Is Your Process Helping or Hurting You?

I recently tried a dry cleaning service that picked up and delivered right to my office. It sounded ideal, and a great solution to my problem of timing pickups. With a hectic after-work schedule, I have always struggled with getting to the local dry cleaner before 6pm. A delivery service would at least put the dry cleaning in my hands – how it got home would be a different matter.

I sensed something was wrong when I first tried to call for a pickup. No one answered, not even voicemail. This is a virtual dry cleaner, but they don’t ensure the phone is answered? The first red flag went up.

So I went to the website, and found that they recommend clients fill out a form. The form nicely captured all my contact details, but nothing about my order. It also gave no indication of when I the pickup would occur, but instead asked when I wanted the pickup. I would think nearly every client would want a pickup as soon as possible, wouldn’t you? We’re talking dry cleaning, not grand pianos. Second red flag went up the flag pole.

After waiting for 24 hours for a call back to schedule the pickup, I finally picked up the phone myself. After some friendly banter and a few questions, I asked when I could schedule a pickup. The response: I had to wait 7 business days until someone was “in my area”. I work 6 kilometers from their main office, and it takes 7 business days to get a pickup?

Undeterred, despite red flag number 3, I arranged a pickup. Late on the scheduled day, my bag of dry cleaning was picked up while I am out of the office. The ‘receipt’ I received was just a generic carbon copy receipt page, with no pre-printed branding for their address or phone number. There was no scheduled delivery date, and there was no reconciliation of what was in the bag – my only record of what I gave them is my own notes. Red flags 4 through 6 went up.

As I am writing this post, it has now been a full week since the pickup. I have received nothing from them regarding the status of my order, though I have been billed. The billing was accurate, but I received three emails regarding the same transaction, each one with a different piece of information.

When I finally called this morning, I was assured the delivery would take place before 5pm. It is the last workday of school March break, and the delivery window is 6 hours (and I am a 10 minute drive away)?

While I am sure the owners of this dry cleaning business have the best of intentions, they need to take a hard look at how their processes are hurting their business. And they are not alone. I meet business owners all the time who have a good product or service, but the way in which customers move from first contact to sale is deeply flawed. In fact, most owners we work with can’t accurately describe their internal process – what they think happens is often far removed from what actually transpires.

Why is this?  Small businesses, and a surprising number of large ones, usually rely on processes that were designed out of necessity. Take the simple act of invoicing. We recently met a client with multi-million dollar sales that still invoiced customers through Excel, yet wondered openly why it takes customers 42 days (on average) to pay their bill. While Excel was fine for invoicing in the beginning, the invoice process needed to evolve with the business. They were trying to power a freighter with a pair or oars! By walking through the entire chain of customer interactions, I was able to show how the inconsistent billing process was being perceived by the customers themselves, and how the inconsistency said “pay whenever you can”, as opposed to “pay within 15 days”.

The key to uncovering these breakdowns in your internal processes is to put yourself squarely in the shoes of a brand new customer. When was the last time you tried to purchase your own product, or use your own service? Have you completed a purchase on your website within the past month? Have you tried the various contact methods (phone, email, website form) to observe the response times and quality of response?

Although certainly more time consuming, getting insights directly from new customers is even more valuable, and has an even greater potential for uncovering flaws in your process. The key is to gather feedback after each customer interaction, starting with the first point of contact. Did they find the relevant information from your website? What were the key criteria for choosing your product or service? How did they feel about the initial interaction with you or your staff?

Start by drawing up a list of 3-4 key questions for each stage in the process you want to evaluate, then determine how you can capture those insights while they are still ‘fresh’. You can even outsource this process to a contract call center, providing them a list of clients to contact (from whom you’ve received permission), and have the call center follow-up after each stage. There are also numerous options for conducting online questionnaires, and affordable ways to outsource the management of these survey campaigns.

Lastly, once you’ve gathered these insights, be sure to put them into action. Identify the areas that are causing the most problems for your customers, and focus intensely on improving the process to the benefit of the customer.

In later posts, I’ll talk more about how to address the most common process flaws, but that said, even the smallest changes can yield big improvements. In the case of our client who was still invoicing using Excel, they were able to implement an online invoicing tool in half a day, and see an almost immediate reduction in their accounts receivable.

As for my dry cleaning, the convenience of pickup and delivery has definitely been outweighed by the 2+ weeks their process has required to fulfil my order. At this point, I’m just hoping my shirts come back in one piece!

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