How To Differentiate Your Service Organization

Hint, it’s the simple things.

By Chris Gregory - HLB Director Marketing and Business Development

Product differentiation is a frequent topic in our office. As a product development consultancy we are always searching for ways to elevate our clients’ products above the clutter. Focus on this issue often revolves around design, materials, technologies, and methods to help drive increased user satisfaction while decreasing costs. However, things take on a different hue when transitioning our vision inwardly in attempting to practice what we preach.

Our firm has wonderfully talented designers and engineers that have ushered hundreds of pioneering, successful products from concept to the marketplace. Of course, I believe our people are the best. However, many other firms claim similar offerings. So, how does one get the message across that their firm is in fact the best choice? The most important and basic aspect of being a firm that provides a service is to actually provide superior service. While important, the most crafty messaging does not always appropriately depict a truly service focused organization. Rather, superior service is most often proven by paying attention to the simple things.

Return calls, e-mails, LinkedIn InMail, etc.
Yep, this one again. This is the easiest thing to do yet I am routinely surprised by how often people do not carry out this simplest of tasks in a timely fashion. How often have you heard someone or yourself say, “I never got a call back.”? The hardest part is done. Your marketing efforts were effective in generating enough interest to provoke a prospect to reach out and make your phone ring. Don’t blow it by waiting to respond or not responding to a client’s call. If you are unable to answer a simple phone call (e-mail, LinkedIn InMail, etc.), how should the prospect expect you to deliver on something far more complicated? The communicated perception is not very positive.

Do what you say
If you say you are going to provide follow-up information within a specific timeframe, do it and do it on time. Even if unable to obtain an answer within the promised timeframe, let the client know that you are working on a solution rather than let the deadline lapse in silence. Yes, the requested information is important to the client. A timely response, even if only providing updates on the path to an answer, is what provides the greatest insight into your desire and ability to include the client in the conversation and address their needs. Most importantly, your consistent attention and eagerness to help provides a window into your organization’s character as a whole. Nothing erodes credibility faster than not following through on your word.

Address conflict now not later
Dragging your feet when dealing with conflict enables a prospect’s or client’s imagination to run free enabling even the smallest of issues to needlessly evolve into something much greater. Most importantly, procrastination leads the client to believe that his or her needs are not important to you. Now you really do have an issue on your hands. Often you’ll find that the conflict is perceived or caused by outside or unrated influences and can be remedied through lending an ear and a friendly conversation. In situations where the conflict is real, step-up, collaboratively work on a solution, and when required admit fault. An honest approach will, more often than not, lower defenses and facilitate mutually beneficial solutions. Addressing conflict head on builds trust and often results in a stronger bond than existed prior to the conflict.

Try on their shoes
Gaining a personal understanding of a client’s situation provides greater understanding of their needs. Asking a lot of questions and being empathetic empowers you to share in their experience and communicate at a common level, both of which facilitates sincerity and collaboration conducive to problem solving. Don’t fake it. Canned, robotic, or automated questions and responses are easily identified as superficial and do not illicit a sense of interest, trust, or credibility. Furthermore, when directly interacting with clients and users you are getting a first-hand account of where market trends are headed. You should appreciate the information and be excited to have the opportunity to gain such valuable insight that will organically develop a strong relationship with the client while facilitating future growth of your organization.

Crafting messaging, developing visually appealing collateral, ensuring web pages provide a meaningful user experience, and structuring clever initiatives are all critical elements in communicating an organization’s worth to its audience. All of these things take a great deal of time and thought to sculpt and execute. However, the simple things are the details that truly provide the greatest impact. Paying attention to the simple things will ensure all of your other hard work doesn’t go to waste. The simple things allow you to differentiate your organization by proving your respect, dedication, and desire to solving your clients’ needs which leads to trust.

Prototyping That’s Less Prone to Failure

By:  Adam Richardson for Harvard Business Review

When I was a young industrial designer at the erstwhile Sun Microsystems (now owned by Oracle), I was working on the design of a large server. The product had modules that could be removed and replaced quickly by system administrators if something went wrong. We wanted to find the most intuitive design for the rotating latches on either side of each module. Since engineering was on a tight schedule and physical prototypes were months away from being ready, we elected to do “paper prototyping,” where we showed drawings to users of the modules with different latch designs.

The results came back moderately in favor of the design that I preferred, which involved the latches turning inward like sink faucet handles (appealing because the module was visually symmetrical). But when the physical prototypes came in months later and we put them in the hands of real users, my mistake became apparent.

Our paper test had been missing a critical element: the latches were rotated using a screwdriver. When you put a screwdriver in someone’s hand, their brain flips to the familiar “lefty-loosey/righty-tighty” mental model. But the “faucet handle” approach meant that one latch was turned counterclockwise to release it, and the other went clockwise — and everyone tried turning that one the wrong way.

The error was obvious in hindsight, but unfortunately it was too late to change the design, as this little detail had a big cascade effect on how the rest of the hardware was designed. While not a failure of catastrophic proportions, we were stuck with it, as were the poor system administrators who’d have to live with this inconvenience for years to come.

I was reminded of this painful memory recently, while reading Jeffrey Rothfeder’s Driving Honda, which examines the company’s innovation culture. Honda’s emphasis on realism could have prevented my prototyping error — and it was so simple. Honda’s principles are known as “the three realities”, or sangen shugi:

Gen-ba: Physically go to the real location where the activity or problem is occurring. This could be a server room, a factory floor, a living room, inside a car on a summer road-trip – wherever you must go to gain firsthand knowledge.

Gen-butsu: Once at the location, carefully observe the conditions and begin to formulate a decision or recommendation.

Gen-jitsu: Support your decisions with data and information collected at the real location.

These “three realities” are not unique to Honda. But according to Rothfeder, many companies, such as Toyota and other Six Sigma practitioners, place undue weight on the last reality, gen-jitsu, because their focus is on data-driven process efficiency. But he observes that Honda sees gen-ba, or going to the actual location where a problem is occurring, as the most important because it ensures insights are grounded in reality, it encourages empathy, and it avoids the detachment that can come from a reliance on data.

It’s the old garbage-in/garbage-out story: if your experiment isn’t grounded in enough reality, you’ll be deluding yourself with data that has the air of truthiness but is in fact wrong. In thinking about my own latch design mistake, the failure lay in the paper prototype not giving a sufficiently realistic simulation of the actual situation — we just asked people to imagine how they’d use the latch. If we’d handed them a screwdriver and had them pretend to operate the latch, the results may well have been different.

It’s always good practice to test early and often with rough prototypes, whether they are paper-based, 3D-printed, or simple wireframes of a user interface. These methods let you answer the fundamental questions early and cheaply — before you’ve locked yourself into a design direction. But innovators should keep some rules of thumb in mind:

  • All prototypes have limitations and ways in which they are going to bias users and the results. Be aware of what those are, and use prototyping methods that are geared to what you need to learn while minimizing distracting inaccuracies that could throw off results.

  • As soon as you have more realistic prototypes, double-check the findings from the previous tests and see if they still hold up. For example, re-check usability of navigation that worked well with wireframes once you have polished visual design of an interface. Seemingly small visual changes can break what was working before.

  • Usage context matters. It can be tempting to do quick-and-dirty testing in cafes or other locations where it’s easy to grab a sample of people. But unless your product really will be used in those locations, you should do another test in the place where your product will likely be used.

In short, innovators need to move quickly, iterate, and create rough and ready prototypes to test their ideas. And this doesn’t mean losing touch with reality. Shortcutting on realism will shortchange your work in the long run.