If we are going to provide our customers with products and services that consistently meet or exceed their needs and expectations, we must understand what their needs and expectations are.
Discover customer requirements
Discovering customer requirements is the essential starting place. Customer requirements are those product or service features, characteristics, and performance expectations as defined by a customer.* The best way to discover customer requirements is to ask your customers directly – try visiting a representative sample of customers and gather information.
Customer requirements may start out a bit fuzzy when you first start interviewing. For example, an airline might learn that their customers need their bags “quickly,” but what does that mean? Your job is to get them to be more specific until the characteristic is measurable. It turns out the customer wants their bag ready by the time they get to baggage claim. But how long is that? From the time they leave the airplane seat and walk through the terminal, the average walk length is 1500 feet which takes about 15 minutes at a typical pace, plus five minutes to deplane. Do a little math; it adds up to 20 minutes.
Customer requirements are the measurable translation of “what the customer wants.”
Translate into standards for each piece in the process
Customer requirements translate to process standards for different groups across the process. A standard is a precise statement that defines the particular need that must be satisfied. In the baggage claim example, translating those 20 minutes into process standards starts by breaking down the process into pieces:
- Unload the plane and put the baggage on a truck = 10 minutes
- Drive truck to terminal = 3 minutes
- Get baggage from truck to conveyor belt = 5 minutes
- Baggage rides on conveyor belt to customer = 2 minutes
Output measures – in this case, the total time it takes to deliver a bag – are representative of customer requirements – in this case, “I need my bag quickly.” Customer satisfaction should be measured against process standards. If customers are waiting 30 minutes and they want it in 20, what is going on? In-process measures are indicators of problem areas.
Frontline supervisors can intervene to correct the situation when the standard is not being met. You don’t need to run a survey; just look at the process standards that relate directly to customer requirements. Look at the process steps to see which standards are not being upheld, and why.
If performance-to-standard is visually displayed, you can quickly put together the pieces and identify opportunities to improve. Put it up on the wall where it can be looked at on a daily basis.
Make it living; make it actionable. Don’t wait for the data to get compiled in a quarterly report – think about how many customers you might irritate in that time! See the problem, take action to resolve complaints, and fix the problem to prevent it from happening again.
* Note that with some processes, especially government processes, the customer may not want to be the customer in the first place. (Just as some students may not want to be in class on a spring day.) Nonetheless, these customers will have requirements about the characteristics and performance of these processes. (Such as to be treated with respect, to receive the service with a minimum of wasted time or effort by the customer, etc.)