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When Boeing and other aeroplane manufacturers are developing new aircraft they literally test them to destruction. This ensures that the planes will still operate effectively even in the most extreme situations.

It is a concept that I think should be applied to the delivery of all customer experiences.

When many managers review operational performance and the delivery of their customer experience, their focus is often on overall efficiency rather than effectiveness. As a result everything is designed for average, not peak levels of demand, and they struggle to cope with busier periods.

Last year, for example, I helped a US hotel chain improve its valet parking service. As I observed one of their teams in action, I could see that each member of the team took on a variety of roles, including parking and collecting cars, helping with luggage and calling and managing taxi cabs.

This approach worked fine in ‘normal’ conditions but fell apart as demand rose. Between 12 and 2pm, cars started backing up down the driveway, guests were left waiting in line for their cars to be returned, and both customers and the valet team alike felt frustrated, rushed and hassled. What started out as a flexible operational solution rapidly became a confusing and inappropriate way of working.

While the improvements for the valet team were relatively straightforward to develop and implement – ensuring, for instance, that a valet ‘captain’ was permanently on hand to allocate tasks to the team, and providing staff with specific, focused jobs during the peak hours – the critical step was to give the situation sufficient management attention.

Whether you run an internal service team or are directly responsible for the delivery of your organisation’s customer experience, there are three key factors for you to consider, each of which you can leverage to increase the breaking point of your experience.

  1. Establish clear performance standards that raise the bar on pace. High performance standards lead to improvements in customer experience breaking points by bringing greater management focus to the process. For example, while The Post Office appears satisfied with long queues at its counters, Tesco has a policy of opening a new till whenever there is more than one customer in a queue and, like other retailers, continues to look for ways to reduce queue times. This higher performance standard has driven Tesco’s managers to find new ways to increase the numbers of customers they can efficiently get through the checkouts at peak times, such as self-pay kiosks and the use of Apple Pay. How well do your speed performance standards meet the needs of your customers and how do they compare to those of your competitors’?
  2. Understand and manage your physical capacity. The size and number of operating units determine your physical capacity. Last weekend, for instance, I flew from Lyons airport after a family skiing holiday. Only two passport agents were allocated to process passengers trying to board at least five separate flights. They simply couldn’t cope with the demand, huge queues quickly formed and flights were delayed. The only solution available to management, which was implemented 45 minutes too late, was to add more agents to the passport control desks. Quite simply, all other things being equal, the greater the capacity, the higher the breaking point. To what extent do you understand and plan for sufficient physical capacity to cope with peak demand?
  3. Develop systems and processes that are focused on speed. Organisations with faster operations have a higher breaking point than similar, but slower businesses. Domino’s Pizza, for instance, has built its business on a promise to deliver pizzas within 30- minutes, even at peak business times and has established systems, processes and customer touch points (e.g. use of the Domino’s app) to help achieve that promise. To what extent are your operational processes faster than your competitors, and how are you leveraging them to increase the breaking point of your customer experience?

I know that the delivery of an effective customer experience with a high breaking point does, at some point, rub up against budgetary limitations. In my experience, however, focusing on these three factors can provide the starting point for improvements in your capacity to manage peak demand periods without the need for huge investment.

What steps could you take now to develop, test and improve the breaking point of your customer experience?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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