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 LearnedI 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:
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.
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.”