When Processes fail, People make the difference

When Processes fail, People make the difference

I love processes. I only use white shirts to work to save time. Good processes enable 3.5 million passengers per day to use Shinjuku station and drivers in Switzerland and Dubai to report minor car accidents in less than 3 minutes, with no need to wait for the police to arrive. Processes drive efficiency.

Processes also fail, to millions of consumers

Normally, the academy doesn't hand out the wrong envelope for Best Picture. But it did. Most processes work well 80% of the time. The chances you will get your checked luggage at the end of the flight are over 99%. However, that less than 1% chance of you not getting your checked luggage means that on every flight 1-3 pieces of luggage go missing. That process fails to over 23 million bags/passengers per year, who after waiting for hours on the phone for an update are told:

“I am sorry but that is our process. There is nothing I can do about it”

How to annoy/lose customers when processes fail

Having visited numerous Global Distribution Centers, I know that statistically, order processing errors will occur (in one case, a robot operated one was less accurate than one where colleagues were hand-picking items). My solution is to never check luggage (although the truth is that I hate to wait). A fellow passenger, a mother, who was traveling on American Airlines, was forced to check her breast pump, which got lost.

She then waited for over 1 hour for someone in the calling center to answer the call and be told that she needed to follow the process (wait).

That is an illustrative example. Every day, when mistakes like that happen, consumers interact with call centers (picture) and company representatives who repeat:

“I am sorry but that is our process. There is nothing I can do about it”

As a businessman, I know that processes sometimes fail. In fact, I remind my team when it happens to others that once it will happen to us. As a consumer, however, I am disappointed when someone repeats “I am sorry but that is our process. There is nothing I can do about it”.

How to delight customers

We all remember that scene towards the end of Pretty Woman. Richard Gere (Ed) and Julia Roberts (Vivian) will separate forever. Ed is thinking about whether he is making the right decision, while "It must have been love" plays in the background.

On that scene (pictured), could you imagine what would have happened if the hotel manager had said:

“I am sorry sir, but I cannot give you the home address of another guest, that is our process. There is nothing I can do about it”

Then Ed would have flown back to NY without her, it would have been a horrible end and no one would have recommended the movie.

Instead, the manager (Hector Elizondo) finds a way to make an exception, which enables Ed to go on a stretch limo to Vivian’s apartment, declare his love, and make Pretty Woman the most watched romantic comedy.

No, it’s not just in the movies. I have been fortunate over the years to plea to folks who have made such exceptions and made my trip/life easier. If you know a good story, please share it in the comments section.

Here is a real-life one. On Sunday, September 21st, 2008 bankers in New York met. The previous Sunday, they had let Lehman Brothers go bankrupt. Since then, the Fed had both rescued AIG and bought commercial paper from GE, two things it wasn’t supposed to do. Meanwhile, around the world, corporate finance folks like myself were worried that our customers would go bankrupt since they couldn't borrow at any rate. We made an exception and created vehicles to solve their financial problems. The next morning our customers were able to open for business. They rewarded us with years of lasting loyalty.

For the last 20 years, both as CFO, Global Process Driver and for personal interest, I have traveled to over 180 countries to reflect on what happens when processes fail. Be it a multi-billion dollar product recall, a business transformation process, wire transfer fraud or a rural shuttle bus in West Africa getting a flat tire and not having a spare one, how people manage it is what makes the difference.

When Processes fail, People can make it work. This is how:

1.Human to human. Unlike a machine or a robot following a process, we are able to be empathetic. Imagine the other person is your favorite grandma or your crush in high school. Fix the problem first, and then explain to the customer why the process did not work or why we are only able to make this as an exception. The customer is going to leave your business delighted and may share it on social media. Reason codes and paperwork are to be completed thereafter.

2. Coach your team. As leaders, our duty is to create a caring culture. I know a multi

billion-dollar business owner who, when operational issues require an urgent delivery which won’t reach a customer, he would get in his car and deliver it himself.

3. Empower front-line employees with the ability to make exceptions. While there is a risk that the system may be abused, good analytics can identify and deal with that risk. Meanwhile, monitor the number of exceptions and reason codes. Make it easier for customers to do business with your firm.

When processes fail, regardless of fault, our people can make a difference and leave a positive impression which separates us from competitors and enables growth.

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