Although the technical aspect of customer complaints may be obvious there may be other matters that increase the significance of the issue for the customer. The secret of effective complaint resolution is recognising the underlying issues and dealing with the whole of the complainants problem.
Perhaps the most difficult issues for complaint processes geared to putting right the technical failing which caused the complaint are those that impacted a third party in some way. Often, these may have caused difficulties or embarrassment for the complainant in their relationship with someone who is important to them or it may have caused them personal embarrassment.
Now that so much business is done on line enterprises often have very little face to face or even telephone contact with customers. The problem of faceless customer relations began with mail order and was already being exacerbated by the growth of call centres. The opportunity to understand customer needs through informal conversation has all but disappeared.
Solidus has long argued that complaints are the last real opportunity for such contact but the potential benefits are being squandered by rigid processes, scripted responses and even dehumanised e-mail and web-based systems.
It is often said that a customer with a complaint about a supplier spreads that news widely and rapidly so that within 24 hours most of their immediate friends and family are aware of it. If the complaint is not dealt with quickly and effectively the complainant rapidly becomes a “product terrorist” and is actively damaging the expensively developed brand. Even worse are the customers who never complain and move directly to “product terrorism” telling all and sundry how bad the supplier is. With the advent of internet forums and social media they do not just tell their friends and family, it can go global, instantly. A brand is soon damaged.
Despite the protestations of PRINCE practitioners and other advocates of project “management” methodologies project management is not all about process. What really separates effective project management from the rest is decision making at all levels of the governance structure.
In my first job after leaving Durham University I was often left in charge of an entrepreneurial small business. This was in the days before e-mail, mobile phones and even fax machines were something of a novelty; we still used a telex service for urgent overseas correspondence! When the owner went away on his occasional overseas business trips his instructions were very clear: “… if a decision really needs taking then you must make it, take using the best of your knowledge and ability. If you do that in good faith there will be no blame if it turns out wrong; I will sort it out, few decisions are irrecoverable”.
He meant it and lived by it, as I have ever since. The point was that delaying a decision is usually worse than not taking the necessary, even if painful, action. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to learn that lesson as they tinker with sticking plasters for the financial crises. The politicians are learning what many project managers have discovered, the consequences of indecision just keep mounting up and make the eventual decision even more difficult.
The lesson is that if a decision needs taking then it should be taken with the best information available. A timely and good enough decision is far better than a perfect but too late decision. The only perfect understanding is with hindsight “what we should have done is…”. A bureaucratic approach to project management is often engendered by project methodologies which hinder speedy and effective decision making. Waiting for more information leads to the old cliché “paralysis by analysis” – an appearance of activity whilst the problem continues to grow.
The over-large project board discussed in a previous Thoughts — Project Governance, Less is More was brought about, in part at least, by confusing the different roles of key stakeholders. A common problem on large projects is to give equal authority to advisers and decision-makers.
On large projects with many, diverse, user groups there is a need to consult widely with many subject matter experts to ensure that there are no gaps in the project requirements and all needs have been understood. Once understood not all the stated needs may be accepted into the scope of the project board. That is the responsibility of the project owner and a small, selected team authorised to define the scope and budget for the project. That group, essentially the project board, will be accountable for delivering the project scope once the budget holder’s senior management team has approved the project details. For large or strategic projects, it will often require board or executive management team approval.
Many user groups will believe that they have a say in making the decision as to what should be in scope. In reality, they need consulting and their needs considered alongside those of many other interested parties. However, there will need to be a decision that balances conflicting requirements between groups. As a result, such subject matter experts can only advise as they have vested interests and may not have the full strategic picture. To facilitate those discussions a committee of senior users may be appropriate to explore the wider picture and ensure that it is complete even if issues of scope remain unresolved.
It may even be a hierarchy of committees so that individual communities of users can agree their needs and have them represented in a wider forum that advises the decision making body on the desired scope and priorities. That senior advisory body should usually be chaired by the senior user from the project board so that he or she is conversant with the advice and can represent in a separate decision making body.
Much is made of the need for responsibility and accountability on projects. However, there are limits on how widely they can be distributed. On many projects, large ones especially, there is a confusion between project responsibility and stakeholder management.
On one very large project I know of the senior responsible owner was concerned about making stakeholders accountable. As a result he insisted on them being on the Project Board and party to the project decision making. The result was the largest project board with which I have ever worked; there were around 24 people on that board. His thinking was that all members would then be equally accountable; unfortunately, he misunderstood the dynamics of groups.
The result was that no one, no one was actually accountable. Jerry Harvey, the American psychologist, noticed that groups often take decisions that are at odds with decisions they would take as individuals. Even to the extent that as a group they would take decisions they would personally regard as perverse. Harvey noted that the groups takes strange decisions because individuals know they can avoid personal responsibility for the groups actions. He called this behaviour the “Abilene Paradox”; he compared it to a family that chose to go to Abilene for a vacation even though individually no one had any desire to do so and knowing the journey would be unpleasant.
The other problem with such a large project board was that it became a talking shop and was slow to take decisions at all. With over twenty people travelling from all over the country it was also inordinately expensive so it was hardly surprising that the project was on its fifth project director and running over a year late. It was eventually delivered after a further replanning and with a reduced scope.
As part of business planning assignment for a start-up company being spun out of a university department Solidus completely restructured the service offering and its development road map. The Professor originally envisaged proving his service to individuals via a web site and marketing through a highly developed professional network. However, the service was not sufficiently automated to cope with high numbers of individual customers. As a result the proposition was changed to begin with corporate clients who could support more hands-on servicing and would fund further automation to allow expansion into the individual market.
Sometimes a programme or project needs fresh thinking to get it running smoothly; it may be that a health check has exposed issues.
Solidus has considerable experience with putting projects and programmes back on track. Usually it is a case of a project team using Solidus to facilitate an exploration of the challenges. Often the team are too close to the issues, Solidus helps them step back to “see the wood for the trees”. The client can then often resolve matters themselves. In extremis Solidus can take over project leadership until it is running smoothly.