When habit stands in the way of innovation

I spend lots of time helping people understand that the best customer experience allow the customer to form a habit quickly & easily, and ultimately helps the customer achieve value with your product. Conversely, for those of us delivering the experience, the formation of habits can be dangerous, stifling innovation, limiting new ideas, and over time, rendering the customer experience a series of  inflexible tasks. So this week, I’ll share a couple of stories to help you reflect on where you are with your delivery, and whether you need to shake off a couple of your comfortable habits.

In the heady days of the internet boom, a huge amount of businesses sprung up to service the ever-growing dot com market.  Competition was fierce, but prices remained high.  I worked one of these businesses, serving both start-up dot com and corporate businesses, looking to cash in on the lucrative growth market.  With dot com businesses looking to take services quickly and seamlessly, we were able to deploy solutions in shorter and shorter timeframes, creating slick deployment processes.

With the dot com boom, we had budget to bring in all sorts of resources, which also helped with complex requirements of corporate clients. A whole department of internal auditors and experts on various regulations existed to ensure that every box was ticked.  I remember during one painful audit with a US government department, the external auditor shocked our own auditor by (deliberately) setting off a fire alarm to see how our evacuation procedure worked!

When the dot com bubble burst, the expectations from the clients remained the same, but budgets were slashed.  As each department looked to reduce cost, the complexity of our processes and reliance on too many touch-points became evident.  With around 20 different roles involved in getting a client live, it became clear that we’d formed some pretty bad habits, and as we scaled back on headcount, gaps in the process delivery appeared.  Existing clients were unhappy, new clients complained of delays and lack of ownership and the teams became stressed.  At end of the dot com bubble, the company also became a victim of its own lack of innovation, with processes that once flowed seamlessly falling apart.

Rather than innovate as we grew, we stuck to the same process, adding layer upon layer of complexity.  In hindsight, it’s obvious that we had created an unsustainable model, but at the time, we comfortably slipped into a habit on how we delivered the customer experience.

In an earlier role, I joined a team of well-established colleague, used to working with minimal supervision.  In part, this was due to the shift-work, and also due to the fact that we were supporting customers from around the world in their native language.  Although everybody was trained on standard operating procedures, over time, country and language-specific habits were formed.  Of course, this is often necessary – asking a customer from the Far East a direct question might be considered rude, or cutting short a Latin American client might give a very negative impression.

The business prided itself on having a large team of experts – both for the products and for the cultures of the clients they served.  After around 30 years of operation, there were  many legacy procedures and processes, but by and large, these were handed down from the most experienced team members as and when newer colleagues raised the questions.  Very little was documented, because everyone who needed to know already knew it.  Or they’d lean over to an “old-timer” and ask “What’s the procedure when dealing with this company?”

This works fine, with most clients getting a predictable and reliable service.  As trends started to change, and clients started consuming these services in newer ways (online, in particular), the company decided to let the headcount fall naturally as people left or retired.  The problem was that with each departure, another piece of the puzzle went.  After a number of uncomfortable issues with some important clients, the decision was made to capture specialist knowledge and standardise procedures.  With many of the old timers no longer in the company, it became like an archaeological dig, trying to piece together how so-and-so client should be serviced.  Knowledge had been lost, single points of failure had arisen and a lack of procedural refresh and alignment caused the company a period of stress and frustration that lasted long after I had left.

The fact that people leave is inevitable, but allowing single points of failure to happen, or for procedures to be forgotten should not be inevitable.  A lack of ownership of knowledge meant that although customers got a consistent experience, when the “old timers” moved on and the single points of failure became evident, the processes broke down.  Looking back, an additional observation on the product – if innovation had occurred earlier on, perhaps customers would not have switched to an online solution, and would have remained loyal to the company!

So having shared my two stories, are you keeping up your innovation, regularly challenging your process status quo, or is it time for you to give them a good shake up to refresh your customer experience?

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