Increase value and reduce wasted time for your customers.

Service work is highly competitive and becoming more every year. Contractors are always looking for ways to gain and keep loyal customers. Using coupons, special discounts and worker incentives are usually temporary fixes.

To be successful long-term, however, contractors should look to new and innovative approaches being used in other service industries. For example, in 2005 Jim Womack and Daniel Jones introduced the idea of “lean” solutions to consumer problems. Lean thinking was started by Toyota and applied to manufacturing and engineering with great success. Recently, similar lean tools are being applied in the construction industry, but little has been offered or tried in service operations.

In his book, “Lean Solutions: How Companies and Customers Can Create Value and Wealth Together,” Womack shares innovative approaches that service companies have used to increase value and reduce waste for their customers. We are all consumers of many services and products; most everyone can tell horror stories about being on hold for hours on a helpline, waiting forever in a doctor’s office, or problems trying to get one’s car repaired.

Womack identifies companies that are applying lean concepts and develops new ways to reduce the frustration and disappointment experienced by consumers. By applying a lean solution, companies see their services as opportunities to solve customers’ problems. That’s why consumers call service companies in the first place - they have a problem in need of a solution.

Womack feels that in general terms, value, as seen by the consumer, means:
  • Solve my problem completely.

  • Don’t waste my time.

  • Provide exactly what I want.

  • Provide value when I want it.

  • Provide value exactly where I want it.

  • Reduce the number of problems I need to solve.

One idea that Womack points out, which rings so true to every consumer, is that service companies assume the customer’s time is free! So doctors overbook patients to keep the office busy at the expense of the patients’ time. Most service contractors operate with this same assumption; we schedule a service call and if we are late, it is only the customer’s “free” time we are using. Some service companies do offer a discount on the bill if the technician is late and this has some value to the customer, but does not really address the root cause of the problem or how to not waste the consumer’s time.

To really define value from the customer’s view, Womack recommends first looking at the entire process, the “value stream” that produces the service to the consumer as the customer sees it. Then, look at the process as one of your techs sees it. He recommends mapping out the process from both views, identifying the times for each step, and determining which steps add value and which do not.

Afterward, he recommends applying these four rules for improvement:
    1. Learn how to ask the right questions up front with the customer to gain greater understanding of the problem.
    2. Prediagnose the problem by taking extra time to learn exactly what tools, parts, skills, knowledge and time will likely fix the problem.
    3. Level out the demand for your services wherever possible to allow more reliable promises of meeting the customer’s time requirements. No one gets great service when all the customers call at the same time.
    4. Save the time of your employees who serve the customer by making the internal service functions that support the front-line employees efficient and effective.

Lessons Learned

I have started a test application of this approach applied to service work and it is still in the early stages of implementation. There are some lessons learned through this pilot effort. First, look at a summary of the process map for a typical commercial service call at the table on the right.

Note that only 18 percent of the time is value-added to the customer. By our definition of “lean” thinking, the rest of the time is not valued-added, even though it is necessary to do the job based on the current systems and company practices. The customer, however, will value any improvements that reduce his wasted time.

Some of the ideas learned while applying this approach are:

  • The level of technical knowledge varies greatly with dispatchers, but in most cases the dispatcher is not knowledgeable to ask all the questions sufficient to discover the customer’s problem. The technician may show up with very little idea about the problem and have to spend additional time asking the customer questions, which could have been asked before the technician arrived.

    This is not to fault the dispatcher, but the idea is to determine the questions a technician would ask if he/she were taking the call and designing a system that captures the most information in the initial call. This may mean investing more time in hiring and/or training the person taking the calls so he/she can ask more useful and specific questions. The more the technician knows going in, the better prepared he/she can be to service the call quickly and correctly.

    Improvements can come as one increases the detail of the information gathered from the customer in the initial call.

  • Creating incentives for customers, especially commercial and industrial customers, to provide advanced and detailed information about their equipment and its history of failures can also improve how contractors add value. So often, it is as Womack says: “Strangers serving strangers.”

  • Mapping the value stream and validating times for the various activities can help identify pockets of waste, including where the customer’s time is wasted because we assume it is free. Reducing the customer’s wait time both before and when the technician is there increases value.

  • The database used by most contractors does not allow for more detailed information about the customer’s problem or for good historical analysis of similar problems with that customer or others. Better information and additional analysis of the information most contractors already have can lead to the right technician showing up on the job with the right material and tools to solve the problem.

  • The hours a service department is actually open, and the rates charged for after-hours and weekend work, do influence the workload’s peaks and valleys. Contractors should re-examine their times of service in light of what is valued by the customer. This usually requires creating stable and trusting relationships with the customers so that the contractor can create win-win scheduling practices.

  • Contractors can help the service technicians be better prepared by analyzing the nature of delays and reasons the technician leaves the facility. Usually the technician leaves the work site to obtain tools or equipment. Which tools or parts are typically needed for which types of service calls and customers? Most contractors have this information; it just needs to be analyzed.

  • Stocking the service trucks/vans with the right tools and parts and implementing a system to keep them stocked, but not over-stocked, can pay dividends. The data can tell what the “right” tools and parts are, and the “right” stocking levels.

  • Organize tools and parts within the trucks based on the frequency of use. At Toyota they use a “water spider” employee to run parts to the assembly line. They call this position a water spider because a water spider is very quick and agile upon the water. This position’s purpose is to be quick in delivering parts and tools everywhere in the operation. The position has lower technical skill requirements and by delivering needed parts and tools just-in-time, it allows higher-skilled workers to focus on their tasks. Some contractors use a parts runner to assist technicians and this may be a value-adding solution.

  • Womack suggests measuring customer fulfillment by the percent of work done right the first time (no callbacks) multiplied by the percent of jobs delivered on-time as promised to the customer.

  • Our pilot process is still under way and already we have seen opportunities for improvement. But we are just beginning to apply lean solutions to a field ripe for improvement. Womack says, “Most of us want to do a better job in customer service, if we know how to do it. We need to spend time thinking about the process, and how we can enable people to do a better job. We cannot ask for something unless we can imagine something better. It all goes back to: 1) raising our consciousness about breakthroughs in service; and 2) process management - looking at long-term possibilities in our key processes.”