Lose the Lag

Lag time unfortunately isn't commonly found in the delivery of the finished product, but also often in the time that a customer is notified that their requests and concerns are being addressed. By keeping customers in the loop, your project becomes more agile, and your customers feel more respected.

When an organization with disgruntled customers takes major steps to improve service delivery, customers ought to be happy. Often, however, they continue to grumble and grouse because of what I've dubbed the perceptual lag. That is, the perception of an improvement often lags far behind the implementation of that improvement.

Once you become aware of the potential for a perceptual lag, you can take steps to minimize it. One of the best ways to do this is to publicize the improvements to the customers who've agitated for them or will benefit from them.

A Lag Lesson

Consider, for example, a company I consulted to whose customers had been enduring service snags, slips and snafus. These customers - internal business units - would have gladly obtained the services elsewhere but they didn't have that option.

At length, following a much-needed management change, the service group undertook a major series of improvements. Over the course of a year and with significant effort, they accomplished a lot. They were justifiably proud of the improvements they'd made and badly needed a pat on the back from their customers.

Yet, when they ran a customer satisfaction survey, the ratings barely surpassed the ratings in the previous year's survey. In reviewing the results of the two surveys, I saw how unhappy many customers still were. The service personnel were devastated. Despite all they had accomplished, many customers seemed to neither notice nor appreciate their efforts.

The lesson: Although customers may be swift to complain, they're usually much slower to notice changes made as a result of those complaints. What customers tend to see isn't what has been fixed, but what's still broken. Actually, that's not surprising: If customers have endured an extended period of shoddy service, they adopt a "prove it" mentality and require an even longer period of consistently good service before they believe it's real and enduring.

A Lag-avoidance Strategy

A perceptual lag is especially likely when service personnel have done little or nothing to publicize the improvement effort. As a result, even if customers recognize that things have gotten better, they don't associate the improvement with their prior complaints.

To minimize the perceptual lag, put on your public relations hat and notify customers about your plan for making improvements. Involve key customers in evaluating and finalizing the plan so they'll have a stake in your success. Let them know the part they can play in helping you help them.

Make sure customers are aware of the improvements you're working on. Report your progress regularly, and keep linking the action you're taking to their grievances. When you've implemented an improvement, inform them. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

When service has slipped, what customers often want as much as anything else is to know you take their needs seriously. In fact, personal attention often leads to higher customer satisfaction ratings in subsequent surveys, even when work on service improvements is not yet complete.

Hopefully, you have happy customers. But if you're still working toward that goal, do everything you can to limit the lag.

User Comments

Anonymous's picture

While reading your article it had me thinking of a time when I first started testing software. I was working on a massive project involving sites from around the world, ran on Windows but worked with a variety of hardware and simulator development boards. The combinations of equipment needed to test the application was mind boggling for a first testing project. After a year of testing by my team of 5 testers we thought it was looking pretty good. Over 5000 defects found and fixed.<br><br>We sent it out for use by people inside the company. First response back was, "Did you even load this thing?"<br><br>I was crushed. It turned out that something installed on the individuals computer had corrupted a system library. We helped the individual fix the system library and everything was good... sort of. He still assumed we didn't do enough testing. Every time he had a problem, rather than read the documentation, he'd file a bug report.<br><br>In the end, we showed him the test result from a year of testing and all the work we had done. He was totally amazed and quite impressed at how much work we had done.<br><br>The bottom line, if no one knows what you are doing, they are going to assume you are doing nothing. An important part of any job is ensuring people know what you are doing.<br>

February 25, 2010 - 2:31am
Anonymous's picture

Darrell, thanks so much for your post. What an excellent example of the perceptual lag in action. Clearly, customers are willing to accept that valuable work is being done, and even to be impressed by it -- IF they are informed about it. <br><br>Your bottom line is extremely important and bears repeating: "If no one knows what you are doing, they are going to assume you are doing nothing. An important part of any job is ensuring people know what you are doing." Thanks for stating this point so clearly. ~Naomi

February 25, 2010 - 2:37am
Anonymous's picture

Thanks Naomi: this is food for thought for me. I tend to be very results focused, and expect others to reason the same way. Then I'm disappointed when they don't. I've learned I need to (from my perspective) over-communicate what I'm up to, to keep people up-to-date and engaged. I keep forgetting how important this is, though. /Tobias

March 9, 2010 - 5:58pm
Anonymous's picture

Hi Tobias. That's a good point about over-communicating rather than under-communicating. Actually, it's a fine line. Sometimes, communicating too much can be just as aggravating for the recipients than communicating too little. But most of the time, doing a little more communicating than we might choose to do is a good thing -- especially for those of us (you, me, and many others) who expect others to reason the same way we do). ~Naomi

March 9, 2010 - 5:59pm

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