“Moments of Truth” are often a key focus when we review processes – those moments where customers interact with an organisation, through its process, that shape the customer experience and influence perceptions.
An example of a Moment of Truth when going on holiday might be a query you have about the seats assigned on the plane, which you ask about at the check-in desk. Can the query be addressed first time? If so, a good impression is created. But if the agent at check-in advises you to ask at the gate, and the gate attendant then recommends you discuss it with a member of the cabin crew…the Moment of Truth has been ruined.
The Moment of Truth concept has its roots in the airline industry – it was originated by Jan Carlzon, a business leader famous for transforming the fortunes of Scandinavian Airline Services (SAS). My own dogeared copy of his book “Moments of Truth”, printed in 1987, has the following words emblazoned on the cover: ‘Managing the dickens out of those unique, never-to-be-repeated opportunities to distinguish ourselves in a memorable fashion from each and every one of our competitors’. (That’s what book covers were like in the 1980s!)
A couple of recent conversations have prompted me to return to the book after several years. In addition to the concept of Moments of Truth, it is full of relevant insights on the actions and attitudes required by leaders if Moments of Truth are to be managed effectively.
Here are my takeaways on how to manage the dickens out of Moments of Truth the Jan Carlzon way…
- Orient towards your customers
Carlzon emphasized the importance of understanding, from the customer’s point of view, what business an organisation is really in. If you are oriented towards your customers, he argued, you are in the business of providing them with a service, not just the traditional “hardware”. So Scandinavian Airline Services began to focus on the experience of customers, not just on the operation of the aircraft. He went on to ask…
…Are Ford and General Motors in the automobile business? Or are they really in the business of providing people with the means to transport themselves from one place to another overland? If they decide they are in the automobile business, then naturally they should concentrate their efforts on state-of-the-art design and aerodynamics and fuel economy – on the car itself.
But let us say they decide they are in the ground transport services business. Should they sell only cars? Wouldn’t it also make sense – from the customer’s point of view – to sell a plastic card guaranteeing that a car would be made available to you immediately, wherever and whenever you want to drive somewhere?
A prescient point, made 20 years before the birth of Airbnb!
- Empowerment is essential
Carlzon describes his early leadership style as dictatorial – he assumed that he had been recruited to make all decisions, so insisted on making them. However, he realised that the decisions required “where the action is” – those that make a difference to the customer experience – are best made by the people on the front line of customer service. When problems arise, each employee should have the authority to analyse the situation, determine the appropriate action, and see to it that the action is carried out. Carlzon uses the analogy of a football game to make this point about the value of timely decision making:
…Imagine a situation in which a soccer player breaks away toward an open goal and suddenly abandons the ball to run back to the bench and ask the coach for an order to kick the ball into the goal. Before he can run back to the ball, he has lost not only the ball but also the game.
- Leadership and management structures and roles should change
Carlzon was adamant that traditional hierarchical tiers of responsibility are no good for an organisation seeking to establish customer orientation and the creation of positive Moments of Truth. For the example given above, where agents at check-in, departure and cabin crew were unable to address the query about seating, no-one had access to the information required to solve the query or the authority needed to take it on – and no one was prepared to step out of their normal role to address it. So normal roles needed to change. At SAS the role of manager was redefined from decision maker to coach. Instead of making decisions (or escalating decisions further into the organisational hierarchy) managers would enable and support their people to make decisions, thus unleashing creativity and transforming customer service.
- “They must know that they are allowed to make mistakes”
Big decisions were required to transform Scandinavian Airline Services, and significant risk was involved. Carlzon recognised that decision making (and risk taking) aptitude was required throughout the organisation to enable true customer orientation. He said:
If frontline employees are actually to make decisions that entail some risk, they must have a sense of security. Having knowledge and information is not enough if they believe that a wrong decision may cause them problems or even the loss of their job. They must know that they are allowed to make mistakes. Only then will they dare to use fully their new authority.
Leaders and Managers played an important role in creating the right environment for decision making and risk taking. Psychological safety – years before the term was introduced.
The Moment of Truth of returning to this book has been a positive one. Jan Carlzon blazed a trail in demonstrating the benefits of customer-oriented and employee-empowered ways of working. These approaches were considered bold in the 1980s, and today they’re still first class.
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