Curiosity was Framed, Ignorance Killed the Cat

My first job after public accounting was as Director of Internal Audit for a large regional insurance company. Given free range to determine my own assignments, I immediately launched a review of the claims processing operation. As Willie Sutton would say, “That’s where the money is.”

Back then, mainframe computers housed in cold rooms that took up an entire floor were the order of the day. Reports printed on large “green-bar” paper with perforated edges, bound together between heavy cardboard covers using bendable wires.

On my second day on the job, I was flipping through a report of claim payments. It listed basic information like policy and claim number, payee, amount, dates and so forth. The report probably had 50 to 60 claims per page, and was several hundred pages long.

I spotted something strange. About every 15 or 20 pages, a claim would show a negative payment. Based on my understanding of the system, there was no logical explanation for negative numbers. I started asking questions, lots of questions!

To make a long story short, I had stumbled across an internal control weakness that allowed certain claims to be paid twice. As best I can recall, I found about $125,000 of duplicates. That was not a lot of money to a billion dollar company, even in 1978 dollars. Still, with an annual salary of $22,000, I cost-justified my first five years’ compensation the second day on the job.

My point in recalling this story is not to take you with me on a boring stroll down memory lane. OK, that is part of it, but a very small part.

My point is that other people who had worked with the claim report every day had undoubtedly noticed negative amounts before, yet had failed to follow through with a few simple questions. If they had, they might have closed the control weakness years earlier. Why?

I offer two words: human nature.

People seem to have a natural tendency to accept most things as they are. Asking questions and challenging the status quo is actually considered rude in many cultures. Sadly, it is career limiting in many corporate environments. Relax and remember what happen to the mythical cat! I heard it was a mid-level manager in a Fortune 500 company somewhere on the east coast.

That is not to suggest people are by nature lazy, apathetic or any other negative adjective. It’s just how things are.

Contrast that to Thomas Edison, who said he rarely picked up an object without wondering how he could make it better. I call that the curiosity factor. Either you have the curiosity factor, or you don’t. It cannot be taught or learned, and is seldom spoken of. Yet in many professions (including internal auditing), it is probably the single best predictor of ultimate success.

Every business desperately needs someone who will leap headfirst into operations or finances with a dedication approaching a Pit bull on a pork chop. If that is not you, go hire someone with the curiosity factor.

You will be amazed at what valuable business opportunities are waiting to be discovered just below the surface.

 

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Customer Service #101: Buddy, Can You Spare a Sandwich?

I had an experience last week I feel compelled to share. It was Friday night, the end of a long week. After fighting construction traffic for 45 minutes, I stopped at a national fast-food chain. I ordered three sandwiches. Mind you, I didn’t order drinks, chips or dessert, just three sandwiches. The bill came to $27.14. Since I didn’t have much cash on me, I handed the salesclerk a credit card. I was informed their “system” only allowed credit card charges up to $20.

Since I have previously  bought takeout from this chain many times without encountering this problem, I’m not certain whether it is a new corporate policy, a misguided rule imposed only by this franchise, or if the employee was simply mistaken.

Regardless of the reason, it points out a common business failure. The problem is creating unnecessary obstacles for people who might otherwise become loyal customers.

I have written many times that competition is based on price, product or service. Those are your only three choices.

Perhaps spurred by the current slow economy, price competition is clearly the most promoted basis of competition. It is especially prevalent in the food service industry. Witness Applebee’s “Two eat for $20” or Pizza Hut’s “$10 any pizza, any size, any toppings” campaigns, just to cite two.

Low prices are completely objective, easily communicated and quickly adjusted as necessary. Unfortunately, while coupons, discounts and sales may bring more customers through your door, they always cut into your gross profit. You simply cannot consistently sell a product or provide a service for less than your cost and survive!

Price competition also presents a more immediate challenge. In a high-tech world where any customer with a Smartphone can quickly determine if your competition is offering a better price, the strategy is certainly no guarantee of marketing success. The risk is escalated if low-price guarantees are common in your business. Furthermore, if someone purchases only because you are the cheapest available option, he or she is unlikely to develop any customer loyalty unless you are always the low-price provider. Few businesses are large enough or profitable enough to be in that enviable market position.

Competing mainly on product also carries risks. Even if you think your product or service is unique, the reality is there are probably countless options that are close enough to serve as a substitute for customer needs. A classic example is the difference between a Lexus and a comparably equipped Toyota that sells for thousands of dollars less. Product competition is also complicated by the widespread availability of on-line shopping and free shipping.

That leaves service as the only basis of competition on which your business can truly distinguish itself. It is also the only one that doesn’t have to increase your operating costs, or cut gross profits. A friendly smile and prompt, courteous service cost nothing! More importantly, superior service cannot be instantly matched by the competitor up the street.

Superior service encompasses the entire customer experience, starting with the moment they enter your facility or contact you. It continues until the product or service produces the level of satisfaction the consumer expected. It includes point-of-sales services such as allowing credit cards, answering questions, gift-wrapping and perhaps even walking packages to their car. It also includes after-sale services like satisfaction guarantees, generous refund policies and warranty service.

What’s the lesson here? Ask yourself two questions. First, are your policies and procedures primarily designed to make your life easier, or to increase customer satisfaction? Secondly, are your employees adequately trained in those policies and procedures, and are they consistently delivering a customer experience that will keep shoppers returning year after year?

I’ll end with a quote from Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He summarizing the essence of Customer Service # 101 with this, “Make your product easier to buy than your competition, or you will find your customer buying from them, not you.”

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

  • RSS
  • Newsletter
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn