Lather, Rinse, Repeat: The Secret to Great Customer Service - Steve Satterwhite

Service is often the art of making good on someone else’s mistake.

Cavett Robert

Years ago, our small but fast-growing IT services company got a bite at a big, fat contract with Dell. Our job was to design, deploy, and manage Enterprise IT storage systems for their customers.

During the kickoff to that contract, our customer, Jeff, told us we had to do three things:

First, we could never ever make a mistake, or we’d be gone. Second, we had to be THE low cost provider. And, third, we had to deliver near-perfect customer service. Think Net Promoter or a 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale.

Not one of those things. All three of those things. When OR became AND.

After Jeff outlined the high-level expectations, I started to ask him a lot of detailed questions about how things worked, about the processes and procedures, statements of work (SOW) and the methodology Dell used to design, install and configure backup and recovery solutions. In other words, how were they doing it now?

Jeff just laughed.

He said something like this: “Steve, we don’t have any methodology or any standard processes or procedures. If we knew how to do this, we wouldn’t need your company or any of the other partners. That’s why we hired you. That’s your job. You go figure it out.”

I didn’t really know what to say.

Surely they (Dell, the big gorilla) would have a simple, tried-and-true methodology and an SOW for delivering services on their own products. That’s Consulting 101.

But they didn’t. And this is why they were having all the project failures and escalations. This is why it was costing them time and money. And why Jeff told us he was spending a big chunk of his day handling these escalations and very upset customers.

Now it was all making sense.

We hired a guy named Mark to lead our team. Mark was a former Marine. He was a tough guy with a thick skin and a “complete the mission at all costs” kind of mentality.

He told me that when he was in the Marines, his job was to complete his mission no matter what. That even if he lost his air cover, his ground support and even if he was the only one left in his platoon, his job was to complete his mission.

Perfect. This was exactly what we needed.

After the Marines, Mark picked up a lot of IT skills and started a new career for himself. And, as luck would have it, his primary IT skills were in large Enterprise IT storage and backup & recovery. Fortunate for us, indeed.

I told Mark what we needed to do, what our mission was and their expectations to execute flawlessly, at a low cost and with the highest level of customer service.

No problem, Mark said, I’m on it.

To get started, Mark had to go on a few training projects. Dell, and the rest of the IT industry, calls these “shadows,” where he had to watch and participate with another consultant on a job. Since there wasn’t any methodology or standard SOW, we had to learn on the job. That’s what the shadowing was for.

After a couple of shadows, Mark was approved for duty. So, before he did his first solo project, Mark setup a meeting with our team in the office so that we could get a game plan together and start working on our own system to execute.

Being a Marine, Mark was big on procedures and following orders. He liked checklists. And, he understood that Dell didn’t have any methodology.

Mark could see where the problems were from the few shadows he went on. It turns out, he said, that the problems, the Be-Backs that Dell was having, weren’t because of the technology. The technology worked just fine in most cases. The issues were mostly logistical and communication problems.

Things like missing, wrong or damaged parts being shipped to the customer. Or the customer didn’t have enough space, power or network bandwidth to successfully install the new systems. Or, many times, the customer didn’t order the right software licenses or the Dell sales team ordered the wrong equipment.

Even simple mistakes were being made, like the customer address was wrong on the work order and consultants were being sent to the wrong site. Or consultants were sent out on the wrong day. Or, in many cases, the customer’s expectations were not in line with the services the consultant was tasked to deliver.

These were the errors that were causing the project failures and customer escalations. They were responsible for killing customer satisfaction with Dell’s customers.

And now our mission was becoming clearer.

So, we got Mark and the team together in the conference room and we white boarded out how we were going to deliver the services.

Mark started to outline all the things that were going wrong in the engagements he had participated in as a shadow. He collected information and war stories from the consultants he shadowed. He asked about what was going wrong and what the other consultants thought Dell should do to fix them.

He wrote all of these problems on the whiteboard in our conference room and we started to brainstorm possible solutions.

Mark’s idea was to create a checklist of tasks we needed to do on every engagement. A pre-engagement checklist, if you will, of items that we needed to watch out for.

And, if we did this right, we could eliminate a lot of problems that could keep him from completing his mission.

Mark’s idea was to get these complex IT engagements down to a repeatable script. It should be as easy, he said, as Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

That was probably the first time I heard anyone use that phrase. But it became a mantra in our company from then on.

The question was, though, can we make custom, complex service engagements at Dell as easy as Lather. Rinse. Repeat?

Turns out, we could. But it wasn’t easy.

In hindsight, it turns out that these three legs are inextricably linked together. You can’t actually have one without the other.

We found that when we eliminated their quality problems, we reduced our cost structure and, subsequently, customers were happier and satisfaction scores rose.

As a result, our company grew. It became more profitable. And it allowed us to scale our business across the US.

All from the wisdom found on the back of a shampoo bottle.

You can read more about this story and more in my book, Above the Line: How the Golden Rule Rules the Bottom Line, now on sale at Amazon.

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