The Natural Limits of Customer Involvement and Experience with Process Improvement

Shaun Sayers

A little while ago I got involved in an online discussion about how best to align the customer experience with process improvement. As a concept it’s something that is quite easy to buy into. Customer satisfaction certainly is delivered through a system of efficient processes, so it was interesting to hear what sort of models people were employing to help them get there.

Some of the suggestions, however, did make me wonder whether all contributors to the debate fully appreciated the difference between product and process. The reason I thought this was because a couple of contributors were suggesting that we involve our customers in process design—that certainly made me think. How on earth could we do that and, more importantly, what would be the likely outcome of it?

Let’s look at product and process, because there’s a differentiation to be made. Products fundamentally need to be effective; they need to do what they are supposed to. Processes, on the other hand, have the job of delivering the product efficiently. Effectiveness and efficiency are two different things and generally the customer will care about the former far more than they’ll care about the latter. They may actually take the view that if you are so inefficient you can’t make money on the gig, well, that’s your problem, mate. I know I do.

Product Design

Involving the customer in product design has a tried and tested history of success. Quality Function Deployment (aka The House of Quality) and Kansei Engineering are a couple of methodologies I’ve come across that try to add structure and discipline to that activity. The ultimate aim is basically to try to identify all the product and service attributes the customers value, and all the attributes they value less, and to try to integrate those important attributes systematically into our product to maximize the customer experience (i.e. to make it as effective as possible). In practice this is not that hard to do; customers are generally in a pretty good position to offer an informed opinion on what they like about the product or service and what they hate, and they are often not shy in coming forward, especially when invited.


Process Design

Process design, on the other hand, is quite a different matter. Save for those critical "moments of truth," where the process actually interfaces with him or her, the customer will often be quite oblivious to the goings on of the intermediate and hidden stages. Customers often won’t care about what happens and, more to the point, even if they did care they’d usually not have the technical background to be able to dissect the process in any meaningful way so as to be in a position to offer a half-decent consultative input.

Involving the Customer with Process Design

Here’s an example to illustrate the point. Let’s say I was in a restaurant enjoying a meal and at the end of the meal the manager came up to me and asked if I wouldn’t mind answering a few questions about the customer experience. Now, provided I could be bothered and I believed that the manager was genuinely interested in customer feedback, I might tell him what I did and did not like. I might offer an opinion on portion size, food temperature, speed of service, ambience, flavor combinations, in fact all sorts of things. But all of these things would be limited to the point of delivery, the customer interface—the actual end product in other words. It would be quite a different matter if the manager were then to ask me to pop backstage and offer my opinion on how he should organize his kitchen, his staffing rota, his delivery schedule and so on. Firstly, provided I enjoyed my meal, I probably couldn’t care less about the backstage processes, and secondly, even if I did care, my limited experience of running a commercial kitchen would make it unlikely it would be anything other than a waste of everyone’s time.

"Ah!" You may say, "What if you were Gordon Ramsey? What if the customer was Gordon Ramsey? Do you still maintain that it would be pointless to involve the customer in process design?"

Well, yes, as a principle, I would. Let’s say for arguments sake that I was Gordon Ramsey. Let’s say, again for arguments sake, that even if Gordon Ramsey did not see it as an intrusion and agreed to pop into the kitchen to offer some suggestions on process improvement, you would be involving Gordon Ramsey because he was Gordon Ramsey, successful restaurateur, not because he was Gordon Ramsey, any old Joe. The fact that he was also a customer would be completely coincidental. In this situation he’d be offering his advice from an informed perspective as an expert consultant, not as an ordinary customer.

"OK," you might then say (because you don’t give in that easily). "What’s the harm anyway? Why not involve the customer in process design? Maybe he doesn’t have the background and experience, maybe he won’t come up with anything useful. Maybe he will. Have you thought of that? What have you got to lose?"

Well, a couple of things actually. First, there is time. Things that take time cost money; and if the chance of a decent return on that investment of time is remote, then there’s usually a better use for that time. Second, there’s the danger of raised expectations. If I was a customer who’d offered a chunk of his time and offered a load of advice (albeit crazy and completely impractical) I’d be more than a little annoyed if it was disregarded. Just think about your own staff surveys. How often have you found yourself asking the question, "Why the heck do they ask if they have no intention of doing anything with the answers?"

The Limits of Customer Involvement with Process Improvement

There are natural limits on the extent to which we can get the customer to do our process improvement work for us. Customer feedback helps us understand the output and interface requirements of the process, and these will form our process anchors, things we don’t want to mess with. Everything else, those intermediate process points that occur away from the customer, well, frankly, that’s something for us to sort out.