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Trusting Front Line Employees To Be Customer Advocates

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There is a dental product that I prefer but the flavor I like is consistently out of stock at all the local drug stores. In fact, I detest the other flavor of the same brand, and judging from how often it sells out, I imagine other people feel the same.

When I need to, I go to the drug store and if I find none on the shelf, I ask a clerk to check inventory in the back of the store, and if out, when they expect next shipment. Ten out of ten times their answer is "no" and "don't know."

As a business process improvement professional, I am tempted to explain at length that they are losing my business if they do not stock more of this product, and though I try to support my local businesses, they are sending me straight to online shopping, which if convenient enough, may cost them more of my business, and this could lead to their losing their job.

But typical response is "I'm sorry but there is nothing I can do" or "the central office decides what we carry." Or my favorite — "they don't listen to us, why don't you write them a letter?"

It begs me the question: how does a manufacturer learn about lost sales if no one bothers to document them. How does a brick and mortar retailer know how many loyal customers have been lost to online shopping?

image of the egg cartonIn the dairy section of a supermarket, I saw several customers sorting through cartons of premium eggs because the cartons appeared soiled from broken eggs. Other customers just selected a different brand but I felt disappointed because I wanted to buy this one since it promised a healthier choice.

Only after opening several cartons did I realize that what appeared to be leaking egg yolk was just a reflection of the yellow logo printed on a shiny Styrofoam carton; in fact none of the eggs were broken.

I mentioned this to one of the store clerks who responded "it's the egg company's problem." His manager walked over and grinned "Hah, that's really something, and I bet the company paid tons of money for that carton design."

So, I ask again, if you were the producer of the premium eggs, wouldn't you want to know that your package design is driving potential customers away from your product, or forcing them to open each package of a fragile item? If you were the sales rep for this brand, wouldn't you want to know what is happening to your product on a supermarket floor? If you were a supermarket owner, wouldn't you want to know you could have sold more of a higher profit item if only the lighting hadn't been so bright?

We all had similar shopping experiences. Front line employees are far removed from the company's chain of command and given little thought to product and sales strategy. But, in fact, they are the eyes and ears of daily customer interaction: What do customers like or dislike about a product or its packaging, what would they change, what frustrates them, what are their basic expectations and what would it take to delight them with both the product and service, etc.

Isn't this the voice of customer data that Marketing spends money and time to collect through surveys and interviews? Is there a way to tap into this treasure trove of consumer data at the very point where they decide to buy?

Focus groups might not get at it. After all, the egg cartons only present a problem when they are stacked up and across a brightly lit shelf; just passing them around a focus group table isn't the same thing.

QFD can be used to address this opportunity in several ways. For those of you who have studied the Modern Blitz QFD® tools, you know the power of going to gemba, of seeing customers in the real world, watching them do real world tasks. This is exactly the kind of unspoken data we need to collect in our Customer Process Model (CPM) and gemba visit table.

I've been using point-of-sale customer process models that show how customers engage or abandon a product or service since the mid-1990s. Software engineering tools like data flow diagrams and state transition diagrams can augment CPMs to show how the purchasing decision can be enhanced or failed depending on customer perceptions.

click to view a Customer Process ModelIn the cafeteria example in the right diagram, a hungry airport customer enters, but then leaves the restaurant. By being in the gemba and observing this behavior, we can take some steps to interpret and confirm why.

First, we can ask the customer why she changed her mind. Nothing whet her appetite? Line too long and she has a plane to catch? Of course, these are the reasons from one person, so we would want to observe several people during different times of the day. Second, the team can brainstorm the scenario, propose changes, and test them. So, if catching a plane is a priority, a sign might be posted at the cafeteria entrance similar to ones seen in amusement parks: at this point in the line, average time to collecting and eating your meal should take 15 minutes, for example.

click to veiw Akao's QFD Knowledge Management diagramWhile the QFD project team may be trained to use these tools, why not also teach your front-line employees to sketch or note what they see and hear every day? This can become part of a Knowledge Management (KM) system, as Dr. Akao, founder of QFD, has been recommending for years. KM tries to take tacit knowledge such as customer and employee interactions and make them explicit so that they can become a formal, documented record of things gone right or things gone wrong that can be shared across the organization, not only for future product development but also for process improvement.

The above diagram explains the process of knowledge conversion that must take place in order for business to tap into the power of information that all of its employees possess. Customer feedback that front line workers get is a type of tacit knowledge. To use it for strategic advantage, it must be converted into explicit knowledge that can be readily shared with and analyzed by decision makers and each chain of command for use for future sales and product/business planning. No other methodology offers more specific tools than QFD for achieving this transformation.

To learn more about these methods and tools, please contact us or join us in the next QFD Green Belt® Course.

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