Zone control: Non-value added things in customer service

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Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

SNOOPY, the dog of the “Peanuts” comic strip, is sitting by the side of the road, watching all the kids going by, with many of them in a playful mood. The smart dog is reflecting to himself. He says: “I wonder why it is that some were born people, and others were born dogs. Life is not fair.”

And then in the last frame, he concludes, “Why was I the lucky one?”

It’s a matter of perspective. In business, knowing how to make a product or perform a service for a customer is one thing. But we also need to know how to meet, if not exceed his expectations so that he can come back again and again. And so, how would you do that?

The obvious answer is to look at it from the customer’s perspective.


Customer service has been discussed hundreds of thousands of times everywhere, except there appears to be a lack of information on how to make it happen in real, practical, low-cost, common-sense approach using lean methodology. I’m bringing this topic up because of an interesting incident that occurred recently in one big supermarket when an acquaintance surprised me with an intellectual question: “Rey, why do you choose to spend time in a supermarket when you’re best suited giving management seminars on how to handle problem employees?”

I answered, “Well, it’s not every day that I’m in a supermarket except today when I was trying to be a dutiful husband.” But you see; being everywhere gives me a lot of perspective. It also gives me the time to discover many opportunities, just like what a typical Japanese manager would do during a gemba (workplace) walk. The gemba walk will not tell you a lie, but gives you the real, unadulterated situation. What you see is what you define as a problem or opportunity, depending on your perspective in life.

For example, at the check-out counter of that supermarket, I saw a lot of unnecessary movements led by Romeo and Juliet—starring the bag boy and the cashier who took up 11 minutes and 36 seconds to process our purchase. That’s the beauty of having a mobile phone with a stopwatch, so that we, in the kaizen (continuous improvement) advocacy could discover “non-value added” things everywhere.

What are these non-value added things? For one, Juliet took five steps for her to reach out for a ball pen, waited 30 seconds for the supervisor to encode a password in the check-out computer (because someone was trying to seek a senior citizen’s discount), manually encoded the price for about 15 seconds each time the price scanner malfunctions, and filled-up a discount form the size of a business calling card for about 20 seconds.

But that’s not all. Our waiting time includes the overall total of 40 seconds wasted by Romeo who flirted with Juliet by asking her if she’s ready for an answer, while she pretended not to hear it except to give a faint toothless smile. Or was that a smirk?

The lanky Romeo submissively packed our groceries, except that he was not in his proper frame of mind that he mixed the bottle of muriatic acid with the bag where our Gardenia bread was sitting. When I called his attention, lover boy apologized and went on to unpack them in separate bags, except that he ran out of bags. Thus Romeo made a sprint to another counter and back for about 30 seconds.

The trouble was; the bags were neatly packed that necessitated for Romeo to look for a cutter, which was located at the “customer service” at the end of the hallway.

Call me a professional faultfinder, but isn’t that what’s a newspaper columnist for? Really, I am concerned about “non-value added” things in customer service. I’m saying this because I’m a firm believer of Zone Control. It’s about having all the things you need within your arm’s reach. There’s no need for you to run back and forth to secure a tool, a form, a price list, a brochure, or whatever from someplace so that you can immediately attend to a customer’s need. In chess, the zone control is at the center of the board. If a player controls it, there’s a big chance of winning the game.

Sometime ago, I was at Osaka’s Yodobashi electronic shop that gave me an excellent example of mobile zone control on customer service. All shop clerks wear a comfortable vest with five pockets each that contains everything – from a mini-cutter, baby scissor, calculator, price list, and everything that is needed to perform an excellent job for the customer.

Imagine a productive-minded repair technician with all tools and equipment on his side holster doing a gemba walk in a factory so that he can do instant work on anything, without spending time looking for his tools. That’s the essence of zone control.

The same thing can be done in customer service but only if you’ve a critical eye for it.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter for his random management thoughts.

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