Attitude Makes a Difference in EMS Customer Service

11 February 2008

Susan Mucha

I’ve just spent a brutal week on the road travelling the U.S. coast-to-coast, so my decision to write a column on electronics manufacturing services (EMS) customer service shouldn’t be a surprise, says Susan Mucha

Airline travel reminds me of the EMS industry because in both cases service personnel often are challenged to resolve issues outside of their control. In many cases, the only options for resolution are less than satisfactory to customers. But in all cases, judgment and attitude can make a huge difference in end customer satisfaction.

During my recent travel marathon on American Airlines, I experienced significant variation in attitudes among gate agent and flight attendant personnel. Some viewed their positions as opportunities to increase customer satisfaction and some seemed to view customers as inconveniences. When maintenance issues which created ground delays occurred on two of my eight flights there was little flight crew effort to do anything to enhance customer satisfaction in spite of the decrease in service. In fact, near the end of a flight with a maintenance delay of one hour, the crew had over a dozen people standing in the aisle waiting to use lavatories before they would move the drink service cart in a way that would allow coach passengers to access the one set of lavatories designated for that section, even though when the line begin forming when the cart was a foot away from a galley area that would allow passengers to walk around it with minimal disruption. On the positive side, I was able to easily switch to earlier connecting flights two times and all my requested upgrades came through. The gate agent in at least one of those situations could have quite reasonably denied me access because of the six minutes left before the flight was scheduled to leave the gate, but instead realizing that adequate time existed because connecting passengers were still en route, he cheerfully handled the switch in record time, getting me home an hour and half earlier than my originally scheduled flight.

Similar situations exist in EMS and when those inconsistencies exist in a single company, they can confuse and eventually enrage customers. The major difference between an airline and EMS provider is that switching suppliers has a much less significant cost in air travel than it does in EMS so EMS customers may put up with less than ideal service for longer periods of time.

The biggest challenge EMS program managers face is that their jobs include both making a profit and keeping their customers happy. Often they are competing for resources within their companies. Acceding to every customer request is rarely possible. So in that environment, how can a program manager maintain high levels of customer satisfaction? Attitude and judgment are the two elements that can help in this effort.

Research Customer Requests and Offer Options
When a customer makes a request, listen thoroughly and then research the ability and cost of the team to comply. If this takes more than a day, keep the customer updated on the status of the request. If the answer indicates that the request is unachievable, offer the customer a range of compromise options. This allows the customer to control the final resolution and opens the door to recovering any costs incurred in supporting the request.

Be Proactive in Problem Identification
If internal issues such as scheduling conflicts, parts availability or machine downtime will impact an existing schedule, don’t wait until the deliveries are missed to tell the customer. Give them as much notice as possible on the issue and possible options for corrective action. Communicate frequently on project status as the issue is resolved.

Use Judgment in Enforcing the Rules
Inconsistent rules enforcement is very frustrating to customers. It is important to establish expectations relating to schedule changes, material liability resolution timeframes and other key issues at project start. Favors which provide increased schedule flexibility or elimination of standard upcharges should be clearly identified as favors so that customers understand that the program manager made a conscious effort to help out the customer rather than just forgot to enforce a policy. Favors should be considered when a service disruption occurs. The program manager may not be able to eliminate the inconvenience caused by the failure, but can attempt to help ease the situation by providing added convenience at a later time. For instance, missing a delivery because of unanticipated equipment downtime, shouldn’t be followed by complete inflexibility on the customer’s next schedule change request.

Understand the Power of Attitude
The way bad news is delivered often influences customer satisfaction more than the content of the message. When a program manager delivers bad news with a sense of inevitability or an attitude that suggests the process of doing his or her job is more important than the customer’s needs, it sends a very negative signal. Conversely, when the program manager provides a range of options for corrective action and appears to be hustling to implement the solution, it sends a very positive signal. Most customers expect some service failures because of the complexity of the outsourced manufacturing relationship. However, they also recognize the difference between a program team that works to minimize the impact of that failure and a team that simply delivers bad news and feels their job is done.

My initial airline example wasn’t simply a rant motivated by too much time spent on the road. The value of airline examples is that most business people experience similar situations every time they fly and thinking about the frustrations experienced in that venue can make it easy to focus on better service delivery in your own job. Flight crews and gate agents face the same challenges as program managers and some are better than others in remembering that their primary mission is keeping customer satisfied even when service disruptions occur. The question for program managers to consider in delivering service is simple: are you contributing or detracting from customer satisfaction? A key point to remember is that the best program managers find ways to meet their companies’ goals for profitability and program management consistency without treating their customers like irritating inconveniences. It isn’t always easy, but it is always the right thing to do.

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