Redesigning Back and Front Office Processes to Improve Customer Satisfaction

Dick Lee

Most companies attempting to build stronger bonds of customers loyalty make a common mistake. They focus the vast majority of their efforts to improve customer experience on points of customer contact–thereby failing to address back office issues that undercut the positive efforts of customer-facing staff. The result? The obvious: What’s gained by one hand is taken away by the other.

Why is neglecting the back office such a common problem? Not so obvious.

Companies Can’t See What Customers See

Most companies see themselves with tunnel vision. They see the good parts–and yes, some bad parts, but typically only bad parts they can readily fix. So front office, customer-facing employees get lots of "be nice" training; they receive encouragement (and even incentives) not to cut corners on customers; they get recognition when they go the extra mile for customers; and some even get technology so they can greet customers by name and know their past history and preferences.

But all that’s just puffery–whereas customers are buying utility. And when the utility’s not there, customers develop perceptions that "making nice" won’t undo.

Increasingly, customers see past all these customer service "pasties." The novelty of dealing with friendly employees is wearing off–and wearing thin, too. "So what if you leave candy on my hotel pillow, a free fruit and cheese plate and even turn down my bed (like that’s such a convenience)?"

If my laundry service driver fails to make sure all tickets are accounted for before leaving the laundry facility, leaving behind my shirts, one of which I needed to give a luncheon speech (the shirt I wore on the flight there was sporting a major coffee stain too big for hand washing)? I'm toast. And I still won’t stay in the St. Francis in San Francisco, because all their soothing words didn’t cut it. What I saw was a behind-the-scenes process error, compounded by the hotel lacking a recovery process or policy. I finally cajoled a manager into sending a driver to the laundry in Oakland, and I got my shirts with 10 minutes to spare.

What the Back Office Does, the Front Office Often Can’t Undo

As a customer, I see things like my shirt story over and over again. This is a clunky roadblock to customer engagement and customer loyalty. Avis might think it’s doing me a big favor by making me a "preferred customer," but when the Seattle airport location repeatedly fails to post my car on the electronic board so I can walk right to it–without spending an eternity waiting in line–can you spell H-e-r-t-z?

One of our past clients, a financial institution, won rave reviews for wowing customers in the lobbies and on the phones, but it was taking far too long to process loans. On their own, before we arrived, they’d managed to reduce mortgage underwriting cycle time from an excessive 12 days down to a competitive seven days. But when we arrived it was back to 12. Why? Because no one was minding the back office process store, and lots of the "inventory" of good will built up at the point of contact was disappearing off the shelves. There’s no such thing as good service when the product’s deficient.

Qwest, our DSL provider, has retrained and even empowered customer service staff to improve customer relations. But when some yo-yo manager with 50 degrees of separation from customers doesn’t allow service reps to 'fess up that their server keeps crashing–for a whole business day–leaving us needlessly searching for internal network problems? I’d say "toast" again, except every DSL provider in the Twin Cities has to route through that same server. But when Qwest tries to sweet talk us into more services? No way. Bet if we redesigned their back office process we’d eliminate Mr. Yo-Yo’s position. You don’t make on-the-fly customer service decisions like that unless you’re on the front line. Not in today’s customer world.

And let’s not leave out Crowne Plaza. Great frontline staff–in hotels and in reservations–as I’d experienced over a 10-year relationship. But I got stupid one day and went online to book a room in Cedar Rapids. I missed an obscure piece of text saying all online reservations were non-changeable and non-refundable. And, of course, my client had to change the meeting dates. The front line people I talked to were embarrassed about the policy. They even told me that not seeing the notice happens all the time. But someone back in corporate, likely more worried about squeezing every dollar out of customers than serving them, set the rule. Yet another case of defective back office process, leaving customer-related decisions in the wrong hands. I ate the room charges. But Crowne Plaza ate the relationship.

Effective Customer Care Requires an Adult Dose of Attention to Back Office Process

No way can sweet talk and little perks overcome these missteps. They might delay customer defection a bit, but even that’s a tenuous proposition. So it’s time to get serious about redesigning back office process in a more customer-sensitive manner. It’s time to return to customer-centricity.

Functions ranging from accounts receivable to credit risk management to facilities management to IT to operations to telecommunications to Web management can affect the customer experience in powerful ways and improve customer engagement. And across functional lines constipated e-mail systems, overlapping responsibilities, gaps between responsibilities, parallel functions and especially functional silos can wreak havoc on customer relationships. Companies can’t keep operating "as is" in the back office without causing self-inflicted injuries.

Is it the wrong time to address back office process when we’re amidst a major league economic recession or worse? Not so. I’ll leave you with a little nugget about redesigning back office (and front office) process to improve the customer experience. In almost all cases, properly redesigning office process (as in not using manufacturing process design approaches) reduces office FTE requirements from 10 percent all the way up to 20 percent. You get to have your cake and eat it too.