fun, it is really intense, since I have a limited amount of time to get the interviews done, reviewed, and documented into products that make some sense.

Once I decided to videotape the interviews, my friend Terry, whose media savvy I deeply respect, convinced me to record the interviews in high definition instead of using my little Handycam. Because I was entering into unknown territory and had a relatively short time to acquire and learn to use the equipment, I looked for the most reliable (by word of mouth) supplier I could find. I was careful to check, document, and double check all our agreements. Timing was tight, but everything was coming along until, less than two weeks before I was to leave, the supplier contacted me and said he could not get me all the equipment I needed. I have not taken the time to figure out what happened, but this company had given me a promise that they failed to meet. I scrambled around and got what I needed…barely in time for the trip.

At the same time, I started to work with a travel agency used by several colleges and universities in the area to plan our relatively complex, around-the-world trip. Because I was aware of the complexity of the trip, I asked what experience they had with this type of travel. They’d done it before…no problem. As we spent time trying to work out the details of the trip, I noticed that the agency seemed to become less and less responsive. The day that the tickets needed to be booked, I called, to discover that the agent I had been working with was gone and no one else had any way to help. Again, we scrambled to find another way, which meant starting our trip two weeks late and cutting it short. This is another example of a company not meeting its promise or, at least, its customer’s expectations.

I hope I will attempt to figure out what happened in both these situations, but for now I’m still scrambling to make my sabbatical a reality. I’m also remembering W. Edwards Deming frequently saying that managers are trying to put themselves out of business. That certainly seems true in the case of these two companies. My Customer Service textbook (Paul R. Tim, Customer Service, Prentice Hall, Saddle River, NJ: 2011) recently reminded of the statistics we all know:

  • It costs 5-6 times as much to get a new customer as it does to keep one;
  • Word of mouth has the predominant role in the spread of products and services;
  • Studies have shown that, on average 50-100 people will be told about bad service.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure that a firm is better off meeting or, better yet, exceeding its customers’ expectations than falling short of them. And it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that the firm usually sets the customers’ expectations. Under promising and over delivering makes sense. How do we accomplish it?

The first thing that comes to mind is training. So often, our front line folks are not given adequate training. We have all had the benefit of on-the-job training. The boss or peer says this is what you should do. You then start and learn how to do the job by asking questions when you do it wrong…often to the chagrin of the customer. Good on-the-job training is possible. I’ve even discussed it here in previous columns. As part of my recent personal journey, however, I was reminded that you can do more. With my new travel agency, AirTreks, the agent who worked with me provided frequent special assistance and advice, because she had already made the trips I was asking about. Start with good training and then go beyond.

Most front line folks want to help the customer. Make it easy to do this. I am reminded of a trip we made to a Ritz-Carlton Hotel years ago. Everyone on staff was allowed to spend $50 to make a customer happy. That was when $50 was a lot of money. This doesn’t have to be complex. It should be easy to make customer service positive.

Avoid the use of conditions, goals, and objectives that cause front line employees to shortchange customer service. We have heard of or been part of service systems that encourage front line folks to maximize the number of customers served, without regard to the quality of the service provided. I remember that when I was at Ford, before ‘Quality is Job One’ had been initiated, our field service reps were encouraged to spend as little money as possible to satisfy a customer complaint. That, of course, resulted in long negotiations that did nothing to enhance the customer’s view of Ford Motor Company.

Under promising and over delivering, of course, takes more effort than this suggests, but just good training and encouragement in all our customer-supplier relations can go a long way toward high quality and keeping our companies in business. It seems to me that most Six Sigma efforts could benefit from a look at customer service…throughout the organization.

As always, I treasure your thoughts and questions. I’m at support@pqsystems.com.

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