Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Watch that Service Window!

This is an article that I wrote when I was the CEO of Learning Solutions at Knowledge Platform. It was published in the KP blog, and later in Learning Circuits. I am reproducing it here with the company’s permission. The concept of Service Window is closely related to another article I wrote recently, about ensuring high margins in custom content development.


When I wrote this article, three of our Project Managers were dealing with “difficult” clients. One was dealing with uncontrollable incremental scope creep that was pushing her project towards loss. Another was faced with a client who was uncooperative and sometimes downright rude. The third had a client who would not respond for months and then suddenly demand deliverables in a major hurry. Always a proponent of superlative customer service for all our customers, I couldn’t help but feel partly responsible for the situation the Project Managers were in. So, I wrote this article in our corporate blog to share my belief that it is possible to be customer oriented while ensuring the financial health of projects.

What is a Service Window?

Yesterday, I went to the Turkish embassy to apply for a visa. After checking my documents, which I passed through a very small and narrow opening at the bottom of the glass window, the lady at the counter asked me to pay $60 as fees. I took out my credit card. She shook her head. I showed her my debit card. She again shook her head. Then she pointed to the opening in the window and said “Look at the space. I can only accept cash”. It took me a few seconds to understand what she was saying. The opening was so narrow that there was no way she could pass me a debit or credit card processor for any transaction. What she was saying was that her service window was defining the flexibility (or lack of it) of the payment mode she could offer. I had no choice. I walked half a mile to an ATM and brought back cash! And I even managed a smile when the lady gave me the receipt.

There is a message in this story- it is not just me rambling about my visa woes. The message here is about the concept of Service Window in relation to our business. As service providers, we also have a service window for our clients. How open is this window? And is it visible to our clients? How clearly?

How Open is Your Service Window?

When we started KP, this window was wide open because we wanted all and any business. Customers, frustrated by closed windows all around, liked our open window and appreciated the flexibility it offered them. But a wide open window has its own problems. Staying with the visa application analogy, what if the customer wants to pay the visa fee in Uzbekistan’s currency Som? Do we accept it? What if a customer wants to submit the application at midnight? Do we wait up for him? What if the client demands his visa be processed even if the payment is not made? Do we continue to smile? Or do we rush to close the window in a hurry?

Is there a middle ground possible? In the context of a service provider, I think the solution lies in the following:

1. Defining the service window as clearly as possible
The invisible window needs to be made visible. Based on our experience, we should be able to define specific limits and boundaries. In our context, this means clearly stating number of screens and visual style to be used, setting a limit on review cycles, stating the monetary consequences of changes after sign-offs, clearly defining the extent of audio narration-related services etc. We are getting better at this, but there is still a lot to do.

2. Defining the service window as early as possible
The window definition is most effective if it is made available at the earliest possible stage, which is the proposal stage. Sometimes, things do get missed at proposal stage. Then we should use the kick-off meeting to define the window. If even this opportunity is missed, define the window with the first deliverable. Anything is better than not defining the window because it was too late. The earliest is the best, but it is never too late.  

3. Enforcing the service window on first violation
Not enforcing the window when faced with the first violation is the most common mistakes we all make. I am the queen of it. Suddenly I have such empathy and sympathy for the customer that I use all my strength to open the window to its full extent. This is a big mistake. Even if the customer has been very responsive and flexible, we need to hold on to the window we have defined because once opened, it is nearly impossible to pull it back down.
4. Dealing objectively with requests
Very connected to the above point is how to respond to a request or action that violates your service window definition. Of course, as first step, we should restate the boundaries politely. Sometimes, customers are not aware that they are asking for something additional. Many of them sign contracts without understanding the meaning of the assumptions we state. They need to be reminded and corrected. If they understand and still demand, be more assertive and explain your reasons. In any situation, it is important to deal with request and compare it with the service window definition objectively and state facts.

5. Escalating
When things get a little sticky and out of your hands, escalate the matter. It is difficult to keep smiling when faced with a seemingly unfair situation. That’s the time to escalate.

In conclusion

Having a clearly defined Service Window sends a clear message to your customers- that we are a professional company serving the best interests of the customer. After all, a project that is handled well within the specified development budget, positively impacts the customer as much as it does the service provider. Only a successful and profitable service provider will be able to retain the best talent and invest in infrastructure, training and tools, all of which will in turn help us build better solutions for our customers.

Cartoon drawn by Kaushik Basak, Knowledge Platform.

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