SPA Redux

As happens more frequently than one expects, I came across an article that spoke directly to me about something I had written about, this time related to the strength of Strategic Problem Anticipation (SPA).  The article 5 Things Elite Customer Service Teams Never Do by Jordy Leiser in Inc. magazine didn’t directly refer to SPA, but very much to the beneficial consequences of mastering its practice (or more directly by the negative consequences of not mastering it). In summary, here are the salient points.

1)  “Elite (customer service) agents not only know the answers (or where to find them), but they drive customers to the right course of action and add relevant information…”

A key issue here is that everyone connected with an organization is a “customer,” those inside as well as those outside, including suppliers and actual revenue producing customers.

This is because in every interaction there is a transaction of some sort, which more often than not involves the desire to solve a problem (add value) rather than create one.

Elite agents (which therefore should be everyone of us) learn what the typical problems are and what the typical solutions will be.  But there is also the Anticipation part where we learn to identify hidden problems by recognizing clues, which also often involve missing information.  And we also learn who the right sources are: those who do know what we don’t know.

I found myself in the position of promoting the concept of both internal and external customers when I was a product manager.  People would seek me out for help with problems and fortunately most of those would get solved. While some colleagues rebuffed this process as a waste of time for higher priority things on their plates, I found it beneficial for two reasons: I learned something new everyday (where the right answers were and where they weren’t), and it brought back revenue-generating customers. I am please to say I have had a number of students who were intent on developing this skill, as well as all three of my sons.

2)  “The customer service rep who picks up the phone is the company, at least in the eyes of the customer.” Make that the employee who picks up the phone …  “Effective agents pledge to do what they can to make things right on behalf of the entire company.  This is a top-down cultural force…”

This is the odd reality: all of us are at the same time “internal customers” of other people in the organization, dependent upon the timeliness and excellence of their “deliverables,” as well as being the “organization” to others, responsible to produce our own “deliverables” with excellence and on time.  Every interaction is a transaction.

While we are endowed with the responsibility to deliver quality work inside the organization, we should also be endowed with the responsibility to address and resolve issues both inside as well as outside the organization, which also includes anticipating them.  And if we can’t resolve issues directly, we can learn who can and see that the transfer is made smoothly.

The driving reality: customer retention is cheaper than customer acquisition. (Read this again, but replacing “customer” with “relationship.”)

3)  “…take steps to bring problems closer to resolution.”

This is learning what we can do, and then making that happen.  If we are stymied by “can’t,” we not only haven’t anticipated the problem or solved it, we’ve actually contributed to creating a bigger one.

4)  “If a problem can’t be solved on the spot and takes time or input from others, elite companies track those issues to closure every time.”

You’ve anticipated an issue and handed it off to the right person to handle it, but you are still the gatekeeper in the customer’s eyes.  While someone else may resolve the issue, follow-up confirms you care and builds trust.

5)  “If a customer inquiry lands with a rep who doesn’t have direct access to the tools needed to solve the problem, the worst response is telling the customer to contact the company through another channel,”

or, by transferring them to another department without providing context. In thinking we are helping by passing the customer off to “the right” department, we have actually harmed the situation by generating more missing information through the lack of context.

It seems clear that for external revenue-generating customers, by strategically recognizing problems and issues before they arise you actually move to establish trust in the organization, which often leads to an exception experience, a stronger customer relationship, and repeat business.  It’s far better than the alternative, a mediocre experience and lost business.

But it may not seem so clear that this also applies to our internal customers in the organization: subordinates, peers, and particularly for one’s bosses.  By being able to strategically recognize and address problems and issues before they arise you actually move to build your own trustworthiness, recognition of competence and added value, and increased responsibility.  It’s far better than the alternative, a mediocre experience and a drifting career.

What problems have you helped prevent today?


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 01: Business, A Definition, 02: Value Added, A Definition, 06: Incomplete Information, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, Career and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to SPA Redux

  1. Jennifer says:

    Bottom-line question for introspection: Do I generally operate in crisis-management mode (e.g. problem-solving in reaction to crisis) or do I try to be proactive and have vision to foresee what’s ahead (e.g. surrounding myself with people who fill in my “gaps” in order to prevent crisis, rather than finding these people after crisis strikes)?


    • Jim Edmonds says:

      Thank you for your marvelous question, Jennifer. It’s one I often find I’m asking myself, and trying to find ways and means to keep moving and growing more into the proactive mode. I sometimes think in life I probably react to crises about 10% of the time, contemplate strategically about 10% of the time, and have about 80% left over to try and “lean heavily” into the “more or less proactive” mode (having kids changes that ratio, probably by a lot). But I remember in the work environment it seemed only the strategic thinking remained at 10%, while the rest swung over to the “more or less reactive” mode capped by sometimes 25% in the real crisis mode. I think those experiences contributed significantly to the motivation to encourage the change in thinking I professed in the post. You seem to be catching my foggy vision.


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