It was last summer. My wife, son, daughter and I were on the first day of our vacation, and we had gone to dinner at a casual family restaurant that specialized in chicken wings. So, along with our entrees, we ordered wings as an appetizer--25, to be exact.
"You can choose five different flavors for your wings," the waitress told us. There were dozens from which to choose. We caucused briefly, agreed on five and gave her our choices.
End result: The wings were great, our entrees were fine and we decided we should come back again.
Fast forward to the last night of our vacation. We were back in the wings restaurant, looking at our menus, when my son asked, "Instead of a regular meal, why don't we just order a bunch of wings?"
Immediate consensus: a great idea. So we ordered a platter of 50 wings and then spent several minutes selecting the 10 flavors we assumed we could choose.
The waitress appeared. "Are you ready to order?" she asked.
"Yes," I replied. "We'd like 50 wings."
"What flavors?" she asked.
She wrote down the first five flavors I listed. But when I came to number six, she stopped writing.
"Is something wrong?" I asked.
"You can only get five different flavors," she informed me.
"But we were here the other night and got five flavors with 25 wings," I logically argued.
"Right," she said, employing her own air-tight logic, "and you can only get five flavors with 50 wings, too."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because," she explained, "the cooks have to dip and season each one by hand, and they don't like it when they have to do too many different kinds."
Now, after lo these many years of marriage, my wife knows that I can become a bit "difficult" in such situations. That's why she was giving me that subtle signal--an almost imperceptible wincing of her left eye--that warned me loudly and clearly: "It's the last night of our vacation. Don't screw it up. Let it go!"
But I couldn't let it go completely.
"OK," I said to the waitress. "We'll take just five flavors. But you've got to do one thing for me."
"What's that?" she asked, warily.
"You've got to admit that your 'five flavors' rule is a silly one," I said.
Her expression didn't indicate agreement to my terms.
"Let me show you why," I said. "Forget what we just ordered. Cross it off your pad."
Still wary, she did so.
"OK," I said, "here's our order. We'll have 25 wings with these five flavors." I rattled off the first five flavors from our list. Still wary, she wrote them down.
"Now," I continued, "we would also like another order of 25 wings, with these five flavors." I rattled off flavors six through 10. Again, she wrote them down.
"See the problem?" I asked, triumphantly.
"Kind of," she said. "But two orders of 25 wings will cost you more than one order of 50."
"How much more?"
So for $2.95, I could stand on principle, get the 10 flavors we wanted and--most important of all--make my wife's left eye stop wincing.
"Sold!" I said. It was the best $2.95 I spent that entire week.
So what's the point of my chicken wings saga? After all, the permissible "wings/flavors" ratio should not be terribly high on anyone's list of key quality metrics. But this general kind of incident happens to all of us all of the time in our capacity as customers, whether it's at a wings restaurant, with an insurance company, at a retail store or what-have-you.
A guarantee: Somewhere in the running of my business, I have some practices that are the logical equivalent of telling my clients, "You can only choose five flavors." Furthermore, I guarantee that you have your own "five flavors only" practices in place, too.
Why? Here's my theory. In the broadest sense, businesses need to answer two questions:
* "Did we do it right?" (where "right" is defined by the business)
* "Did it result in a sensible outcome?" (where "sensible" is defined by the customer)
Now, you must address the first question. It represents the nuts and bolts of doing business. It's the stuff that's right there, in your face, all day, every day. It has to do with the processes, procedures and protocols by which a business is run: all good and necessary things. Without them, chaos results.
Alas, it is quite possible not to ask the second question. After all, you have 150 things to do each day, they're right in your face, and you only have time to do about 25 of them. So the "Is it sensible?" question--a question that requires you to pause, step back and examine the broader context within which you're trying to do those 150 things--tends not to get asked.
It would be one thing if you lived in a steady-state world, where you could go out to customers, get an operating definition of "sensible," put in place the processes and procedures to do those "sensible" things "right" and be done with it.
In reality, though, you live in anything but a steady-state world. Today's sensible is a week from Tuesday's nonsense. But you have those 150 things to do, and they're right in your face.
How do you get out of this box? By changing the process with which you decide what "sensible" means. Traditionally, "customer contact" functions (e.g., sales, marketing, service) gather that information and feed it back into the organization. But, in a dynamic world, it takes way too long for that to happen. And when it finally does, enough "noise" will have been added to the signal that important information will have been lost or distorted.
What's needed is a way to open up a clear and direct line of sight to the customer for everyone, not just for "customer contact" functions. Communications will be faster. The information will be clearer and cleaner. That way, "right" and "sensible" are more likely to match, quality is more likely to be achieved, and customer value is more likely to be delivered.
Most important of all, I will be less likely to find myself in situations where my wife is wincing at me with her left eye.
About the author
John Guaspari is president of Guaspari & Salz Inc., a Concord, Massachusetts-based management consulting firm. The books he has written include I Know It When I See It and The Customer Connection.
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