Tuesday, February 2, 2010

E-Commerce Customer Experience 3: Search Tuning - People and Process

Post series written by Matthew Lynch (Senior Consultant at Charteris specialising in eCommerce). Before joining Charteris Matthew worked for IBM on various eCommerce enablement projects across multiple industries from the late 1990's through to the present day.
This series of blogs is about how product managers in an eCommerce business can influence and optimise the customer search experience on their website by tuning the on-site search engine.

Tuning search is like servicing your car; omit it and you risk losing value and breaking down. Get the habit and the right people
In the last blog entry, we covered what search tuning was and why it was important to do it in order to optimise the customer search experience on eCommerce websites. In this blog entry, we will explore the process that businesses should consider implementing in order to keep up-to-date with their search tuning.

Servicing your car is a chore, but most of us do it. Why? For peace of mind; perhaps to ensure you optimise its resale value, to prevent the inconvenience of breakdowns and to keep it safe. The same goes for search tuning. If you don’t tune your search regularly, the value of the search experience (and hence your eCommerce site) will reduce or may even breakdown (if customers can’t find product). Also, like skipping maintenance on your car, skipping maintenance on search means that you won’t know if anything is wrong and you won’t be able to predict when the reduction in performance or breakdowns might occur. Search tuning doesn’t need to be an onerous process either, as long as it’s done regularly, it shouldn’t need to take long.

Search tuning isn’t everone's forte.

Given the apparent technical nature of the task, you might be inclined to give it to your help desk, your web designers or your admin staff. Whilst their skillsets might fulfil two of the criteria required of the search tuning process : ‘attention to detail’ and ‘discipline’, they may not be able to adequately fulfil the key requirements of ‘product knowledge’ and ‘good language skills’.

Attention to detail is a desirable trait because, whatever tuning you do, if you do it wrong, it can be worse than not doing it at all. For example, if you mis-spell a synonym (e.g. you enter bart->kart instead of cart->kart, not only have you not corrected the customer’s problem that the synonym was supposed to resolve, but you have potentially created a new problem for the customer as well (people searching for Mario Kart won’t be satisfied AND those searching for Bart Simpson will be shown irrelevant products relating to Mario Kart as well).

Like attention to detail, discipline is important to ensure that search tuning is done regularly enough to catch problems before too many customers have experienced them and to ensure that any changes to search tuning are tested to make sure that they have the desired effect. The regularity of tuning will depend on the size and regularity of changes to your product / content catalogue and also the number of customers hitting your website. Once under way, you’ll get a feeling for how often you should be search tuning from the number and frequency of problems identified in the search reports after the initial set of search tuning sessions. You will have a bunch of things to fix when you start, then the number should settle down. Omitting to test changes means that you don’t know if you’ve actually made the experience any better and, just as importantly, you don’t know if you’ve inadvertently made it any worse. Testing is straightforward: check the search results on your website before making a change and compare it after tuning.

With the general skills sets out of the way, consider the two key specific skills your search tuning staff ought to have...Product knowledge is a must have. Without it, you won’t be able to pre-empt some problems let alone deal with ones that are identified in the analytics from your search tool.
For example, if you’re not into video games, it unlikely you would know that people using ‘wow’ or ‘cod’ as a search terms on the games retailer’s website were searching for the game titles ‘World of Warfare’ and ‘Call of Duty’.

Choosing someone to perform search tuning who has good language skills is probably a no-brainer, but should be kept in mind all the same. Knowing the difference between a noun, verb, adverb, adjective etc is useful as is the ability to spell and recognise the likely intended meaning behind search phrases that customers are using. If your website is represented in more than one language, if you can, get native speakers doing the search tuning, because they will have a much better feel for how their language is currently being used.

Prevent and react to search issues
Depending on the nature of searchable content your product or content teams are adding to the website, you may be able to prevent some search problems. There’s no harm, for example, in adding synonyms for words that are in the dictionary or synonyms between unique product acronyms and the full product title. With practice and analysis of your product set, you may find others as well.

That said, beware of doing search tuning for the sake of it. As mentioned before, it can be quite easy to make things worse than they were by being overzealous tuning search before you have seen any problems in your search reports.

Business-as-usual tuning

You should analyse your search analytics frequently for search terms that return zero results and search terms that return large numbers of results. Analysis of the zero results report should reveal acronyms, misspellings and typos that you should account for in your synonym database. It may also reveal searches for products that you don’t have for sale.

Search terms that result in too many results could be an indication of the term containing a word that occurs so frequently, it should be ignored or an indication that you should instruct your search engine to ensure an exact match ‘enforcing a phrase match’, thereby excluding partial matches from the list of results.

Consider tuning as new products are added to your catalogue. You may prevent problems occurring, for example, by adding known acronyms as synonyms. Again, beware of being over-zealous because adding unnecessary synonyms to your thesaurus just means there’s more work for the search engine, more to clean up later and more potential for incorrect entries. Let the analytics of real customer behaviour drive your main tuning activities.

As mentioned before, testing needs to be an integral part of the tuning process so that you know the effect of changes you make.

Search tuning housekeeping

Finally, bear in mind that, just because a synonym or enforced phrase worked at one time, doesn’t mean it will stay useful forever. This year you may setup a synonym of touch -> “ipod touch” because the “ipod touch” is popular right now and you know that there’s a lot of searches just using the word “touch”. However, at some point in the future the search term “touch” could be used in a completely different context by customers, hence the need for periodic reviews of your search tuning.

This concludes this set of blogs on search tuning.
Contact – matthew.lynch@charteris.com

Monday, January 4, 2010

E-Commerce Customer Experience 2: Search Tuning - Techniques

Post series written by Matthew Lynch (Senior Consultant at Charteris specialising in eCommerce). Before joining Charteris Matthew worked for IBM on various eCommerce enablement projects across multiple industries from the late 1990’s through to the present day. 

This series of blogs is about how product managers in an eCommerce business can influence and optimise the customer search experience on their website by tuning the on-site search engine.

The search engine doesn’t know what it doesn’t know

You may already have a facility that helps you improve on-site search for your customers.
It should have been setup with an initial “dictionary” to make sure that it works well at go live.
But, after go-live, how can you make sure it continues to work for you? After all, you’ve got new products coming on-line all the time and you want to ensure your customers can find them.

Search engines only know what they’re told

Without manual intervention the search engine is only as good as the in-built auto-correction function (to deal with typos, mis-spellings), the default dictionary, any content that it knows about and ‘domain-specific’ dictionaries which, if vendor supplied, are likely to be quite generic.

Search tools are not necessarily aware of common mis-spellings, typo’s, domain-specific acronyms / phrases, what customers will actually search for in real life or other common language in the industry sector. They will also not be aware of specific key phrases or made-up product names that exist in the product catalogue that have specific relevance.

Also, language use evolves over time, sometimes quite quickly (often as a result of creative marketing or journalistic minds), so there’s no way that a search engine is going to keep up-to-date without human intervention.

Regular search tuning improves the bottom line

Search tuning enhances the relevancy of results, reduces the number of zero results found and helps identify application configuration and design changes that may be required. The process of search tuning is also another way of keeping you in touch with customer trends. All of these things help to improve the customer experience ultimately leading to improved conversion, basket size and customer loyalty.

The business, not IT is best placed to perform search tuning

If your business is not tuning its on-site search engine, then it may not know how many customers are having trouble searching for your products on your site. Many people assume that the search engine belongs to and is maintained by IT. You might think that your SEO strategy and keyword-promotions ensure that customers can find your products using Google, Yahoo etc, but if you’ve got any direct-loaders (people who go straight to your site and then use your site’s search facility) then they need their searches to be looked after by the business, the guys who understand the products and how they are marketed and sold to the customer.

Consider who owns the customer relationship. The business doesn’t get IT guys to write the product titles, descriptions, retail reviews or marketing copy, so why should the business rely on IT, when search engines deal with words that customers are looking for in the very text that has been created by the business?

Use analytics to identify search tuning needs

In eCommerce, many people will have come across a “top-search-terms” report from the web-analytics tool. This, generated regularly, can form the basis for search tuning. For best use, it needs to report the popularity of search terms together with the average number of results returned and needs to show search terms with zero results. In addition, it is useful to have a report showing you search terms that have been autocorrected.

Tuning affects which words and phrases the search engine considers or ignores

Search tuning involves telling the search engine how to handle words and phrases that it may not ‘understand’ or that it may assign more or less relevance to than desired by the business.

Stop words
In most circumstances, there’s no point in a search engine searching for words that are so common that they appear in large numbers of product titles or descriptions. It results in too many, often irrelevant, results for the customer and wastes the search engine’s resources in matching them. Typically these words include ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘of’, ‘the’ ‘i’, ‘is’ etc but the business really ought to work out for itself which words are so common that the search engine should ignore them. This may include some words that are core to the product set being sold e.g. a entertainment retailer might get the search engine to ignore DVD, CD etc. Be wary of adopting the standard set provided by the search tool vendor. For example, a ‘stop word list’ provided by a search tool vendor may include the word ‘that’, but for a CD retailer, this would not be an appropriate stop word if it meant that it made searches for CDs by ‘Take That’ of lower relevance than results that don’t contain the word ‘that’. Try it, you’ll find there’s a band called “Take”.

It is estimated that 20-30% of all search terms used on the internet contain a mis-spelling or a typo. If that is the case and your search engine doesn’t manage to autocorrect them or the typo is on a made-up word such as a brand or product name, then your customers will get zero results, the dreaded dead-end.

The solution; find out the terms that customers are using that return zero or few results and setup a synonym to the term that does match products.

Some examples where you would use synonyms include :
- Numbers – equate 2 with ii and two
- Acronyms – to equate product-acronyms with the full product title
e.g. LOTR -> Lord of the Rings
- Common mis-spellings e.g. cart <-> kart
- Made-up product titles with spaces taken out e.g. (wii) motion plus = motionplus
- UK / US spellings (if not auto-corrected) e.g. color <-> colour, metre <-> meter,

Enforced or Automatic Phrasing
If your customers are getting too many results for certain search phrases, of which you find that many are irrelevant, then you should instruct your search engine to only consider results where there is an exact match to the phrase (words and their order).

e.g. "32gb ipod touch" - assuming you didn’t want the search engine to return 4/8/16gb ipods or ipod nanos in the results set)

Good search engines take verbs, adjectives and adverbs that are used in a search term and condense them to their ‘root’ form or ‘stem’ (e.g. running -> run, richer -> rich, strongly -> strong) before comparing them to the content to be searched which has also been ‘stemmed’. Search engines often come with stemming built-in but if problems are identified using the search analytics, then additional stemming ‘synonyms’ or rules will need to be added. The process of getting to a word stem is language dependent and may require the skills of an experienced linguist if adjustments need to be made.

Search keyword / phrase Redirects
Sometimes it is desirable to redirect a customer to a hub or landing page that makes the best representation of a product or product set that the customer is looking for. This gives the customer a better experience than the presentation of a product list (which may well not show the full range of potential product type matches on page 1).
It is a common occurrence for customers to search for types of products e.g. Romance films, so a redirect for such types of search would be a good idea.

It is good practice to monitor for new occurrences of such searches and setup a search term redirect for the phrases used. Good search engines provide a facility for recording such redirect phrases with the desired destination such that the search engine provides redirect URL destinations to the eCommerce website when such phrases are matched.

In my next post we will look at what’s desirable to look for in people who will perform search tuning and how the tuning exercise can be organised
Contact – matthew.lynch@charteris.com

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

E-Commerce Customer Experience 1: Search Relevance - Ranking

Post series written by Matthew Lynch (Senior Consultant at Charteris specialising in eCommerce). Before joining Charteris Matthew worked for IBM on various eCommerce enablement projects across multiple industries from the late 1990’s through to the present day. 

This series of blogs is about how product managers in an eCommerce business can influence and optimise the customer search experience on their website by tuning the on-site search engine.

Get your search engine to understand your customers’ language
Is your site conversion in need of improvement? Do too many of your customers drop out of the funnel early on? Do they consistently find what they’re searching for on the first page or two of search results? Do you have feedback from customers saying they find it difficult to find what they want on your website?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, you may need to make it easier for your customers to find product. In other words, you may need to actively tune your search engine to suit the way your customers search for product.

Search results - What’s relevant?

Search is search is search isn’t it? That’s what some people think; “surely, if we implement the ‘best’ internet search application, that’ll solve the problems we have with our poor search relevance won’t it?”On-site search for an eCommerce website is not an exact science and is certainly not best served by a generic internet search tool. The main reason for this is that what a generic search tool considers ‘relevant’ will almost certainly not be close to what you or your customers would consider relevant search results for your eCommerce website.

For example, what would product managers think if the products appearing at the top of your search results page were just those with the most matches to the search keywords, sorted by price alone? It is unlikely that this idea of ‘relevance’ would meet their or your customers’ sophisticated expectations.

The answer lies in defining what ‘relevance’ means for your customers and getting your search engine to return results that get as close to that definition of relevance as possible. Relevance may well
vary in your business according to the type of customer or type product / service that is being sold. For example, relevance could mean ‘popular’ or ‘most recently released’, ‘capable of being delivered soonest’, ‘most highly rated’, ‘highest converting’ or any number of other things depending on the nature of your business, product or customer base.

Taking a simplistic view to illustrate the point, let’s consider that there may be three types of visitors to a retail website : a) customers who know what they want and have a specific item in mind b) customers who have an idea what they want but want to compare products before making a choice and c) customers who have no real idea and are just browsing.

Relevance for customer type (a) is likely to be very focussed on as close a match as possible to their search term in the product title. Relevance for customer types (b) is likely to be product or product content whose title and category have the best match to words in the search term entered. Relevance for customer types (c) is likely to be product or content whose categorisations have the best match to words in the search term entered.

For a retailer of DVD’s, therefore, customer (a) might enter a search term such as ‘Temple of Doom’, customer (b) might enter ‘Indiana Jones’ and customer (c) might enter ‘Adventure movie’.
If your search engine hasn’t been configured with appropriate relevance ranking strategies, the results may not be what each type of customer expects. Taking the simplest model of ‘relevance’ where purely the number of matching search words determine the relevance, you could end up with something like this :
“Temple of Doom” ->
1. The Little Princess: Shirley Temple DVD - the word Temple appears lots of times in
the product description
2. Paul Temple (DVD)
3. Doom the Movie – Doom appears lots of times in the product record
4. Indiana Jones : The Temple of Doom (ought to be at the top of the list)

“Indiana Jones” ->
1. The World’s Fastest Indian - title + lots of matches to Jones in the cast list
2. History of Indiana Basketball -lots of references to Indiana !
3. Indiana Jones : Raiders of the Lost Ark (1st film, so appears 1st)
4. Indiana Jones : Temple of Doom (2nd film, so appears next)
5. Indiana Jones : Last Crusade (3rd film, so appears next)

“Action Adventure DVD” ->
1. The Adventure of the Action Hunters

2. Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Action Adventure
3. Operation Dalmatian: The Big Adventure
Here, matches are on the product record in preference to the categorisation.

As you may see from the above examples, a search relevance ranking strategy that assigns different weight to product category and title in the product record over other ‘less relevant’ parts of the product record, ought to improve the relevance of results for the customer. In addition, a commercial weighting could improve the weighting for the business. For example, it could boost the relevance ranking of the more popular 'coming soon' or 'recently released' film releases e.g. putting the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at the top of the list). Bounce rates should be reduced by making sure that the latest releases are always shown.

As well as weighting the elements of product records, tunable search engines allow you to determine the priority of search ranking schemes (algorithms) to affect the results. For example, the search engine might have a method A that scores results based on the number of search keyword matches per field and scheme B that scores results by the total number of matches across the whole product record. In many circumstances, a retailer would want the scores allocated by scheme A to have more weight that scores allocated by scheme B.

A methodical approach to improving your search relevance is recommended. This involves the following high level steps :

1. Define what relevance means for which customer types and product types
2. Measure your current site search results against the desired outcomes defined in step 1
3. Prototype and test different relevance ranking strategies in your search tool
4. Periodically measure and review your relevance ranking strategy to maintain the optimum outcome for the customer and your business

In the next blog entry, we will explore what you can do to tune a search engine to handle problems with specific words.


Contact - matthew.lynch@charteris.com

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Customer Experience Pt 9 - Appraisal

Post series written by Andrew McMillan (Principal Consultant at Charteris specialising in customer experience). Before joining Charteris, Andrew had a 28 year career with John Lewis and spent the last eight years of that career being responsible for the quality of service and selling across the UK department stores.

Nine months on and we have the final part in this series which, in a similar way to the last part on reward and recognition, is all about long term sustainability. I have found opinions amongst several of my clients to be extremely divided when it comes to individual annual appraisal. Those in favour see it as an invaluable management tool while those against feel appraisals can be divisive or simply a waste of time. The latter view is commonly held within those organisations that don’t have a ‘pay for performance’ policy, but even in these organisations I still believe appraisals can play an important part in developing performance. Team appraisals are another approach, but that is where I feel they can be a waste of time as a team approach negates the key benefits. Let me explain why.

Appraisals should be all about making individuals responsible and accountable for their contribution to the organisation’s aims. In that way they should be just as much an opportunity for thanks and reward as they are for constructive criticism and personal development. However, their effectiveness is determined by two key factors: what they report on and the way they are positioned within the organisation. I can only imagine those who are against annual appraisal have been subjected to a poorly executed process in the past either because the appraisal framework was flawed of the manager delivering the appraisal was flawed in their approach. Sadly both occurrences are far too common, but that shouldn’t be a reason to abandon the concept.

Content is Key

Firstly the content should be a combination of measurable performance, sometimes expressed as targets depending on the organisation and, to support the desired culture and customer experience, a set of commonly understood behaviours derived from the statement created earlier in this series. The most important aspect however is that the existence of the appraisal process and the aspects of performance it reports on should be totally transparent to the employee from the day they join. Keeping the form simple, clear and short is also a must otherwise the appraisal process becomes onerous for those delivering it and lacks real meaning for those being appraised. Some organisations use a performance matrix for their appraisals in an attempt to reduce or eliminate subjectivity. While this may be a worthy aim (or a defence mechanism from a Personnel Director who lacks confidence in their line mangers’ ability to be fair and balanced), I have yet to see a matrix that doesn’t de-personalise the reporting to the point that its benefits are lost.


That takes me to my second point which is about the delivery. The appraisal should simply be a formal record of the year’s performance. If the leadership in the organisation is competent there should be nothing in the appraisal discussion that comes as a surprise to the appraiser or appraisee. Sadly that’s where the process most commonly breaks down, when the manager hasn’t developed a leadership relationship with their team with the consequence that the appraisal is the first time good or bad performance is discussed, and that’s the best case scenario. What commonly happens is the manager who hasn’t developed a relationship with their team over the year then feels unable to comment on areas for development at the appraisal, so chooses the safe option and writes a report that is neither encouraging nor developmental. What I am really saying here is that the annual appraisal should be a formal record of the year’s leadership relationship and anything less should serve to demonstrate how that relationship should develop on both sides. And it must be a genuine two way discussion. This is not something handed down from on high, but an honest two way conversation about the highs and sometimes the lows of the last year with objectives set for improvement where necessary - and these should NEVER be a surprise.

When handled well, appraisals formally record the conversations that should have been going on every day for the last year. They also serve to strengthen the leadership approach described in the earlier article as a manger who hasn’t adopted that approach will find themselves very exposed at appraisal time. Of course they also provide the opportunity to record unacceptable performance and can document the beginning of a disciplinary and grievance procedure which is so important if you are to comply with employment legislation. However, I would stress again that even this should not come as a surprise to the individual being appraised. For those making a sound contribution appraisals document the opportunity for reward, further development and succession planning for senior roles which is so important, especially in larger organisations.

In Conclusion

So there we have it, seven easy steps to sustaining a great customer experience and an engaged and motivated workforce. I hope you have found these articles useful and for those of you without the time or inclination to read them all, to conclude with, here is your simple executive summary:

Define – what sort of organisation you want to be both for your customers and employees

Communicate – communicate frequently and loudly the aims of the organisation and the culture you want to foster. Evidence the communication with sharing of best practice within the organisation

Recruit – ensure the recruitment process identifies those with the right attitude and personality to support the aims of the organisation

Measure – you can’t measure the behaviours easily, so consider the desired outcomes of the behaviours and measure those

Lead, don’t manage – provide inspirational, highly visible leadership that demonstrates the desired culture and behaviour on a daily basis

Reward and recognise – take every opportunity to highlight the sort of behaviour and subsequent outcomes the organisation aspires to consistently deliver

Appraise – use annual appraisals to identify future leaders, reward those who support the organisation and start the process of removing those who don’t

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Customer Experience Pt 8 - Reward and Recognition

Post series written by Andrew McMillan (Principal Consultant at Charteris specialising in customer experience). Before joining Charteris, Andrew had a 28 year career with John Lewis and spent the last eight years of that career being responsible for the quality of service and selling across the UK department stores.

So, now we have a business that knows what it wants to be both for its customers and employees, has communicated those aims to its existing staff and embraced those aims in its recruitment procedures, is frequently measuring its performance against those aims internally and externally and has a leadership structure aligned to delivering improvement – we’re almost there! We’re now on to consistency and sustainability and a key element of that is reward and recognition. It’s an area that is commonly overlooked and possibly seen as unnecessary or frivolous. Nevertheless a clear reward and recognition strategy, frequently used and consistently applied can have a disproportionate positive effect on the culture of an organisation.


What’s appropriate depends, of course, on the culture of the organisation and what might be seen as childish and possibly condescending in one organisation could be seen as motivating and fun in another. If an organisation has followed all the stages in previous articles, by now they should have a very strong sense of what is appropriate for their business and what will be engaging and motivating for their employees. This doesn’t mean having a complex structure or spending huge amounts of money either, but it does have to have an explicit and direct link to the sort of behaviour the organisation is trying to engender. Many years ago Ken Blanchard wrote ‘The One Minute Manager’ and for those of you who have read this now legendary book you may remember ‘catching people doing something right’ as a prerequisite of leadership. The challenge for many managers today is that they are just too busy to find the time to ‘catch people doings things right’. Well, if you have implemented the leadership changes from the last article you will have found some time to spend in each day with the people you lead, and if you are doing that you have the foundation for a reward and recognition process in place already! In other words, frequent verbal recognition for something done well can have an incredible effect within an organisation that hasn’t been used to it in the past. Often in these organisations managers have usually spoken to their teams when something has gone wrong or at their annual appraisals so recognition for very small routine things done well can come as something of a surprise. However, stick with it through the potential incredulity and the team will start to respond and change their collective culture in ways you would have never imagined possible!
Supplementary approaches might include written notes of thanks for a job well done. This might be for something that warrants a little more than verbal recognition and a handwritten note is often the best medium. In a world of instant communication and e-mail a handwritten note shows you have made a little extra effort and really care. If you want to start spending a little money at this stage you might even include a scratch card with the note for a bit of fun. Initial reactions might be “I was just doing my job”, but that’s just the point. What we are trying to engender here is a culture of excellence, self esteem and pride in a job well done.

Going Further

The next step is to implement a formal reward and recognition scheme which will require a budget. This doesn’t have to be significant and a budget based on headcount – perhaps £10 per head, per annum - can make a really big difference and is a small cost compared to training or marketing budgets which won’t necessarily produce such tangible results. That’s not to say you should mechanically spend £10 on each employee each year, but it does give a scale and set a budget requirement for the scheme. Rewards here should be made through a formal process and that process should allow for peer to peer recognition as well as those awards nominated by managers. Even on such a small budget, this would allow for occasional rewards such as a bottle of champagne, theatre tickets, flowers or even a weekend break.

The Pinnacle

The pinnacle of any recognition and reward scheme should be an annual awards ceremony. This can be a culmination of all the smaller awards given over the year or it could be a collection of categories voted for by the employees. Either way, it is important that the categories reflect the behavioural aims of the organisation such as ‘leader of the year’, ‘most support to their colleagues’, ‘most customer focussed’ etc. In a large organisation this can be funded from the residue of the £10 per head budget as it is unlikely every employee will have justified a smaller award throughout the year. I have seen prizes at these awards vary from weekends away in New York to an engraved glass trophy, but both approaches have an equally beneficial effect on the organisation. If the ceremonies are well executed the benefits go way beyond just the recipients of the awards as other employees will be quick to celebrate the recipient’s success and will have a sense of pride that someone in their team has been a winner.
If you remain doubtful, then just start by trying the first two steps which will involve some effort, but very little cost. Providing it is positioned with care within the culture of the organisation you will be amazed at the power of a simple ‘thank you’.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Customer Experience Pt 7 - Leadership

Post series written by Andrew McMillan (Principal Consultant at Charteris specialising in customer experience). Before joining Charteris, Andrew had a 28 year career with John Lewis and spent the last eight years of that career being responsible for the quality of service and selling across the UK department stores.

So we now have measures against which we can track how our aims for customer experience and internal culture are being delivered. Arguably we could stop at that point and there is a school of thought that stems from some lean practitioners which suggests frequently publishing performance measures is enough to elicit consistent improvement against those measures. Sadly, in my experience, that’s rarely the case and to achieve sustainability and improvement strong, supportive, directional and inspirational leadership is key.

Enough time?

That visible Leadership has to come from every manager in the organisation from the Board to team leaders. Unfortunately, all too often, I see managers managing, but not leading. A simple test for this is to look at a manager’s weekly diary and try to identify what proportion of each day is spent talking to and coaching those that report to them. Often that time simply does not exist as their weeks are filled with back to back meetings or other ‘important’ administrative tasks that take them away from being a role model for the teams they lead and often add little tangible value to their customers i.e. those that report to them.
A fast and simple way of alleviating that issue is to list all the tasks a manager has to do each month in order of importance. Often those at the end of the list aren’t critical to the businesses’ performance and are there ‘because we have always done that’. A conscious decision can then be made, balancing those less important tasks against the benefits of developing an enhanced internal culture and consequently improved customer experience. Being brave enough to change the status quo and stop a few unnecessary routine tasks can create a significant window of opportunity for leadership rather than just management. Sometimes however it isn’t as easy as that (often in regulated environments) and this can lead to a piece of organisational development work to establish what processes can be simplified and/or delegated up or down the line to free managers’ time to lead. Either way, this issue must be addressed as it is crucial to the development, sustainability and consistency of customer experience.

Another leadership challenge

That’s likely to be the hardest part, but there can be another key leadership issue to address. In the same way as we previously looked at recruiting for attitude, some managers may have historically been recruited or promoted for their knowledge or on their ability to complete tasks to a high standard rather than their leadership potential. Once the volume of tasks has been reduced and these individuals are expected to interact with and lead their teams on a daily basis, these managers can find themselves very exposed. A full suite of leadership skills training should be made available to them, particularly focussing on goal setting, coaching, and dealing with conflict. Many may respond well to this support and relish the new challenges, but some will not and, sadly, if they cannot transition from managers to leaders, they must be removed from their positions. That applies to all levels within the organisation including the Board.

Measurement again

That is where the benefit of the individual accountability within the measurements, both internal and external (referred to in the last article) comes in. That detailed measurement creates the opportunity for managers at all levels to identify both outstanding performance against the desired aims for recognition and poor performance for coaching and support, so making the most effective use of the time available to them. In this way, providing the aims of the business have been clearly articulated and the measures have been skilfully aligned to those aims, the managers can start to lead the behaviours that will deliver those aims rather than just reacting to the operational performance results. It is this leadership informed by frequent measurement of outcomes that gives the organisation its consistency and sustainability when embarking on a customer experience development programme.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Customer Experience Pt 6 – Measuring Outcomes

Post series written by Andrew McMillan (Principal Consultant at Charteris specialising in customer experience). Before joining Charteris, Andrew had a 28 year career with John Lewis and spent the last eight years of that career being responsible for the quality of service and selling across the UK department stores.

So, we have identified what business culture is and put that in the context of the overall operational structure. We have looked at how to explicitly shape that culture and engage both existing and new employees with the internal culture and how it is externally reflected to deliver a defined and distinctive customer experience. That should be enough then. Well sadly it usually isn’t. The first challenge given how intangible culture can be is to measure if anything is getting better for the business and its customers, otherwise what’s the point? For some businesses that can actually be the starting point in this process i.e. identifying, through measurement, what you want to improve and then taking action on the factors that are most likely to affect it.


Writing generically, as I’ve said several times before, it’s impossible to be prescriptive on what should be measured. The one common rule however is to try and predominantly measure outcomes rather than the actions that lead to them.

Using measurement as a starting point for the whole programme can be a useful and often essential discipline as it can also help create a business case for embarking on a programme to improve customer experience and the internal culture that supports it. Depending on the business you are in, directly correlating financial business performance to improved customer experience can be a challenge. However, for most businesses, the two most tangible benefits are likely to be:

Customer loyalty, defined as repeat business from an existing customer base and....
Customer advocacy, defined as word of mouth marketing to increase market share

Any business that requires documentation of a customer transaction should find these measures fairly easy to track and consequently it is relatively straightforward to assign financial benefits to improved customer experience. However, many businesses don’t have the ability to track individual customer transactions with the consequence that any actions to improve loyalty and advocacy have to be based more on common sense, gut instinct and often ‘a leap of faith’ rather than hard figures.

Perfect Sense

Of course it makes perfect sense that if you offer a great experience that is better than your closest competitors you will engender loyalty within your existing customer base, grow market share and you will see turnover increase. However, without each customer transaction being documented a hard-nosed Finance Director will always question whether an increase in turnover can really be attributed to an improved internal culture and customer experience or other factors. I believe that is the stumbling block for many organisations trying to find financial support to embark on such a programme and one of the reasons for the commonly held belief that service in the UK is getting worse while efficiency of process, products and services are generally getting better.

Other measures can go some way to mitigate this and the key two are:

Direct customer feedback and......
Mystery shopping

Customer feedback is essential for any business looking to improve their customer experience. This can be collected through comment cards, focus groups, exit surveys, telephone polls and perception surveys from recent customers. However the questions you ask can determine the results you obtain and need to be crafted to reflect a blend of the service that was delivered, the overall experience and the consequent perception of the business (and therefore the likelihood of future business and recommendation). At its simplest a question such as: ‘were you satisfied with your transaction today?’ will be much less revealing than: ‘how did you feel about the way we treated you today?’ The first will identify if the customer was satisfied, whereas the second will tell you how likely the customer is to return and recommend to others, which is so much more important.

Many businesses stop at customer feedback, but it’s not really enough. If you have been truly aspirational in the ambition for your customer experience you need more. Customers will, quite naturally and perhaps subconsciously, base their feedback on comparisons with your competitors. That’s not to suggest their views aren’t important, but the results inevitably will be based on their satisfaction compared with similar experiences and consequently won’t help you achieve a point of differentiation – in other word you’ll stay in the game, but no more. If you really care, that’s not good enough which is where mystery shopping comes in.

Mystery shopping offers you the opportunity to measure performance against goals that existing customers can’t even imagine, or at least it does if you customer experience ambition is high enough. Mystery shoppers should be directed at delivering a combination of objective and subjective feedback, but most importantly, if you have identified an aim for customer experience development that will be a unique point of differentiation for your business, unlike real customers, they can be directed to report on your progress against that aim.

Even More Measures

So that’s what we measure externally, but part of this programme is based on the internal culture so that must be measured too. For the Finance Directors/business case, the hard measures must be:

Staff turnover.....and
Staff absence

It’s obvious that a happier workforce is likely to be more stable and have less absence and any business can put some hard figures around both measures. However, less defined but just as important, is the staff survey which will put some detail behind the high level hard statistics. As with the customer surveys the questions you ask are key to the results and questions such as: ‘do the facilities at work meet your needs?’ and: do you think this business is well run?’ will identify the organisation’s efficiency, questions such as: ‘does your line manager value your contribution?’ and: ‘do you have a best friend at work?’ will tell you much more about the culture you are creating.

Wherever possible, both external and internal measures should link back to an individual’s performance and next time we shall explore the benefits that brings.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Customer Experience Pt 5 - Recruiting for Behaviours Aligned to Organisational Culture

Post series written by Andrew McMillan (Principal Consultant at Charteris specialising in customer experience). Before joining Charteris, Andrew had a 28 year career with John Lewis and spent the last eight years of that career being responsible for the quality of service and selling across the UK department stores.

Last time we looked at ‘drawing a line in the sand’ with existing employees using our definition statement as a foundation. A focus on recruitment is the next, but ideally simultaneous, requirement to establishing a defined customer experience and internal culture. Depending on staff turnover this may even come before communicating with existing employees, but simultaneous actions are the ideal as you don’t want new recruits ‘tarnished’ by any negative behaviours that may exist in the business and likewise you don’t want the existing employees to be working to develop a culture that their newest colleagues don’t seem to support.
Rita Bailey formerly of Southwest Airlines in the US had a simple mantra:

Hire for attitude, fire for attitude
Making it happen

It’s something I have worked to for almost 10 years and a statement that resonates with many clients. So why don’t businesses just do it? The killer question that prevents this mantra becoming operational strategy is: What attitude? Now perhaps you might start to see why the statement that we developed earlier to define the businesses’ aims and behaviours is so much more than just a ‘mission statement’. If well articulated the statement will provide a clear definition of the attitude and therefore type of person the business is looking to attract and recruit. Of course, some roles require specific qualifications or substantial previous experience, but these attributes should only open the door to the selection process – it’s the person you are recruiting, not their qualifications or experience. If those qualifications or experience are in short supply, there may be a trade-off against the ideal attitude profile you are looking for and that can happen with exiting employees too. However, you need to be conscious that every time a compromise is made on the attitude of the individual recruited it serves to dilute the culture and consequent customer experience you are aiming to create.

Generic processes

It’s impossible to prescribe a generic recruitment process as that should be tailored to a combination of the business the organisation is in combined with the sort of people the business wants to recruit. One generic feature though is that it must never be a straightforward one to one interview. Initial screening should be done from the application form and accompanying letter, but there are variations here that can start to identify attitude over experience. One business I know asked applicants to draw their greatest achievement on the back of the application form which proved to be very revealing while being wholly relevant to their business. The next stage may be a brief one to one interview, especially if appearance is important in the role you are recruiting for, alternatively it might be a telephone interview if the role is in a call centre – I’ll never understand why all call centres don’t do this! Ideally, if there is any team working involved in the role, the next stage should be a half day group assessment. It doesn’t matter too much what you ask the candidates to do during the assessment, what you should be looking for is evidence of openness, collaboration and ability to relate to others. A hotel I once spoke with told me that they started their assessment mornings by bringing in a trolley of tea and coffee and then withdrawing from the room. The candidates that jumped up and asked who would like tea or coffee were almost invariably the ones they offered jobs to at the end of the process. That might sound like a trick, but actually it’s a very clever way of identifying which candidates have an inbuilt service ethic from those who are just there for any job. It’s certainly more revealing than a one to one interview might be where a clever candidate can make themselves appear to be exactly what the business is looking for. That deception is easy to achieve in an hour’s interview, but much harder to maintain over a half day activity based assessment. If you have a group of candidates together at one time, it can also be helpful to show them any DVDs etc that you may have produced to illustrate the culture of the business (described in the previous article) or, failing that, having a high performing employee come and talk to the group about what it’s like to work in the business and the expectations on both sides. If there aren’t a sufficient number of candidates for group assessment, an alternative approach could be to invite the candidates in to work alongside their potential future colleagues. Again, it’s very difficult to maintain a facade in that situation moreover, if the business has an established positive culture and is very brave they may even choose to let those future colleagues made the final decision about the candidate – I’ve never known of a bad decision in those circumstances. The final stage (if the role requires one) should be another one to one or panel interview with a number of competency questions based on behaviours along with the more conventional fact finding questions they may want to include. Competency interviewing is one of the most effective ways I have seen of predicting future behaviour based on past evidence and represents another technique to identify any facade a candidate may be using. For example, if a sense of fun at work is central to the desired business’ culture a question might be: ‘Describe an occasion on which you made a group of people laugh, what happened and how did you feel about it?’ That is likely to be so much more revealing than a more standardised approach which could be: ‘Do you enjoy having fun at work?’

An offer of employment

The offer letter is another opportunity to reinforce the culture and service aims of the business. It should be written as a two way contract along the lines of: We are offering you this job with the following salary and package of benefits. In return we will expect you to.... whatever the business aims for internal culture and external service are. In this way there is absolute transparency at the beginning on the relationship and should the worst happen and the new recruit prove to be unsuitable, then you have covered the first base of employment law by being absolutely clear about what is expected- even before they have signed a contract!

Follow up

But all that is still not enough! So many organisations have great recruitment processes but then fail to provide on the job support and follow up. A great mantra for this is:

100% honest, 100% kind
In other words, talk to new recruits at a very early stage about their performance in an honest direct way and be kind in giving them support to adjust if necessary. If nothing else it covers the next base of employment law should they not meet the required standard and therefore are subsequently asked to leave the business. But for me, it’s just as much about a combination of doing the right thing morally and common sense as it is jumping through legal hoops. Yet so many businesses I talk to describe a poor performing individual in terms of behaviour and then go on to say how many years they have been in post. Why? I assume a combination of the business failing to grasp the nettle at an early stage, perhaps combined with a poor or non-existent articulation of what the required standard is. By that point they will have done inestimable damage both to the businesses’ customer experience and internal culture.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Customer Experience Pt 4 - Shaping the Culture and Attitudes of Your Existing Employees

Post series written by Andrew McMillan (Principal Consultant at Charteris specialising in customer experience). Before joining Charteris, Andrew had a 28 year career with John Lewis and spent the last eight years of that career being responsible for the quality of service and selling across the UK department stores.

So, we have a statement that defines what the business aims to be both for its customers and its employees. There are two distinct audiences that will be affected by that statement: those who already work in the organisation and those who have yet to be recruited.

So where do you start? There isn’t a right or wrong answer here, and ideally the actions should be simultaneous to ensure the right attitudes are identified in new recruits and then to ensure those attitudes aren’t tarnished by any disengaged employees. However, for the sake of clarity, in this piece we shall just look at starting to shape the culture and attitudes of the existing employees.

It’s impossible to prescribe a generic solution here, because it all depends on the prevailing attitudes and values in the organisation and, crucially, what has gone before. In simple terms this is all about communication and explanation. However, communication in this sense doesn’t just mean informing people about the latest developments in the organisation, it means engaging the workforce to actually DO something different. Consequently sending an e-mail to every employee introducing the definition statement is unlikely to have the desired effect, nor is having the statement printed as a logo on pens, mugs or credit card aide memoirs, although these can have their uses at a later stage.

Communication vision requires a significant campaign of face to face internal communication that explains why there is a need for change, how the statement was created and what changes in behaviour are required from the employees to deliver the desired customer experience. It is all about shaping the internal culture of the organisation to externally reflect the customer experience the organisation aspires to deliver. A crucial element of this communication is for it to be entertaining, motivational and inspiring rather than just informative, as a key factor in its success is to make the employees want to change, not to try and make them change – a subtle but vital goal if this is going to have any longevity.

Again it is impossible to prescribe a single approach here as that will be determined by the size of the organisation and the existing communication channels. One of the most effective approaches I have experienced is using a presentation delivered personally by the customer experience champion in the organisation to every employee, ideally in groups of 30 or so to allow the opportunity for discussion and debate. This should emphasise what is good about the existing culture, but openly tackle any controversial issues head on too, otherwise they will remain unspoken and consequently unresolved. It should also act as a call to action and talk about how the behaviour of individuals is to change.

The downfall of many customer experience change programmes is that they just describe what the organisation is aiming to achieve. If well executed, they can create an intellectual engagement with the employees, but often they are left thinking “so what do I have to actually do?” with the consequence that they return to their respective roles and nothing changes.

The communication should therefore include an explanation of what the leaders in the organisation will be doing to support the change, how individuals will be measured and made accountable and the individual reward and recognition that will follow success (these will be covered in detail in later articles). It should be a story with context and examples to inspire and engage, not simply inform. A generic format may look something like this:
  • Changing expectations within society as a whole – with examples
  • Consequent impacted changes on the way the organisation operates – with examples
  • Why customer experience is as important as the product/service and the processes that deliver it
  • The definition statement of what the organisation wants to achieve in terms of customer experience – how this will have a positive effect for both employees and customers
  • What this will mean for frontline employees and the leadership support required from managers
  • How success will be measured
  • Reward and recognition
  • Consequences of failure
  • Other changes they will see – these may include recruitment, appraisals, training, regular communication etc.
Another valuable approach for communication, especially in very large organisations, can be the use of media. A fifteen minute DVD demonstrating the desired internal and external customer experience behaviours can be very powerful if it is well made and doubly so if it stars employees who already demonstrate the desired behaviour and not management describing what they want it to be. Brevity is important too as the media should be short, sharp and engaging – do you remember how you felt the last time you sat through a 45 minute training video? Ideally both mediums should be used, with the presentation introducing the statement and allowing discussion and debate, then being followed at a later stage by the DVD to reinforce what has been said.

If this communication programme is successful it will have drawn a firm line in the sand so that employees and managers know what they have to do, how they will be supported, how they will be measured and the consequences of success and failure. They should be left enthused about the challenges that lie ahead and, if really successful, many will start the change as they leave the room.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Customer Experience Pt 3 - Defining Culture

Post series written by Andrew McMillan (Principal Consultant at Charteris specialising in customer experience). Before joining Charteris, Andrew had a 28 year career with John Lewis and spent the last eight years of that career being responsible for the quality of service and selling across the UK department stores.

So, if you read my last two pieces and are still with me you will understand my views on how customer experience fits into the operating model of any business and how the businesses’ culture is at the heart of defining the customer experience it delivers.

That’s great if the business has been overtly aware of those impacts from day one and has taken conscious action to safeguard and nurture the culture of the business as it has grown. There are some great examples of businesses that have successfully done that. First Direct bank is one and Virgin Atlantic is another. Both are known for delivering a distinct and defined customer experience and they use that point of differentiation to market and drive the growth of their businesses.

Sadly, in my experience, businesses such as these are very much in the minority and “we need to change our culture” is a common plea from organisations I work with. “Change your culture from what to what?” is usually my first question, and it rarely elicits a clear answer. I think that’s because culture is so pervasive within a large organisation that it becomes this huge ‘elephant in the room’ that everyone sees, but nobody likes to acknowledge or talk about. Closer questioning usually returns responses such as “our people don’t work together as a team” or “nobody seems to really care about the success of the business”, or sometimes, more honestly, “our service is poor because they don’t really care about customers”. Unfortunately by the time a business is experiencing these symptoms to the point they have become noticeable the damage has been done.

So what’s gone wrong?

Often as the business has grown the focus has been on developing the product or service and the processes that support it and not the people. New recruits have been engaged to fulfil a function with little regard for the alignment of their attitude and personality with the original business aims. Sometimes it can be that the expectations of customers have moved on and the business hasn’t adapted accordingly.

The most common reaction is to put everyone in the business through a training course on customer service. It seems like a good idea on the face of it, but I rarely see lasting benefit. Sure, if the course is well designed and executed it will provide a stimulus to the business, often for just long enough for the training consultancy to collect their, usually sizeable, cheque and run! The problem is the employees won’t have seen any significant change in the heart of the way the business operates, so a few weeks later it’s ‘business as usual’. I’m not suggesting that training doesn’t have a place, and it is important for most organisations, you just have to be clear on what it can and can’t achieve. It’s essential for teaching how a shop’s till system operates, product knowledge or how a call centre agent must include legally required statements if they operate in the finance sector. It can also set baseline standards for how customers are addressed to or how telephones are answered, but these are processes that contribute to the customer experience, they don’t define or differentiate it.

So, what do you do?

Well, you rewind the clock and try to recall the basic aims and attitudes the business started with – what did you aim to do and how did you aim to do it? This will identify and help articulate the customer experience the owner had subconsciously in their mind when they started the business. Unfortunately for many businesses this isn’t possible as they may have become too large or have been sold on by the time the culture has been identified as an issue, so those original aspirations will have been lost. In these cases it’s down to the current management to redefine the experience they want to deliver for their customers and, importantly in commercial sectors, how that will differentiate them from the competition. If a business is really brave they can ask their employees what they want their customers to experience. I have seen some really powerful definitions created by the employees of businesses whose managers have previously told me they have an issue with culture. Either way, it’s essential that the employees are consulted in this process to validate the output if they are to engage with and support what follows.

The output, however it is achieved, should be a simple statement defining what the business aims to be in terms of customer experience and the behaviours that will define it. One of my favourites is from Ritz Carlton hotels who have a world renowned reputation for great customer experiences: Welcomed, Wanted, Remembered, Cared For. Essentially, this statement is memorable and is applied both to how they treat their customers and how they treat their employees. Another one, which gives me a great sense of personal satisfaction, was created by the employees of a local government team I have recently worked with: People, Passion, Pride. The power of these statements is their simplicity, which makes them memorable, and their relevancy to the businesses’ product or service.

You also need to be careful how these statements are positioned with the employees if they are to be effective. To call them ‘vision statements’ isn’t very relevant to a front line employee and so many that I see are meaningless such as ‘to deliver world class service’ or ‘to exceed our customers’ expectations’. What do these mean in terms of behaviour to an employee on a till or in a call centre? Aspirations that are delivered as ‘vision’ or ‘mission’ statements and use meaningless management speak can only damage a businesses’ culture further by providing a breeding ground for cynicism.

So, hopefully we have done the seemingly impossible and identified and articulated the businesses’ culture in a simple statement and engaged the employees in the process. Next time we shall look at how that statement becomes a foundation for improving the customer experience.