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LEAN Customer Service – Customer Service Could Learn A Thing or Two From Lean

Just this week, a Lean discussion in my favorite LinkedIn professional group cropped up and talked about the eight types of waste associated with Lean, but also how they could be specifically applied to customer service. What would a loss of talent look like in customer service?  Could there really be an excess in movement?

LEAN PowerpointIf nothing else, it certainly got me thinking. Specifically, I thought about just how frustrating we learn that customer service can be early on in our lives, and how that idea is usually just reinforced as we get older. From just about the first time we ever have to call up a company for support or go into their store, we’re put on hold, we stand in lines, we’re told someone at a certain level “simply can’t do that” for us, etc. All of these things make for a frustrating customer service experience.

Sure, this landscape certainly makes it easier for those who do customer service well to really stand out as shining beacons of hope, but surely it would be better if the average were brought up, at least a tiny bit. Lean, as an ideology, generally is applied to production and more concrete, physical aspects of a business, but it certainly has its role in management and more. As Lean becomes more prominent in other areas of a business, why not customer service?

Many of the hang-ups I’ve mentioned already are absolutely products of an environment with waste on its hands. The things people get the most frustrated with when dealing with customer service, either at point of purchase or afterward, are attitudes and wait times/lack of efficiency.

While individual worker attitudes and demeanor toward customers aren’t as clear cut of Lean-fixable issues (though that’s not to say that they’re out of your control altogether!), lack of efficiency certainly is. Let’s go ahead and take a look at how awareness of the eight types of waste, as identified by Lean, might be used to improve customer service. These were also mentioned in a blog post that Steven Bonacorsi’s shared. 

8 Types of ‘Waste’ in Customer Service

Lean Customer ServiceWaiting:  Let’s tackle one of the big ones first. Wait times are absolutely killer to outside perceptions of your customer service. Working to reduce wait times can help to dramatically increase satisfaction ratings. Let’s say, for example, that someone rings up your customer service department, or an employee assigned to field those types of calls, and they have an issue the employee can’t immediately answer. The employee puts them on hold, and goes to ask the manager for input. Unfortunately, the manager is on the phone with someone in his office, and what should have been a one minute hold (already annoying) turns into five or ten minutes. Not only is the customer waiting, your own employee is standing there waiting as well.

How could this have been avoided?  Perhaps a specific channel should be created for employees to route questions to their manager; email or text alerts might work here. Conversely, maybe employees should simply be empowered to handle more, which brings us to…

Talent:  Wasting talent is a big no-no in any Lean operation, and the same thing applies to customer service. Making sure that employees are equipped to fully utilize their capabilities is a key factor in smooth customer service. Training or on-hand references that enable workers to quickly solve problems and answer questions on their own can be an absolute lifesaver. Often times, you will naturally have people well suited for customer service or customer facing positions and who have the right personalities for fostering positive interactions. Make sure you give these people every opportunity to grow and tackle bigger and bigger challenges on their own – don’t babysit your CS team, or they’ll become babies.

Motion:  Motion might not be a big one in customer service (especially if we’re talking about phone/online support channels), but even our first example involved walking to a manager’s office while a customer was on hold. Leading customers around a confusingly-laid out store is another way in which motion can enter into the equation. Plan things out so that they’re as physically easy for all parties involved as possible.

Inventory:  Inventory in customer service isn’t a huge problem (though it likely means your production operations aren’t as calculate as they should be). That said, a lack of knowledge of that inventory certainly is. If you don’t have a good system for tracking stock, or it is inaccurate, or employees don’t know how to interpret it, their ability to give accurate information to customers will obviously be diminished.

Lean Customer Service OverproductionTransportation:  Just like excess motion bogs down workers themselves, excess or inefficient transporting of goods is a waste. This is especially true when it comes to shipping and delivery, as late deliveries or the inability to put an accurate time frame on follow-through is going to rub your customers the wrong way.

Overproduction:  Overproduction in your other departments can affect customer service as well. For example, it can waste resources that could be used to improve CS training or customer communication channels. Within customer service itself, overproduction is less directly relevant, but you should still keep it in mind.

Defects:  Defects, again, are more of a production problem, but you should note how they might be actually introduced post production as well. If an employee who is not trained to properly handle a certain item receives it close to the end of the production chain, they may break it or do something that negates its quality, even if it wasn’t defective in the first place. It is important to have all employees knowledgeable of the products you sell and how to handle/talk about them.

Over-processing:  Sometimes time gets wasted when we over-process or complicate ideas. Workers should always be trained to look for the quickest, simplest route to achieve a goal or solve a customer’s problem. Over-processing contributes quickly to other forms of waste (like waiting) when it is introduced, so it’s smart to try and keep it out of the picture altogether.

Waste management and Lean in any scenario are a balancing act, and customer service is no different, but a closer look will almost certainly reveal wasted efficiency that you can chip away at.

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