This summer I bought one of those fancy outdoor kitchens, and it runs on gas bottles. I got one bottle as part of the BBQ, and off we went. After a while the bottle was empty, and I wanted to exchange it, getting my 55 euro deposit back. I found a garden center in the neighborhood that sells that brand. My wife was surprised to see me come back to the car with two bottles: a full one and an empty one. I had not been successful in trading it in. The garden center explained to me I needed a special deposit form, and the original receipt. The special deposit form could be obtained by sending in yet another form to the supplier's headquarters, and they would send the deposit form back. Within. Three. Weeks. Excuse me? 21st century?

A short call to the call center proved them right. Indeed, a complete circus of administration that would make most 'red tape' look pale. And I didn't have the original receipt anymore. I sent an angry email to the contact center, with the request to pass it to management. I pointed out that we both our interests were aligned, I have their bottle that they want back, they have my deposit, that I want back. I further explained, I couldn't help myself as a former management consultant, that processes like this can lead to serious consequences. People might give up and simply dump the bottle in the trash, which would not be in line with the "green image" the gas company wants to portray. I also pointed out the reputation risk. That it would take only one person to set fire to the bottle, and make a funny movie out of it that is posted on Youtube. Frankly, I didn't even expect a response, just got it from my chest, and went on finding out how on earth I could get a new receipt from the internet-shop where I ordered the BBQ.

To my surprise, the next day I got an email from the company's marketing director. I had caused a dilemma, she said (quoting my own research!). Either help an angry customer, but run the risk of fraud (no paper trail), or keep a tight process and lose a customer once in a while. Then she asked "what would you do in this case, Mr. Buytendijk?". That was the most fantastic response you can think of. Showing strength by opening up, turning a complaint in an opportunity, using my negative energy in a positive way. "Service recovery", as CRM specialists call this. It means that complaints that are dealt with will often lead to higher customer satisfaction, even compared to before the incident. Well done.

Over the next days we had an interesting email conversation, for instance about lean and six sigma. The starting point is that processes need to add to customer value. If they don't they should be abolished or changed. This process clearly didn't add value, in fact, it destroys customer value. Although I didn't see the need for such a process (in fact, all you need is to track the serial number on the gas bottle), if the company would insist, first move it to the Internet, second, make it a worthwhile process by supplying BBQ tips generated by the community of users, while registering your bottle. However, what I found out was that these bottles do not have a serial number. That is odd, it is a basic principle in auditing that wherever there is a change for fraud, the flow of goods needs to be monitored. Without identification, there is no monitoring. The lesson we can learn from that is that if the basics fail, no process, or no technology is capable of adding customer value anymore. Unless you get the basics right, all you can do is damage control. And, reasoned the other way around, if you get the basics right, the problems the company has between balancing the needs of the back office (fraud prevention) and the front office (smooth customer interactions) would completely disappear!

Oh, one more thing. I did a little bit of "market research" and found more people who use gas bottles from the same company. In their case it was solved differently. The outlet where they got the product told them to never mind the whole bureaucracy-nonsense, they would exchange it for them anyway. The dysfunctional processes was replaced by a shadow-process, figured out in practice. A solution, yes, but wouldn't it be better to be in control of your own processes?

Process, performance, risk and customer relations cannot be seen as separate disciplines. An optimization from one point of view then leads to problems looking at it from another angle. However, when you take a more integral approach, often a simple solution means a world of difference. Will the gas company take the advice? That's the question, sometimes the simplest advice is the hardest to follow.


Hi Frank, An interesting offshoot of your experience - one company had set up the bottle exchange "shadow process" - I wonder what that does to any data quality the gas company may think they have? As you know, data quality is generally highly over estimated by companies - they "believe" their data is good - then complain that I/T cannot get them the reports they need as if I/T is incompetent or simply hoarding information. I/T on the other hand is struggling to clean up the data to supply something meaningful. It would be an interesting exercise to have some meaningful measures of data quality. I wonder if you have encounters in your experience whereby data quality is audited or measured? In toying with the idea, I'm uncertain exactly how it could be effectively measured, monitored and potentially remedied. Just as a process should add value - so too the quality of data, yet I believe this is generally overlooked or simply assumed to be good. Best Regards, Gary Beach

Posted by Gary Beach on November 11, 2009 at 08:34 PM PST #

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