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chris griffiths

Time is money. As small business owners, we are painfully aware of this. We sign the paycheques, payroll tax cheques, bonus cheques, employee medical benefit cheques, insurance cheques and the vacation paycheques – all in exchange for an employee's time, intelligence and dedication to our businesses.

But we see paying employees as an investment, and not an expense. What we get in return for paying our employees is – or should be – a multiple of what we put in. The difference is what allows our companies to grow and hire more people. So if employees are not using their time effectively or efficiently – we consider their lost time as a waste.

But what about when our customer waits? Do we see that as a waste? We know a customer's time is valuable, but it's not actually considered an expense in our business. We don't write cheques to our customers when they have to wait. But what if we did?

What if banks, airlines, telephone customer service representatives or even doctor's offices had to give us a discounted rate for every minute we waited? Would they become more efficient? You bet they would. They won't become more efficient, however, because as it stands, they don't consider your time their money.

But a customer's time should be valued more heavily. Whether consciously or not, our customers base their decisions not simply on the quality or price of the product or service, but on the total investment to do business with us. This includes transportation to and from, getting what they need with a single transaction as well as wait times.

For example, at a call centre, efficiency is typically based on the number of calls handled per hour (the more the better) and the length of the call (the shorter the better). Think of the hours of your life that you have cumulatively spent on hold over the years, customers are often waiting on hold for the next available agent. Call centres often do this deliberately because research shows that an employee works faster and skips the pleasantries when they know there is a line up.

The problem with this model, however, is that typically when a lineup grows, an employee may feel more pressure. In turn, he or she may be more likely to make mistakes because the quality of the service is compromised in favour of speed. That typically means that the tone of the call is rushed, broader questions that may help to solve the root cause of the problem are avoided and the likelihood that a lasting solution is offered on the first call is low.

As customers, however, we are already investing time we shouldn't have to by calling in the first place (something is wrong with our product or bill or payment schedule, for example) and we'd much rather spend an extra few minutes up front and get it dealt with properly the first time. Repeat calls to solve the same problem not only costs the call centre money and reputation, but it also wastes customers' time by making them call twice, rather than resolving the problem the first time.

Businesses have a much easier time quantifying the minutes per call or call per hour metric then they do considering the total cost of resolution – not to mention the qualitative impact of satisfaction levels and brand loyalty.

If you want to make a difference in your customer service and cost structures, start thinking of your customer's wait times as your expense Since customer demand is not predictable, you won't be able to eliminate customer wait times entirely, but you will be able to improve them. You will find yourself cross-training staff and removing unnecessary steps that will not only improve your customer's experience, but will build capacity and flexibility in your own business as well. That's a win-win at its finest.

Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.

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