Quality in the eyes of the customer: it's the Mars vs Venus debate all over again

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Jitka Soskova

In last week’s column in this Customer Service series, Philip Lanyon from Lafarge UK Services explained how to develop a customer-oriented culture, based on a popular breakout session that he and four other practitioners ran at Shared Services & Outsourcing Week (Europe), earlier this year. Here, Jitka Soskova from Philips, one of the other collaborators, shares tips on tackling QUALITY.

Quality and cost are often presented as two seemingly opposing forces. From a standard business perspective, if we want to increase quality of service, we need to invest more in people, trainings, process improvements, or new tools and technologies. On the other hand, low cost is one of the main values that a shared services model can bring to the organization. So: Can we reach the quality levels our customer expects from us without increasing our cost?

What is Quality?

We need to start with a simple question: What is the quality that our customer expects from us? What is quality in the eyes of our customer? Is it the Quality we measure in our KPIs and dashboards? Is it the Quality that is defined and taught by the LEAN and Black Belt masters? Sometimes yes, but often not. In an earlier part of this series, Simon Brown debated this theme in his article called "5 Steps to Get Real Satisfaction From Your Customer". Here we'll consider how the customer perceived quality.

Perceptions of Quality

Simon and others have recognized (sometimes quite painfully) that customers often ignore our dashboards and beautiful green lights for KPI’s. Instead, they point out the mistake your service center made in document X, or in country Y, and they escalate to the leadership that shared services performance is dropping dramatically and isn’t delivering the needed quality. Often, they accompany this with a nostalgic anecdote about how the old model was much better. You get upset because you know from looking at your metrics, that you did save the company large quantities of cash, and that you are in fact delivering thousands of transactions on time and with excellent quality. Our customers are emotional, though, often not strictly logical and rational. As my colleague used to say, "Shared Services are from Mars, our customers are from Venus."


If we want our customers to have a positive view on the quality of service then we need to understand the "Venus" thinking. How do humans think? How do we form our judgments?

Let us look at the case of a shared services leader that has branded the model as a means to substantially reducing the cost of service. In their minds, the customers have related to their general world knowledge simplified by some stereotypes. They have created a mental link between low cost/low quality. They have applied this stereotype to the message from the shares services leader, and concluded that if the model is based on low cost, it must mean also low quality of service. Stereotyping just one of many concepts from psychology that can help us to understand the "irrational customer".


I have read a wonderful book recently that explains many of the biases in human thinking, judgment formation and decision making: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. After reading the book, I started to promote a new abbreviation in our company (and our company loves abbreviations). The new acronym is WYSIATI, which stands for "What You See Is All There Is".

The WYSIATI concept explains many of the biases of human thinking under one umbrella. It can provide some explanations to our "misunderstandings" with our customers.


In our everyday life, WYSIATI enables us to form quick judgments. Based on very little evidence we form a plausible story, close enough to reality. Our mind loves to make links between cause and effect, so we automatically connect the events that occur at the same time into cause - effect relationships. As WYSIATI applies, neither the quantity nor the quality of the evidence counts, as we have already a "good enough explanation". Our judgments suffer from the effect of overconfidence, so they are very difficult to change. Experiments show that once we form our opinion, we consider only information that supports our view, and ignore or undervalue the importance of evidence that goes against our beliefs. We are resistant to change.

So in practice, the customer, based on one or few cases, thinks he/she sees all that is going on in the shared services. He/she would generalize the observation, ignoring our KPIs and statistics ("the shared service employee did not know the answer to my question –all their employees are incompetent – the quality is bad"). A plausible story of cause and effect is formed (such as, "since the shared service model is in place, the quality is low"), and the customer becomes very confident in this believe, neglecting any evidence pointing against his/her story.

How can we shape the perception of quality?

Here are some suggestions from the shared services practitioners that met on the Prague SSON conference earlier this year:

  • Make the Model Transparent
    Bring simple messages and explanations of how the shared service model works. De-mystify the remote services model, tell them how it works. Use simple visuals and use them to brand yourself in the customer’s locations.
  • Be clear on the services offering
    Explain your service offering to avoid unrealistic expectations. Specify what is in-scope and what is out of scope. Make a simple menu.
    There is a potential trap here – if you are strict on the standard scope of your services then you might need to say: "Sorry - not in our service catalogue" much too often. Customers don’t like that. They want flexibility. We need to balance that equation carefully – flexibility to answer customer demand on one hand, and standardization and elimination of exceptions and variance, on the other hand.
  • Market yourself "face to face"
    No surprise – a face to face interaction is much more powerful than emails and conference calls. Sell your model in town halls, especially when you are starting up. Invite customers to visit, to see how work is done. Get to know your key stakeholders personally. Build relationships. Meet with the unhappy customers to clarify the problems.
  • Focus on the dissatisfied few
    Remember that for the customers, the WYSIATI rule applies. There can be only one or two broken processes, or a handful of dissatisfied customers/cases, that would spoil the perception of quality in the whole organization. Focus your energy on them. Fix the one broken process, talk with the few angry stakeholders, turn them around, and immediately your image is dramatically improved.
  • Improve the quality by working hand in hand with your customers
    Create face to face workshops together with your customers to improve the critical processes. Your customers are often also actors in your processes and source of your data. The workshops have multiple benefits: you build relationships, increase understanding of the model, and clarify for the customers on how they can contribute to quality.
  • Bring some customers back from Venus to Mars
    Try to turn the WYSIATI phenomenon into a more factual discussion. Share and explain your KPIs, check whether they measure what is important for your customers. Educate them about your dashboard, measurements, statistics, use individual cases to illustrate your statistics (such as, the 99.95% Accuracy means that from the 5000 cases we process every month, there are 2 to 3 mistakes).

Is Quality only a Perception?

Of course it is not. We need to deliver on our promises in order not to lose the trust of our customers. In order to achieve that, we need to stay sharp, learn, benchmark, experiment and innovate. Let us surround ourselves with a great team, engage our employees, keep the dialogue with our customers, and drive continuous improvement.

Quality is in the eyes of the beholder, and customer satisfaction, as we have heard earlier in this series, is a blend of the rational and the emotional reaction to services provided. This article extends these themes to show that achieving true value from your shared services vision happens as a result of putting yourself in the customers shoes and taking the psychological journey in a trip, first from Mars to Venus, and then making the return trip back from Venus to Mars.

Note: Jitka Soskova will be presenting at the European HR Directors' Summit in London at the end of next month. Take part and re-evaluate your HR model's efficacy.