Can Telemarketers Really Be Lean?

Last night I received several telemarketing calls from a well known Lean Six Sigma company. I didn’t get upset. I got curious…

Interestingly a lot of Lean efforts are focused on inside sales, inside marketing both inbound and outbound. The key argument for selecting these processes over large account management or channel sales is that they are more structured and flow-like.

This is partially based on the age-old debate of sales being art vs. science. At least direct sales, large account sales are typically more solution focused and involve the customer even in non-Lean shops.
What troubles me about published lean transformations in outbound telemarketing or telesales is how the voice of the customer gets lost.

Do we honestly believe, as Lean professionals that there is massive customer pull for unsolicited outbound customer calls?
Sales organizations should find more ways to discover customer needs, offer promotions in ways the customer prefers (rarely tele) and lean out the inbound sales teams instead so they give the customer a rock star experience.

By definition, sales will never become Lean until sales leadership stops PUSH and allow the customer to PULL and then serve them like crazy….


Making Sales Workflow Visible

There seems to be many reasons why sales teams struggle to adopt Lean. Apart from repetitive and structured sales areas like inside sales, complex and large account selling is perceived to be more of an art than science. Mostly because the great salespeople in large value sales functions are treated more like rock stars than line workers.
While all large sales organizations have established sales processes and training, in my experience most practitioners follow their gut and not the defined process except in areas of compliance and approvals.

There are great opportunities for all organizations to define the Perfect Sales Cycle (as standard work) and measure the effectiveness and efficiency around the defined process.
A good first step towards this goal is making the team’s actual tasks and activities visible to themselves and the team. The Kanban Method that works so well in the creative work of software development is perfect for the creative art and science of sales as well.

Going back to the 2 rules of Kanban has and will transform many sales teams on their eventual Lean journey:
1) make work visible (put everything on your team’s Kanban board)
2) limit work in progress (juggle only a few things every day, week and month)

I use both a physical kanban board in my office for my global team and Trello for virtual kanban board for all to see. Everyone on the global team sees everyone else’s tasks.

Once the Lean journey starts, the non-value added tasks will shrink by 40-50% and that immediately doubles the available selling time. Once selling time doubles, so does customer satisfaction, revenues, commissions and overall team rewards.
And that as we know, more than anything, will convince sales teams to get with the program…
kanban board

Lean In or Lean Out?

Most of the Lean literature is about heroic efforts to reduce waste and process inefficiencies at large (and small) complex operations. With the exception of the Lean Startup / Agile movement, much less is focused on building businesses and companies with Lean thinking.

Even in large corporations, once you leave the factories new innovations, product lines, sales approaches and market units get launched on top of old thinking and processes. Some of these initiatives fail for that very reason, the traditional operation or performance engine does not allow for a more agile business model and most initiatives are under-staffed and under-resourced so they cannot produce the wasteful staffing levels and process complexities the old model requires.

I’m a big fan of the ‘starving startup’ model in big companies and have run many of them. Customer facing initiatives in sales and services should start with a blank business modelĀ canvas (orĀ Lean Canvas) and design/iterate a lean process.
The main advantage is that it is unlikely that complex, overburdened and wasteful processes and cost structures will result. The side benefit is that the company will create lean thinkers, leaders and entrepreneurs that can tackle the harder challenges of leaning out the core. But now, they have organizational proof and credibility. Which in most corporate programs is the lion share of the battle.

Kaizen workshops may start resembling more of the pivot/sprint retrospectives of Agile and Kanban Method than traditional incremental improvements of an established process. Eventually in a big corporation the two approaches will meet in the middle as corporate startups and initiatives grow up, get overfunded, over-resourced and complacent. But by then our lean startup leaders, thinkers and builders in the team are ready…

(c) 2012 – Sacha Chua – (under Creative Commons Canada 2.5)

Why Airlines Struggle with Lean Sales and Service

As I search for great sales lean models I also learn from bad ones. Since James Womack talked about airline issues in Lean Solutions a decade ago not much has changed… Since I fly a lot I get to think about their ‘customer service’ approach quite a bit.

You would think that an industry that is permanently in the red would be the first to embrace Lean. While you hear that fixed equipment costs and labor contracts are hard to change however the is still so much to do to gain customer loyalty especially for the business traveler (I.e. most profitable segment). But it isn’t happening. While many airlines ‘lean out’ their MRO operations, frankly it is useless when business travelers switch to Singapore Airlines or Virgin for better customer service from a carrier with operating-room-quality 5S-optimized spare parts stores… So let’s all go back to the customer interface for answers and not the stockroom.

Traveling to Asia or the Middle East allows us to establish a work standard for service long lost on the American airline industry and trace back to the enormous value creation opportunities.
The business segment is much less price sensitive and in fact the perfect testing ground for lean principles: get me what I want, when I want, how I want within my price parameters.

Despite fierce competition in the economy travel segment, business class fares vary as much as 100-150% for major routes. So there is immense value opportunity.

Some airline structural issues even business travelers cannot overcome, like the need to fly though our hubs and connect. (Southwest solved this but I digress..)

Other non-value added processes could be more easily improved

1) Almost all queuing problems and capacity issues could be simply eliminated in this industry. All travel plans are known with high degree of certainty (except cancellations). The customers demand (number of passengers) and timing is clear. There should not be any surprise whatsoever on how many travelers are coming. How about giving all travelers a specific time windows (8:30-8:35) to enter the TSA checkpoint for expedited processing. If you are late, you are back to batch and queue.

2) – Parking companies could provide fixed time/parking spot for expedited scheduling and rescheduling in case of traffic delays.

3) Many checking counters are already well automated including bag-drop. Why is there still a line and many machines down? Conveyor belts… Figure it out…

3) – There is no reason anyone should stand in line at security. The travelers are known, their belongings could be scanned to take time. Exception processing (rework) is well defined. . Pre-check is established.

4) You shall never have to wait for your bags. All arriving passenger and the number of bags are known hours in advance. It is possible to get the bags to the belt in 15 minutes. Just connect the dots.

All real chaos starts in customer facing processes…

1) Most boarding processes are inconsistent. This should be fixed one and for all. Follow the process and you are at the back of the queue. Process variability absolutely kills boarding. Hold people to the boarding sequence and baggage rules. Watch Southwest do it and have happy customers.

2) Cancellation management is abysmal for most airlines. Why is it so hard? All variables are known. Number of passengers, alternative routes, airlines, cross-change agreements, fare schedules. This changeover / setup should be entirely automated and immediate. Especially because cancellation is when airlines are most likely to lose paying customers. Totally preventable.

3) Why can’t airlines recognize the phone number we are calling from like credit card companies. It is a very trivial telephony feature. Accelerate problem resolution, reduce customer queuing.

Airlines may be losing even more money because they think they are fixing the right problems (MRO, labor, logistics) when the right problems are customers getting frustrated and the most profitable customer segments taking their business elsewhere.

no queues

Lean Sales Baby Steps

Introducing Lean to sales teams can run into the overall resistance against process, structure and creativity. The more strategic sales processes get the more likely the resistance. We can find many successful implementations of lean in mass marketing, inside sales, call centers, telesales and customer service functions that deal with discrete repeatable elements of work: phone calls, campaigns and events. There are much fewer lean approaches in complex enterprise sales environments where processes are extremely variable (whether they should be or not) and great salespeople are treated more like rock stars and artists than assembly workers.

I do believe high growth sales organizations need to ease into Lean in a few ways:
– focus on the principles not the tools (hint: few salespeople want six sigma talks)
– emphasize that process waste is directly waste of selling time, revenues and thus commissions and bonuses

Start with easier rules:

1) make work visual (Kanban boards or weekly plans) and have daily/weekly/monthly plans (great salespeople are planners)
2) reduce non-customer facing activity like admin and reporting (most salespeople will LOVE this)
3) reduce the number of things being juggled (few customers provide most revenues – serve them best)
4) solve problems together (everyone should help the salespeople to win, because they represent the voice of the customer)


Making Lean Efforts Truly Lean

There are many Lean initiatives that get caught up in discussions about tools, continuous improvement experts, various belt colors and takt time and what gets lost is that such programs should be customer facing.
I’m not about to take on the manufacturing establishment, however it is worth noting a few important facts.

  • Services are a much larger portion of the economy than manufacturing yet most Lean initiatives are stuck in the plant.
  • If Lean is all about the customer, why is it that a very tiny fraction of Lean Enterprise initiatives start with the customer facing processes like sales. Sales is the only truly real customer PULL. Why is it being ignored?
  • While there are some customer service oriented Lean projects, many customer service processes are inherently about rework, defect and fixing lack of first time quality.
  • Less than 0.1% of lean training, certification and literature is actually focused on customer facing processes (sales, marketing and service).

Brent Wahba’s book called The Fluff Cycle is one of the very few comprehensive treatments of lean selling. While non-value added activity and waste in a world class manufacturing facility hovers well below 40% it is above 80% in sales and backoffice functions. Wouldn’t it be wise to focus on these first?
Also, creating Lean processes in the plant to make what the customers do not want (in environments where sales is not Lean and follows a PUSH and not a PULL model of selling) is simply wasteful. No matter how well you build to the Takt time while eroding market share.
I hope over the next few years Lean will expand to where it belongs: facing the customer.
In the meantime we will make our small contributions towards that goal.