Sunday, August 2, 2009

Winding Path, Straight Path

Recently, I read a blog post by Naomi Karten about a brief transaction that could have gone another way. It became an example of good customer service only because the front-line worker (in this case a cashier) was allowed to make a customer service decision on the spot—no forms, no blinking lights, no fuss. There was a straight path between the problem (incorrect price) and the solution (correct the price at the register).

Too often, companies decide not to trust their employees to do the right thing. They require copious documentation of any transaction that might be construed as costing money, miring employees and customers alike in time-wasting steps (blinking lights, calls for the manager, authorization codes, and void forms) that do nothing to directly address the original issue. This is the winding path mentality. It makes the customer walk farther from where they are to where they want to be. So, unhappy customers and red-tape-consumed employees don't cost any money? Since when?

There's an architectural parallel. I read some time ago about an architect who, rather than put one of the typical meandering paths between two buildings on a campus, put no walk at all. A couple of years later, the architect came back, and had the path paved where people had repeatedly walked. It was a straight path. If it seems really intuitive to you that people would rather walk in the straight line between two buildings when they are rushing to a class or to a meeting, ask yourself why you so rarely see straight paths on college or corporate campuses.

Companies would do well to make their customer service paths as straight as possible, enabling potential problems to be resolved quickly and easily. Here are some questions that will help you assess your business' proximity to the straight path:
  • Does your Web site have clear, straight paths to customer service?
  • Do you force your customers to pick among predefined communication topics because it's easier for you?
  • Do you prohibit your employees from making decisions that might benefit both the customer and the flow of business?
  • Do you provide customer service training or ongoing discussions about service?
Eventually, every winding path becomes a straight path, because people will walk their own path despite where you attempt to make them go. Will they beat a path your door, or to someone else's?

Give it some thought.

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