Have you been in the position of not knowing what a loved one wanted on their birthday? After struggling with not knowing, you end up presenting a scented candle or a new dishwasher with both of you recognizing that very little effort went into the selection decision. So once again you end up in the dog house and perhaps you learned a major lesson.
The lesson is that you probably should ask a question or two instead of assuming what your loved one wanted on such an important occasion. The same holds true for customer intimacy.
What Is Customer Intimacy?
On May 16, James Woolsey, president of the Defense Acquisition University, said:
Fortunately, we have already started down the path of understanding more about what the acquisition workforce actually needs through our customer intimacy initiative and voice-of-the-customer conversations. We need to communicate and help create the culture change.
Customer intimacy is a strategy for building deep and lasting relationships with our customers, by tailoring your offerings to meet their specific needs. So how do we tailor your offerings to meet their specific needs? One way is by asking better questions.
Building Better Questions
To ask better questions, you must build better questions. When building better questions it is important to build a framework—i.e., how do we know that we are asking the right questions? Maybe in the past we asked a good question but received the wrong information. The key to knowing the right question to ask is in your tool box (Table 1).
The tool box arose from a practical “need” in engaging with a new customer. Skills were needed for getting “good” information “fast” and keeping the customer happy. In starting a new job and encountering new customers we did not always know what the customer needed, so how could we know if we met their expectations? The answer is to start with the tool box.
Building Your Tool Box
The tools are methods of gathering knowledge about a customer in order to increase our understanding and thereby become more intimate in working with them and meeting their needs. The tools will be presented in a logical order from narrow focused to a more broadly used tool; however, as we become proficient in tool use, we can decide to use some or all, as seems appropriate.
Each tool presented below includes a description and a brief scenario describing its possible use and the benefit derived from using it.
Tool 1. Self-Reflection and the Dunning–Kruger Effect
The first tool allows us to question ourselves, or gain some self-reflection as a means of identifying biases and prejudices before and during decision making. We often find that we are questioning ourselves about our decisions. This is not only healthy but indicates that we are competent in our decision-making process.
In 1999, Cornell University’s David Dunning and Justin Kruger wanted to know why low-ability folks are mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is. What they discovered became the basis of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Their paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, uncovered the idea that the more competent a person is, the likelier he or she is to question that competence. Conversely, the less competent person is more likely to believe he is competent. In other words, the more we question ourselves or entertain reflective questioning, the more likely it is that we will be able to understand the voice of the customer.
The value proposition of Tool 1 is that self-reflection aids in the identification of personal biases that otherwise might impact customer intimacy and distort the voice of the customer.
Tool 2. Voice of the Customer Tool—the Kano Model
The Beaumont Boy Scout Camp of the Greater Cleveland, Ohio, area, was losing attendance. The first question was: Why don’t people come to the camp? To help develop that question, the Kano Model was used. The Kano model of product development theory and customer satisfaction was developed in the 1980s by Japanese educator and consultant Noriaki Kano. Ph.D. The model classifies customer preferences into five categories:
- Must Be (Expected Quality)
- One-Dimensional (Desired Quality)
- Delighters (Excited Quality)
- Indifferent (Neither Expected or Unexpected)
- Reverse (Opposite of the Expectation)
So in our given problem, better attendance would meet or exceed customer expectations, because the problem was that of declining attendance at the Boy Scout summer camp. This was in turn due to an undefined customer dissatisfaction. Current and potential customers of the camp were surveyed, using a series of questions to determine reasons. The basic customer expectation is a fun experience. The problem is outlined below:
One-Dimensional (Desired Quality)
- The customer would like a variety of things to do:
- Shooting sports
- Extended Camp season
- Good waterfront activities
- Evening programs
- Nature experience
- Badges awarded
- Advancement opportunities
The customer expects a nice place to stay with running water in cabins, dry camp sites, pools and showers, more tents, good camp maintenance, and fewer insects. The customer expects a hassle-free camping experience with timely program information, an enthusiastic staff, accessible dining hall, and a stronger program.
The value proposition of Tool 2 is that understanding customer interests directly contributes to customer intimacy and refines the voice of the customer.
Tool 3. Voice of the Customer Tool—Quality Function Deployment
Question: Who is my customer? Asking better questions gives us better inputs. One tool that can help manage inputs is the Quality Function Deployment—(QFD).
Japanese planning specialist Yoji Akao, Ph.D., originated the concept of QFD in 1972, and applied it to the design of an oil tanker at the Kobe Shipyards of Mitsubishi Heavy Industry. It is a quality methodology that transforms customer requirements for design of a product, service or process into the design of components for that product QFD also ensures that the voice of the customer can be traced into the process design. From the Kano model we began with the Voice of the Customer Demanded Items:
Demanded Items: The customer would like a variety of things to do, and expects a nice place to stay and a hassle-free camping experience. The demanded items or (needs) are translated into counterpart characteristics or how the needs may be met in the following areas: program, facilities and customer service. This is where we review the customer’s desires and determine “how” to satisfy them.
How—Counterpart Characteristic: The program requires new equipment, an accurate schedule as well as adequate and safe facilities, encounters with staff leadership, along with better trained staff and clean, dry facilities. Maintenance and resources must be improved, bugs eliminated as a problem, and adequate customer service. Also needed are knowledgeable staff, adequate supply of resources, clear and descriptive reservation instructions, informative and timely program information, professional rangers and enjoyable encounters and events as well as challenging camping experiences. Personnel must be interactive.
These items are places in the matrix and a score is assigned based of the QFD methodology. The QFD analysis revealed that timely release of program information was the top driver for parents to plan to send their children to camp. It also was found that the camp was losing attendance because Scouts were leaving the program at adulthood. The true customer was not the Boy Scouts but the Cub Scouts.
The value proposition of Tool 3 is to take a deeper dive into understanding the customer’s needs, thereby becoming more intimate with the customers and speaking in their voices by defining and identifying the real customer.
Tool 4. Continuous Improvement Tool—Plan-Do-Check-Act
To improve customer satisfaction in hospitality management, we need to answer two questions: What is the primary mission of a hotel? Why aren’t the guests happy?
The Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle popularized by management guru W. Edwards Deming illustrated that business processes should be analyzed and measured to identify sources of variations that cause products to deviate from customer requirements. Deming recommended that business processes be placed in a continuous feedback loop so that managers can identify and change the parts of the process that need improvements. So how does PDCA work?
Plan: Design or revise business process components to improve results. A hospitality company may discover its problems by soliciting customer responses in a survey. A survey was developed and placed on their customer Web portal.
Do: Implement the plan and measure its performance. In this case, the survey was faulty. The survey asked Likert scale questions (select from a series of given responses) that were not important to the customer.
Check: Assess the measurements and report the results to decision makers. What did they really say? The survey included open-ended questions and those responses yielded useful information. Figure 2 illustrates that not only were the customer not delighted, they were unhappy—the company had failed in this primary mission of providing a safe, clean place to sleep.
Act: Decide on changes needed to improve the process. The organization developed a process for meeting the customers’ needs and expectations. The survey was revised to capture the true desires of the customer and the process was repeated and continuously improved.
The value proposition of Tool 4 is that it is meant to provide a process-oriented tool when considering iterative changes so as to better understand the customer and to hear their voice.
Tool 5. Decision Cycle Tool—Observe, Orient, Decide, Act Loop
In building a better wind turbine, how do we get certified? How do we gain the confidence of an auditor?
Quality auditing is based on the analysis of objective evidence against a published standard. However, auditors are people and people like to be confident that the system they audit has a low risk of failure. One confidence building approach is to anticipate the auditors’ questions. One tool for doing so is the OODA Loop (Figure 3).
For example, in grade school, did you ever have a teacher ask a question of the class to which you had already formulated an answer earlier than everyone else but still chose not to respond? You may have sat and watched your classmates struggle to find an answer and felt satisfied that you already knew the answer. As you waited, 30 seconds later, a classmate’s hand shot up because he had just come up with an answer. Your decision cycle was 30 seconds faster than that classmates. That is what it is like to operate inside someone else’s decision cycle.
Military strategist John Boyd said, “When you are working inside someone else’s decision cycle it is like they are moving in slow motion.” So how do you get inside an auditor’s decision cycle? Better inputs are needed! In this instance, to get inside an auditor’s cycle, start with the Type Certification Audit and then build an Audit Map. This allows you to anticipate the voice of the customer and develop your response before the question is asked. You are effectively inside their decision cycle.
The value proposition for Tool 5 is becoming alert and responsive, i.e., to anticipate change, which is necessary for customer intimacy and acquiring their voice.
Tool 6. Job Design Tool—Job Characteristic Model
In 1975, Greg R. Oldham of the University of Illinois and J. Richard Hackman of Harvard constructed the original version of the Job Characteristics Theory (JCT). See their 1980 book, Work Redesign, published by Addison-Wesley. Jobs previously were simplified in order to maximize production; however, it was found that, when subjected to highly routinized and repetitive tasks, the benefits of simplification sometimes disappeared due to worker dissatisfaction. Due to these negative aspects of work, it was suggested that jobs should be enriched in ways that boost motivation, instead of mere simplification to a string of repetitive tasks. It was from this viewpoint that JCT emerged, as well as the Hackman and Oldham job characteristics model.
This model is the basis of the Job Diagnostic Survey. The core job dimensions are depicted by the following characteristics:
- Skill variety—the degree to which a job requires the worker to perform activities that challenge his skills and abilities.
- Task identity—the degree to which the job requires completion of a “whole” and identifiable piece of work; doing a job from beginning to end with a visible outcome.
- Task significance—the degree to which the job has a substantial and perceivable impact on the lives of other people, whether in the immediate organization or the world at large.
- Autonomy—the degree to which the job gives the worker freedom, independence, and discretion in scheduling work and determining how he will carry it out.
- Feedback—the degree to which a worker, in carrying out the work activities required by the job, gets information about the effectiveness of his efforts.
Collectively, these characteristics provide a way to diagnose the potential performance outcomes of a job. (See the article by J.R. Hackman, et al., “A New Strategy for Job Enrichment,” in the July 1975 California Management Review.) These characteristics also form the basis for job redesign.
For example, Morris was a journeyman meat cutter before his position was eliminated. As a butcher, he was in charge of the meat department at a large grocery store and operated it autonomously. After he was laid off, Morris could not find a job in his field, so he was hired as an inspector at a small arms factory. As a receiving inspection technician, his job was very narrow in scope. He was not allowed to investigate or ask questions regarding customer complaints with the supply chain. He had no ability to respond to the voice of the customer. Before job redesign he was the receiving inspector with no discretionary duties, worked within a narrow task structure and was unable to respond to the voice of the customer; not allowed to perform Root Cause Analysis (RCA); subject to the customer “finding” problems rather than their discovery within the production facility; and was thrust into a reactive role.
After the job redesign, he was a supplier quality technician with greater autonomy working in a broad task structure and was able to react to the customer’s needs. He was allowed to perform RCA, could use problem-solving teams to solve customer concerns and was able to be proactive.
The value proposition for Tool 6 is that job redesign empowers the employee and restores the ability to solve problems by asking questions.
Tool 7. Organizational Climate Tool—Organizational Climate
Organizations often state that “Our motto is our customers come first.” Yet, when observed, they seem to have an unwritten rule that we do not talk to the customers. Why is that? How can a customer’s needs be known if we are not allowed to ask them about those needs?
The key in developing the voice of the customer is to have an organizational climate that empowers the workforce. First, we define organizational climate as a relatively enduring quality of the organization’s internal environment experienced by its members that influences their behavior and can be described in terms of a particular set of the organization’s characteristics or attributes (See Renato Tagiuri, “Organizational climate; explorations of a concept,” research paper, Harvard Business School, 1968).
But as Norman E. Bowie noted in his article, “A Kantian Theory of Meaningful Work,” in the July 1998 Journal of Business Ethics: “The United States government established the [Malcolm] Baldridge Awards for quality. It is interesting to note how many of the good practice criteria refer not to the product itself but rather to how employees are managed.”
The value proposition of Tool 7 is that nurturing an organizational climate promoting intimate interaction with the customer is key to developing the voice of the customer.
The seven tools that have been presented show an iterative flow of understanding from self to others so that we can ask better questions that will result in better outcomes.
Each tool allows the user to explore the vertical aspects understanding as well as horizontal components. Asking better questions requires rigor in its approach and application.
Accordingly, the tool box and these seven tools will provide the user with the means to develop a greater intimacy with the customer by better understanding their needs. The voice of the customer is not merely a set of tools, but a means to empower employees to use one or more options in the tool box to ensure that the customer’s voice is heard.
About the Authors:
Mark S. Phillips is a professor of Quality Assurance in the College of Contract Management at the Defense Acquisition University’s South Region campus in Huntsville, Alabama. He holds a doctorate in Technology and a master’s degree in Advanced Product Quality Planning from Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti as well as a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
James N. Phillips Jr. is a management consultant with more than 25 years of acquisition experience. He holds a Doctorate in Business Administration from the American Meridian University in Florida and a master’s in Public Administration from Troy University in Alabama and is a certified Program Management Professional and a Certified Federal Contacts Manager.
This article first appeared in the November-December 2018 edition of Defense Acquisition magazine. See: https://www.dau.mil/library/defense-atl/p/Defense-Acquisition-November-December-2018