The “It” in the title refers to Customer Service. Except for startups that are launching their first product, the customer service function has already started. Often, when new products are launched, it is just assumed that customer service will assume the responsibility for resolving customer issues – if they occur. The fallacy with this approach is twofold. First, customer issues WILL occur. The only question is how often and how many. Second, waiting to involve customer service just prior to new product shipment is a waste of valuable insight that could be used to enhance the product or service and avoid some landmines that will be found after the initial release.
Involving customer service during the initial product requirements definition phase can significantly improve the product’s overall life cycle performance as well as the customer’s on-going level of satisfaction with the product or service. The article in this collection, “If We Only Knew” discusses the impacts of not considering issues that could occur until after they have occurred. At the risk of offending the sales organization, customer service reps have a better understanding of customers and how they are actually using the company’s products or services than their sales counterparts. This is especially true in situations in which the actual buyer and user are different. An axiom used in several articles in this collection is, “Operations people are seldom empowered to say ‘yes’, but are certainly empowered to say ‘no’ to a purchase.” Sales and Marketing focus on features and benefits while customer service understands customer issues that can be a major influence on buying decisions which often occur behind closed doors. A common reaction to sales reps when this occurs is, “Wow, we didn’t see that coming; we received all the positive buying signs.” Few sales reps take the time to ask their own customer service reps about their customer’s day to day issues and what “hot buttons” may exist in the customer’s organizations that may seem to filter to the top until a new buying decision is being considered.
Another often missed issue is the fact that, to a customer, the product or service is not their primary focus. In most instances, a product or service, the pride of the selling company, may be viewed as just another tool that can be called upon when required. We have all experienced the frustration associated with not remembering how to perform a certain function or find a seldom used, but important capability. The standard answer of “Just look in the manual” may be officially correct, but often results in user frustration. Have you ever had a flat tire and tried to figure out how to access the spare and use the car jack properly? Of course, the directions are in the manual, somewhere. You cannot blame the dealer or the car manufacturer for your predicament, but you are likely to be frustrated with them just the same. Customer service reps, with their constant exposure to customers, can help identify points of confusion or methods to eliminate common problems encountered by customers during the design phase of a product.
In general, a wide chasm exists between the product or service developers and end users. Similar to the above situation, methods and procedures that are obvious and simple to a developer who spends much of their time with a product may be totally obscure to an end user. All too often, when confronted with “silly” customer issues, developers will say, “It is obvious, all they have to do is….”. Customer service reps can bring a dose of reality to the difference experience levels that typically exist between developers and users.
In most instances, new products do not find homes in green field applications. Most often, the new product replaces something or needs to be integrated into existing environments. This simple fact is often overlooked by developers, but becomes instantly obvious to customer service reps when customers call with their integration issues. Again, customer service reps’ perspectives can help developers address this situation to minimize it.
In reverse, ask developers and technical writers to participate either directly or as silent observers on customer calls to customer service. Invariably, they will experience a rude awakening when actually hearing the wide variety of issues and attitudes that customer service reps must deal with on a daily basis. Those experiences will help them appreciate the inputs from customer service as discussed above.
The answer to the question posed in the title of this article, “When Does It Start”, the answer is: it should have already started and it is never too early.