In any complex, business environment things are going to happen that nobody can forecast. Clients and customers know this. So, if eliminating the unexpected is impossible, what does it mean to create a culture of NO SURPRISES?
NO SURPRISES is a key part of RELIABILITY.
It’s about making sure decision makers get relevant information, both positive and negative, from you versus their peers or, worse, your competition. It requires a clear VISION, a MISSION with milestones and a COMPETITIVE REWARD. With these in place, you can create a sales culture where surprising a customer is a rare occasion.
Many reading this might think this is unrealistic. Before you stop reading, please indulge me for a short story about how a great team, I had the fortune of working with, created VISION, MISSION and COMPETITIVE REWARD that resulted in NO SURPRISES for customers for over 100 days.
We were approaching a product launch, which meant the customers were committed and were already building products with beta versions of our software. The customer’s marketing plans were heavily dependent on our product and marketing plans. Unfortunately, we were going through a period where our product team was making changes almost daily in order to hit the launch date. The changes ranged from product specifications to marketing programs. The customers were very unhappy, as you’d expect.
The team was on what had become daily, impromptu complaint calls demanded by the customer. The lead customer VP said, “We get that you guys learn new things during the development cycle so change is not the issue. It’s that we find out during our own testing rather than hearing first from you. We’re wasting time trying to fix things that you broke intentionally. We need warning.”
Customers are always a great source for ideas. After that conversation, I decided to try a tool that is common in manufacturing. It’s called “Days since last accident” and you’ll see it displayed on the walls of most production facilities. It’s accompanied with a goal of consecutive days without a personal injury or a work stoppage.
I decided to track “Days since last surprise.” The initial goal was to go two weeks without surprising the customer. I offered an extra paid vacation day to everyone on the team if, together, we accomplished that milestone.
I presented the idea to the team who thought I was crazy. There was no way we could keep the product teams from changing their plans. I clarified that this is about NO SURPRISES, not about NO CHANGES. I said that we would proactively deliver good and bad news to the customers as a means to give them the proactive warning they requested.
I could see the skepticism but I asked for ideas on how to do it. This was in 2003 and that team was full of extremely smart and creative people. Equally important they were a cohesive and competitive team.
They used the “What-Why-What” problem-solving process that I wrote about in an earlier blog.
They started by identifying the surprises that caused the most problems. (WHAT happened?) They then considered the reasons the product teams weren’t more proactive in letting us know. They learned that the product managers didn’t like delivering bad news any more than we did so they just wouldn’t communicate until someone asked. (WHY it happened?)
One of the team members said, “I’ll bet they’d be happy if we could limit the number of customer complaints.” She talked to the product managers to verify her belief. They were so pleased that we wanted to help reduce the customer complaints, that they invited the sales team to participate in their weekly staff meetings. We now had sales team members learning about changes at the same time as the product managers. We also had the opportunity to offer feedback.
WHAT did they do about it?
VISION – They created a VISION of being so aligned with the product teams that they knew everything first hand and made sure the customer got all relevant and appropriate information in real-time.
MISSION – They executed a MISSION of constant contact with both the product team and the customer leading to NO SURPRISES. They didn’t avoid communicating bad news but instead got agreement from the customers that a proactive heads-up was helpful no matter what it was.
COMPETITIVE REWARD – They watched out for each other, making sure nobody caused the customer to get surprised, which meant no extra vacation day. More importantly, they just didn’t want to continue the barrage of surprises. They put a tally board in our hallway and had fun watching it go up each day.
They made that first milestone easily. I stretched it to 30 days with an offer of two more vacation days for the whole team. They hit it again. I went to 90 days with an offer of three more vacation days. They got to 107 days without surprising the customer.
The team was formally thanked by the customer VP who formerly was exasperated with us. By implementing a culture of NO SURPRISES, we improved customer satisfaction, which resulted in the customer doing more with our products.
That team also won the 2003 Team of the Year honors, which was corporate level recognition. Everyone got six extra vacation days and, most importantly, we developed a repeatable process that was supported by the product teams.
VISION, MISSION and COMPETITIVE REWARD were the three things needed to create a culture of NO SURPRISES. I hope this helps you find your Culture of NO SURPRISES.
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