07 March 2008

Customer Happiness and Business Processes

Do your business processes help your customers do business with you?

Periodically I have been asked how FMT is able to compete with “the big guys.” After all, the company for whom I work is small. We have anywhere from 10 to 15 consultants on staff at any given time. The actual number depends upon the project requirements we have. So how does a firm like ours compete effectively?

I believe it is about focus, knowing what it is that we do better than anyone else. In our case, the focus is business process. While it is true that we work with our clients in a variety of ways – software consulting, education, training, metrics, business intelligence, and such; the focus of all those activities is: Process. It is all about how we help our clients get to a business process that makes doing business with them simpler and more satisfying for their customers.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Several years ago we worked with a small architecture firm in the Bay Area. They were competing for work that was also attractive to larger firms. Did this tiny firm win all of the bids they submitted? No, but they won about 35% of them. They were successful by having business processes that were focused on making their clients happy. One of the processes that their clients liked best was the ability to log in to a secure area on the firm’s Web site and access all the relevant documentation for a particular project, including specifications, renderings, building plans, and such.

Today such access might be considered mundane. In 1996, it was a client exciter! Suddenly it was no longer, “Did the delivery service driver get caught in bridge traffic? Did she have an accident? How long will we need to wait to see changes?” In addition to showing its clientele how customer focused the firm was, this process change affected the bottom line. It eliminated 90% of the firm’s delivery service charges and printing costs. Since the business process also shortened the cycle time for approval of revisions, billing went out more quickly reducing receivables aging and improving cash flow. Last but not least, the firm generated more business with their client base because they were perceived as “easy to do business with!”

Now we (architects and business process consultants) could have approached redesigning their business process from the viewpoint of reducing costs and maximizing revenue, but I doubt that whatever was developed would have made their clients as happy as this customer focused redesign did.

One of my main objections to ERP implementations and upgrades, as they are currently handled, is that they are viewed as technical exercises only. When they should be opportunities to improve not just an organization’s business processes but also refine those processes such that they increase the organization’s customers’ ability to transact business easily. Too often an organization’s employees concentrate on the mechanics of simply trying to automate a business process within the constraints of software (chosen by executives who will rarely use it) that the opportunity to improve the business process from the perspective of a “user experience” that is satisfying, and not frustrating, is missed.

Further, using ERP software to implement best practices begs several questions. Whose best practice? How long ago was it considered a best practice? Is there a recent innovation in best practice that is not included in the ERP software? From the viewpoint of customers who transact business with us, is this best practice for our organization? Expecting ERP software to improve an organization’s business processes can be fraught with disappointment. Better to redesign with customers’ ease and satisfaction in mind and address software later. The good news is that with the rise of SAAS (software as a service), automating business processes that incorporate the customer’s view may get easier.

I'd like to see what others think about this topic. Click the comment link below and let me know what you think.