Six Sigma, Call Centers and Rubber Ducks with Marriott's Former SVP Customer Experience Roy A. Barnes

Roy Barnes

Roy A. Barnes is the former SVP of Customer Experience and Development and Marriott Vacation International. He talks with Call Center IQ’s Blake Landau about customer focused values, performance measurement for call centers and what he learned from his time with Marriottand explains what this all has to do with dating, rubber ducks and the "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" ride at Disneyland.

What did you learn from your time at the Marriott?

Marriott figured out the elusive balance between operating effective business processes and enabling employees to the freedom to do their very best work.

If an organization is willing to spend the time to get their processes right with the understanding that they are building those processes to be "finished" and delivered by bright, motivated people, they will crack the code on great customer service.

While I am a big fan of process effectiveness and efficiency, I am an even bigger fan of maintaining a balance between the four competing interests of financial results, customer delight, and process effectiveness and employee engagement. Companies that can maintain an appropriate balance of these elements over the long-term become great Brands.

Lastly, Marriott allowed me the opportunity to exercise my abilities to the fullest. Any companies that can have their employees say that are on the right track.

What is the biggest mistake you see major companies today in their customer service offering?

The traditional focus in business (at least for most publicly-held companies) is on creating short-term financial returns. Having sat in on my fair share of board and shareholder meetings, I understand the necessary realities of this focus. That said, long-lasting success comes from balance…balancing the short term need for meeting this quarter’s numbers with investing and building the infrastructure for long-term.

So, the biggest mistake I see relative to major companies and their service offerings is one of perspective and focus. Those companies that are driving every last nickel out of operational cost at the expense of their employees' and customers' humanity may win in the short term but will lose in the long term. No one will want to work there and no one will want to buy there. It all becomes one big transaction.

There is an ongoing debate on measuring call center quality and how to manage call center representative performance. Do you feel that metrics such as average handle time are still relevant? If not, what is an effective tool to measure the performance of the call center representative?

This debate will go on as long as people believe that there is one "correct" set of measures for measuring call center quality and call center representative performance . There isn’t. The right measures of these call center performance indicators depend upon what the stated objectives are of the call center operator. If the call center operator's interest is one-dimensionally focused on efficiency…there are hundreds of measures that can be used to dissect their call center operation to achieve that end. If their interest is in call center effectiveness, things get more interesting.

The best set of measures for call center quality and call center representative performance will be both leading and lagging metrics of financial results, process improvement, employee engagement and customer measures of achievement, satisfaction and delight.

In your keynote at the IQPC Call Center Week conference this year in Las Vegas you said that Six Sigma and innovation are not friends. What do you mean by this?

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about that comment. As we know, the goals of Six Sigma programs are to improve processes and eliminate defects. Good stuff! One of the features that sets Six Sigma apart from previous quality improvement initiatives is the focus on achieving measurable and quantifiable financial returns from any Six Sigma project. That’s good too!

The challenge for companies pursuing a Six Sigma or any quality improvement variation is in their ability to pay attention to the peripheral effects and impacts of their process improvement efforts. Innovation typically is happening at the edges. And the opportunities for innovation are always there if one is paying attention. If the focus is single-mindedly on improving a process, some very interesting opportunities will be missed if people aren’t paying attention to the potential within the errors.

Companies spend massive amounts of money, billions of dollars on innovation R&D, and I would bet that most of the breakthroughs are happening at the edges of that work.

Let’s use an analogy of the dating process to illustrate the point. Would you be interested in establishing a deep relationship with someone who’s interactions with you are transactional, where every interaction is stable and predictable, every touch, nuance and small gesture programmed in a perfect, Six Sigma seduction process?

Innovation in the service industry can take many, many forms…look at the advances in automated check-out at hotels, the ability to select your seat on your airplane trip, the ability to have a call center call you back instead of waiting on hold.

Innovation at the human interface though is an entirely different animal and I would argue that the innovation there requires a much broader set of tools than Six Sigma to solve.

For those of you who have been on Disney’s "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" ride, you might remember that there’s a moment where you are led to believe that a pack of mice is running amok in the theater. This perception is reinforced when a micro-blast of air hits your legs from underneath your seat. Good for laughs, shock and giggles, but it leaves people ultimately feeling "tricked" as opposed to truly engaged…it is a fine line, an effort that is more art than science.

In your Call Center Week keynote you shared a personal story of your pool man—would you mind sharing this story with our readers?

The person who had been servicing my pool fell off the face of the planet, so I was in need of some help. I got a flyer in the mail for a pool service and I called. The guy answers the phone and I can hear the noise of kids and dinner being prepared in the background. I told him that my pool was looking like a science experiment and I wondered when he might be able to come over.

He asked where I lived and after a brief pause and the sounds of a keyboard tapping, he said: "Well, Mapquest says you’re about eight minutes from my house, give me two minutes to get in the truck and I can be there in 10…will that work for you?" Nice!

Exactly 10 minutes later the doorbell rings. We step around to the back, he looks at the pool and what’s beginning to grow in it, quotes me a good price and says he’d like to give the pool a quick clean while he’s there…no charge. Nice!

All this is delighting me of coursewe’re all into instant gratification. As he’s leaving, he says: "I notice that you have kids. If you don’t mind, I going to leave this little yellow duck thermometer in the pool. He’ll keep an eye on things until I get back and the kids might like to see him bobbing around out here." Really nice!

This pool guy gets it! His business is not cleaning the pool. His business is in delighting his customers with the small touches that redefine his customer’s experiences.

This is two-part question. You've said, "In an era when the commoditization of products is the norm, the only defensible and differentiated competitive high ground is in the purposeful creation of awesome customer experiences." But how can you really prove this to senior management, and also, what is the role of employee engagement in this process?

Let me first say that these are Colin Shaw’s words not mine. Colin’s work on Customer Experience is must reading for anyone interested in moving forward on delivering truly engaging customer experience.

I am quite sure that most CEOs who have taken sufficient time to think about their product and service offerings know the risk they face from this hyper-competitive marketplace. Very, very few industries have sufficient barriers to entry to keep their products and services from being quickly mimicked, copied and distributed.

I would like to put forth the proposition that most companies aren’t run by the CEOs or even senior management. Most companies are run by the people who show up every day to push the mission and vision forward. It is the employee, their interest, heart and engagement that drives customer satisfaction…in all but a handful of circumstances, it is the human side of company/customer interaction that proves the difference.

Proof ultimately is in the numbers. It is in the levels of satisfaction and engagement that a company’s customers have that drive financial performance in the long term. At Marriott, we were able to quantitatively prove the value of customer engagement to the profitability of the business. If you can, this is job one for the chief customer advocate.

Interview by Blake Landau