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Customer experience: Incorporating high reliability management principles into utility customer service

This article first appeared in Energy Central.

Customer service operations with high customer satisfaction have a common characteristic-their management operates in a "proactive" manner versus "reactive" manner. This is what is already being widely practiced by high reliability electric utility distribution system management operations.

High performing distribution operations rely on targeted capital replacement with automation investment and smart, precise maintenance regimes to minimize "fire drill" outages and their duration-minimize SAIDI and SAIFI and vastly improve overall asset performance.  In simple terms, they invest adequate resources ahead of time ("proactive") to prevent dealing with failures ("reactive"). The same concept applies to customer service management and their priorities, which leads to strong customer experience outcomes; reliance on constant improvements to value chain and increased self-service automation.

Customer experience success is driven by a number of factors but the dominant driver is a "proactive" management style – where managers consciously split their time between current operations and more strategic activities such as learning from and correcting their mistakes. The chart below illustrates the order of magnitude and relative attention ratios rather than precise activity shares:

Management styles

This is about making investments and nurturing an operation – we intuitively feel that a larger share of strategic thinking and guiding improves performance outcomes versus a more reactive approach which means being stuck in the classic "capability trap".

A "proactive" management style is focused predominantly on building "home advantage"/"social capital"/"applied knowledge" which allows for successful completion of the majority of all customer interactions at the best outcome and lowest cost. There will be differences in time distribution for supervisors, managers, directors and VPs, but Quartile 1 performance delivery is generally characterized by a high proportion of time spent on "strategic thinking" and "guiding" (or coaching) activities combined.

A proactive style means that lessons learned "today" from mistakes and failures are incorporated into "tomorrow's" business processes and procedures to minimize the effort and cost it takes to sustain an effective operation. "Proactive" management is focused on minimizing the footprint or the effort to deliver high quality customer experience through the following:

  • Applied knowledge – leads to best solutions

There are (at least) two contrasting management styles within any business-what we have called "proactive" and "reactive". The most visible difference between these two styles is the proportion of available daily work time spent on four types of activities (strategic thinking, guiding, operations, and fire drills). "Proactive" style in our experience results in Quartile 1 performance outcomes; while "reactive" – Quartile 4 performance outcomes. "Proactive" is associated with "working smarter", while "reactive" with "working harder".

  • Consistency – leads to standardization
  • Feedback – prevents repeat mistakes
  • Self-service automation minimizes manual activities.

Using the Contact Center as an example, these two different management styles result in significantly different outcomes. "Proactive" is mostly about a "quiet and elegant" operation due to the accumulation of the social capital that enables positive resolutions to most anything or preventing adverse circumstances from occurring in the first place. A reactive approach is, to some degree, about the continuous clean-up of mistakes and repeated disruptions.

In summary, "proactive" management translates into a superior customer experience because past operating challenges are being internalized and applied to serve employees as well as customers today and tomorrow.  The hardest part is the transition from a "reactive" to a "proactive" management approach because it requires juggling dealing with still incoming "reactive" activities and having time to address issues "proactively"  over a period of a few weeks or months; however, afterwards, the volume of "reactive" activities significantly diminishes.

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