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(ELISE AMENDOLA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
(ELISE AMENDOLA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

MONDAY MORNING MANAGER

When consumer choice is a bad thing Add to ...

If you want a good example of an organization messing up its service, ask your bank to tell you about its credit cards.

There’s more choice than anyone could need, including the poor customer service representative who has to explain the benefits of each; and bank officials who mistakenly believe they’ll boost profit if they cater to everyone, according to Barry Cross, a professor of operations management at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont.

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And banks are not alone: Telecoms, airlines and other organizations have succumbed to the notion that giving consumers a blizzard of choices is the best way to provide service excellence.

“Most of them are trying to support too many customers and trying to be all things to all people,” Prof Cross said in an interview.

The problem these companies face is service complexity, according to an article he wrote with HEC Montreal Professor Julie Paquette in the Ivey Business Journal.

“Good service anticipates your needs and solves problems. It is prompt, efficient and exceeds expectations. And it typically comes from well-trained employees, who often remember your name and preferences, and are empowered to manage your consumer experience without handing you off to someone else,” the authors note.

But offering too many products or services can get in the way. These days, products and services intermix. Some product companies such as Lexus and Apple realized they could differentiate themselves with excellent service. “In fact, people buy their product because of the service. In addition to providing great service ... these companies offer a simple and uncomplicated value proposition, meaning customers have a very clear idea of what to expect when walking in the door of one of their businesses,” they write.

But other companies simply cause confusion with their array of products – banks being the prime example.

The professors counted 11 available credit cards and 14 accounts at Bank of Montreal during the time of their study; 19 cards and 10 accounts at Royal Bank of Canada; nine cards and 11 accounts at Bank of Nova Scotia; and 15 cards and 11 accounts at Toronto-Dominion Bank. U.S. banks were often worse: Bank of America has 27 cards, Citibank, 26.

“In doing that, they are taking away from the ability of the front-line staff to help customers find the right product. It’s creating complexity for staff and customers,” Prof. Cross said in the interview, suggesting that this is the reason banks are rarely mentioned when consumers are asked to name organizations that provide good service.

In fact, when he asks about companies that rate poorly on service, banks are right up there with telecoms and airlines.

Each card and account is seen as cleverly appealing to a different slice of the population or customer profile, in these days when executives spend fortunes dissecting their market into segments. But he insists it isn’t working – and need not happen.

He points to Wells Fargo Bank, which has only seven credit cards, and Oregon-based Umpqua Bank, which offers a modest four. “They’re driving service and customer enthusiasm and using a few products to serve all customers. And it’s working,” Prof. Cross said of Umpqua, which has grown tenfold in the past 15 years.

The problems with too much choice can be seen in a restaurant with an ever-expanding menu, which takes customers longer to study, and leads to anxiety in making a selection. Choosing is no longer pleasant. And the wait staff find it stressful, too, finding it difficult to remember the features of each offering. (Tim Hortons recently indicated it would cut its menu, to reduce lineups.)

“Another example: Most airlines have many different aircraft in their collective hangar. Consequently, they need multiple training streams for flight crews and maintenance technicians, and service parts for all of those aircraft in multiple locations. This makes catering, ticketing and boarding all more complicated,” the professors write in the journal article.

Too much choice can’t be solved simply by improved training for front-line staff. It runs deeper than that, and might prompt employees to leave if stress levels increase.

Again, the professors point to a better way. In 2002, CVS Pharmacy, the largest U.S. drugstore chain, simplified its process for filling prescriptions, making it more efficient and more predictable for customers. Waiting times dropped. Customer service scores went up. Staff turnover decreased.

“Happier customers and an improved process made CVS a better place to work. And after simplifying their prescription process, CVS saw revenues increase chain-wide by $700-million (U.S.),” they write.

The professors suggest a simple prescription for managing service complexity in your own business: Eliminate it where possible, and then manage what is left very well.

“You need to appreciate where the customers are. They don’t want 29 credit cards. They want good service,” Prof. Cross concludes.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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