Tripping Over Words

Tom Peters

Seemingly innocuous terms can lead us way off course. Here are six loaded phrases concerning customers:

1. “NOT SYMPTOMATIC”: A bank executive was discussing customer satisfaction measurement. He said that when a problem only showed up once—a particular error on a statement, for instance—then there was little or no follow-up beyond a cursory apology, because it was “not symptomatic of a larger problem.”

At about a half dozen of my seminars each month, I get detailed feedback from hundreds of people. There is invariably some criticism. Sadly, I have found every criticism symptomatic of larger issues—some form of inattention or inflexibility on my part. I readily find all too sensible reasons why that person reacted the way they did. I believe that any customer complaint is symptomatic of a shortcoming—moreover, it usually represents a lurking improvement opportunity. Treat every problem as symptomatic of impending doom—and act accordingly.

2. “ACCEPTABLE QUALITY LEVEL” or AQL: Bob Wilson, chief executive officer of the stellar Elgin Corrugated Box Company, despises this commonplace term, which is statisticians’ language “It means that a certain number of errors is tolerable. No foul-ups are ‘acceptable’ as far as we’re concerned.” Wilson is serious. ECBC hasn’t missed an
order-due-date in more than four years. Strike “acceptable” from your language when the issue is defects.

3. “OBJECTIVE” VERSUS “SUBJECTIVE”: One manager insists “‘Cleanliness’ is subjective. By definition, it can’t be measured.” So what’s objective? The same manager responds “What percent of orders went out on or before the date due?”

First, cleanliness can be measured. Just add a question to your next survey: “How clean was the store, on a scale of one to ten, where ten is ‘like an operating room?'” Or: “Relative to fast-food places where you’ve eaten recently, how clean was our operation?” (Choices might include “awful,” “below average,” “average,” etc.)

Second, the above manager’s example of objectivity is anything but! A firm boasted it was beating order-due date 98 percent of the time. But customers were not knocking down the doors with repeat business. It turned out that due date was a very subjective, negotiated date. If the customer asked for the order by January 17, an overtaxed plant manager might insist that February 25 was the best he could do. So to beat the February 25 “due date” by even a week is no big deal. When the firm switched to the “customer request date” (reasonable or not) as its measurement base, meeting or beating it slumped to a tawdry 32 percent. After a year of hard work it has climbed back to 68 percent, and repeat business has spurted.

Anything can be measured and made objective. Nonetheless, measurement per se does not ensure objectivity.

4. “NINETY-SEVEN PERCENT SATISFIED”: An IBM executive says, “We make 300,000 of the darned components. Don’t say to me that ’97 percent are OK.’ Say instead, ‘9,000 were defective.’ Sounds a little bit different, doesn’t it?” He adds, “You don’t really want 9,000 angry customers now, do you?” A hospital administrator concurs: “Remember, 95 percent ‘happy’ patients in a 600-bed hospital means that 30 are thinking about suing you for malpractice at any given point!”

A related point is the deceptive use of averages. For instance, “on average, we ship spare parts within 37 hours of order entry,” or “The average customer requires service 0.84 times per year.” But more study reveals that the 37-hour “average” is comprised of 89 hours for the “worst-off 10 percent”; and the 0.84 repair visits translate into two or more return visits for 26 percent of the customers. Gear your measure to the worst-off 1, 5, 10, or 25 percent of customers.

5. “UNSYSTEMATIC”: I’m all for systematic surveys of 700 randomly selected customers. But I also applaud unsystematic rituals. Once a month the editor-in-chief of a magazine with a circulation of almost a million asks the subscription department to send him the names of about six people who did not renew. He calls them. When I saw him last, he was flying off from the East Coast to Wyoming just to talk to one of those unhappy subscribers. “Her notion of what was wrong and what could be improved was positively brilliant,” he enthused. The MBA’s definition of systematic was not met in this case, but the
business was well-served.

6. “HARD-NOSED CUSTOMER”: Engineers are the prototypical hard-nosed customers. They buy on the basis of technical specifications, right? Not according to Regis McKenna’s The Regis Touch, the best primer on high-tech marketing. Techies buy on the basis of reputation and the same “soft,” subjective notions that guide most purchasers.

One firm sells sophisticated $500 components, no bigger than a pencil eraser, to technical people. At first the product was packaged in generic plastic bags. A committee of nontechnical people in the company redesigned the packaging, mounting the little parts on an attractive background with a vacuum seal increased shelf-life. It introduced this new version, with appropriate garnishes, as a “silver label product.” With the simple repackaging emphasizing quality and reliability, the company raised the price 20 percent. Buyers—a scientific population, remember—grabbed the “new” offering off the shelves with renewed zeal.

When it comes to customers, watch your language!

(c) 1986 TPG Communications

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