Open the Lines of Connection with Members/Customers

“Cooks Make Tastier Food When They Can See Their Customers.”  This is the title of an article in the November issue of the Harvard Business Review.  Its three authors explain and defend their research results. For some inexplicable reason these researchers set up four scenarios involving cooks and diners and tested them in a real cafeteria.

"In the first, diners and cooks couldn’t view one another; in the second, the diners could see the cooks; in the third, the cooks could see the diners; and in the fourth, both the diners and the cooks were visible to one another."

You may justifiably ask, why. Why chefs and diners and who cares about their relationship? Hold on a minute. It actually makes sense and there is an important lesson to be learned and applied.  “The results showed,” the article says, “that when the cooks could see their patrons, the food quality got higher ratings.”

Okay, in general terms this finding may not be earth-shuttering, but I am impressed by the specificity of this information.

Customer satisfaction with the food shot up 10% when the cooks could see the customers, even though the customers couldn’t see the cooks. In the opposite situation, there was no improvement in satisfaction from the baseline condition in which neither group could see the other. But even more striking, when customers and cooks both could see one another, satisfaction went up 17.3%, and service was 13.2% faster.

This is no cliché generalization about “feel good” customer experiences but precise measures of responses.  A two-way connection between provider and customer brings the highest results. What does this mean?

The article’s conclusion is somewhat anticlimactic to me. “Transparency between customers and providers,” the researchers determined, “seems to really improve service.”   This is the line of thinking many businesses and non-profit services take when they vow to be “transparent” to their members or customers by sharing excruciating details about how they operate or providing minutes from board meetings.  The idea is that “transparency” increases engagement. If we were bombarded with information about how cars are manufactured or how our insurance agents operate in the course of the day, would we buy more of their products?

No, it is not access to the way sandwiches were made that increased satisfaction in that cafeteria but the relationship that was established “when customers and cooks both could see one another. “ It was a moment of human connection that transcended the product itself. Customers could experience the primeval sense of satisfaction and safety one gets from infancy when your mother and other adults prepare food just for you. Cooks are able to see the ultimate object of their cooking--what made it worthwhile: a satisfied customer. “Just seeing the customers is what motivated them,” observe the authors.  

Seeing the “beneficiary of your labor” could change how you feel about your work.

I once interviewed the senior team of AMP Incorporated in Harrisburg, PA. AMP is the world leader in electrical and electronic connection devices and interconnection systems, with 19 percent of the $19 billion worldwide interconnections market.  AMP was once a small, regional company. Its engineers could see the results of their labor in satisfied end-users, improved sales or the reactions of managers. They could experience their value and contribution to the whole, for example, if their invention catalyzed innovation in other aspects of product development and business strategy. During the 1980s and 1990s AMP expanded far beyond its core products and regional markets, becoming a global enterprise through partnerships and acquisitions. The cultural transition of the company was tough. One of the problems they discussed was the isolation and decreased motivation of their engineers. They were no longer able to see and interact with the various beneficiaries of their labor and experience their value within a larger team, as co-developers of the final product. They designed and innovated in a vacuum, without the ability to link their work to business results and customer value. This “disconnect” was hurting the quality of their work and ability to innovate and, hence, the company. The senior team was eager to find out how to integrate the pieces of a global company and re-create the intimacy and human connections of a smaller, regional company.

We should all ask the same question. Our worlds have become complicated and cluttered with “intermediaries”—elaborate bureaucracies, regulations, policies, endless meetings, and a frenzied schedule of trips and activities. This aimless “business” and process and information overload that have become our sense of normalcy occur at the expense of relationships. There is no space or motivation for the authentic moments of connection that improved performance and motivation in the cafeteria experience. Eliminating everything that obscures your direct line of vision of and relationship with the customer increases satisfaction and engagement of both employees and customers.

How clear and unencumbered is your line of connection to members or other customers?

  • How often are customers/members and their concerns or achievements the topics of important conversations  in your organization?
  • Do you interact (beyond the level of mere transactions) more with members or colleagues?
  • Do you test/co-develop ideas for new products and programs with customers and adapt them as you get more insight into how customers use them or develop them internally until they are complete and ready to sell?
  • Does your senior team spend more time preparing for board meetings, attending professional events and managing operations than understanding members in their contexts and developing relationships with them?
  • Do you see growth in terms of new products and members or retaining and developing current members?

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