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Business Journal

When Speed Kills

by William J. McEwen
Excerpted from Married to the Brand

In pursuit of stronger customer relationships, many companies are barreling headlong down a treacherous highway. They're heading in the wrong direction because they've forgotten a simple fact: Time is not absolute. Time is relative. How long is five minutes? It depends. Five minutes can be negligible -- or it can be interminable. Five minutes in paradise is not the same as five minutes in hell.


The emphasis on time seems understandable. After all, we have been told repeatedly that "time is money." In fact, an economics professor in the United Kingdom has recently proposed a mathematical formula that expresses time in monetary units. According to this formula, the average British minute is now worth about 15 cents. Time, at least in the United Kingdom, is money.

In addition, many observers note that today's consumers are busier than ever before. Consumers tell us in surveys how busy they are, and they increasingly embrace products ranging from ready-to-eat prepackaged salads to personal digital assistants that promise time-saving benefits. Although we could argue whether most consumers are actually as busy as they think they are, the image of the harried consumer is one that customers and companies accept without question. Ours is a busy world, full of busy people, and companies are challenged to take this into account.

But does fast equal best?

It seems reasonable to conclude that companies can best help their busy customers by providing faster service. The best fast-food experience should be the fastest one. The bank that delivers the speediest transaction service should be the market leader. The grocer with the quickest service should dominate. The fastest call center service must be the best.

Speed is easy to measure, and it seems easy to manage. So the search for speed guides many companies' customer service efforts, as well as how they identify, reward, and recognize excellence in customer service.

For example, last year, Arby's presented a new Ford Mustang to the store manager who posted the shortest average drive-through times. The average national time for a drive-through experience in 2001 was 3 minutes, 8.4 seconds. The goal for store managers then becomes to beat that time somehow. Service excellence will be found by breaking the three-minute barrier. Simple.

This emphasis on speed isn't limited to fast food. Kaiser Permanente rewarded call center service representatives with a bonus based in part on their ability to spend an average of less than 3 minutes, 45 seconds on the phone with a patient. Spend less time, and earn a handsome reward. It's that simple.

Faster may be more efficient. For people-intensive businesses, spending less time with each customer appears to save money for the company. It may help companies to be more productive. But is faster better for the customer? After all, customers will ultimately determine the enduring health of either Arby's or Kaiser.

Speed plus service

If the goal is to create strong bonds that ensure customer retention, companies must focus on activities that create and sustain the customer relationships, not just on those that enhance company efficiency.

In short, companies must bear in mind that "speed of service" contains two critical elements: speed and service.

Often, busy customers will endorse the concept of fast service. But what sort of trade-offs are they willing to accept between service speed and service quality? Customers don't want to be rushed through a store, a bank branch, or an encounter with a service representative. They want their needs to be met, whether those needs involve a transaction, a request for information, a problem to be recognized and addressed, or just some plain, old-fashioned hand holding.

Faster can be better -- but only when speed is exactly what the customer wants. Not all customers want to complete every contact with a company at lightning speed.

Gallup Organization research provides a vitally important new lens through which to view the total customer experience. Gallup has noted that enduring relationships result only when companies pay attention to meeting the important emotional needs of their customers. And these needs aren't met by faster service but by better service.

Lasting ("loyal") relationships result from the culmination of regular contacts between customers and companies -- and the net result of these ongoing interactions is an emotional connection that represents the bond between the customer and the company. The speed of an individual interaction is far less relevant than its ability to cement the emotional attachment that the customer feels to the company.

The critical components of this emotional connection form a relationship hierarchy that is founded on confidence and builds through integrity and pride to reach passion. Irreplaceable connections are rooted in these emotional ties. Customers won't become passionately attached to -- or become passionate advocates for -- your brand unless they feel pride in being associated with it, they are convinced of its integrity, and they are confident in the quality of service they receive from its representatives.

What builds a stronger tie to Arby's may not be whether a customer receives a sandwich in less than three minutes. Speed won't compensate for a cold, tasteless sandwich or for rude and incompetent service.

Consider a recent example that highlights the importance of building emotional engagement with a service or brand. In a study conducted for a banking client, Gallup consultants found that the level of engagement felt by the bank's customers was affected by the speed with which these customers were served -- a finding the company expected. Customers who felt that the bank offered exceptionally speedy service were six times more likely to be highly engaged. That's noteworthy.

However, customer perceptions of the tellers' courtesy and their apparent willingness to help were far more important than speed of service in generating customer engagement. Customers who gave the bank high ratings on those "people" attributes were nine times more likely to be fully engaged -- Gallup's definition of an emotionally engaged customer. Gallup found similar results for other people-performance factors, including a teller's product knowledge or her sincerity and ability to explain the bank's policies and procedures. Speed is one factor, but it is markedly less important than having tellers who can deliver services in a friendly and competent manner.

"Better" is greater than "faster"

Far more critical than the time-it-takes-to-be-served are the feelings customers take away from a service experience -- however long it might take. The secret to Starbucks' success is not how rapidly they serve coffee; instead, Starbucks recognizes that speed is just one part of the total experience. This total brand experience must be seamlessly enjoyable, not just quick.

What companies need to discover, and then reward and recognize, are key service elements that build stronger customer relationships. Above all, don't reward quicker service -- reward better service. Don't award new cars to managers whose teams achieve the shortest drive-through times; recognize the managers and teams who create a service experience that demonstrably enhances the strength of the customer connection. As Gallup has shown, customer engagement is highly profitable and returns measurable business benefits. Of equal importance, customer disengagement is enormously expensive, and it costs companies millions.

Above all, don't reward speedy service if it actually jeopardizes customer engagement -- and it quite clearly can do so -- any more than you would reward a cost-saving cut in product quality that alienates the company's customers.

Companies must maintain a clear and constant focus on the factors that represent the true health and sustainable growth of the company: the bond between the company and the customer. Faster operations should only be pursued when they will result in stronger customer bonds. Anything else is a mistake, and one with lasting consequences.


William J. McEwen, Ph.D., is the author of Married to the Brand.

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