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Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: “Satisficing” Customer Service…when good enough is good enough

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I have come across my fair share of interesting personalities in my day. Of all the colourful individuals I have ever had the privilege of being around, none excited me as a good friend I had in my University days. He was the very definition of “crackpot”. It was close to impossible to be around this chap for a few minutes and not have a great laugh. He was simply fun to be around. It has been almost two decades since we parted ways from campus. I have not heard from him in a pretty long while. However, occasionally, I come across something that instantly reminds me of him.

Just this past week, an incident triggered memories of something this colleague used to do while we were in school. Just before exams week of each semester, tensions on campus are usually ratcheted up a notch. Folks who have not really sat down during the semester to study attempt to use the last few days to prepare for their papers. We would all rush to the libraries, lecture theatres and every other convenient place to study.

I was almost always in the company of this bloke and during those periods, he could really get serious—concentrating on his studies. However, not even the dread of pending examinations could cause him to be serious for a whole day. In the midst of the tension, he would still find a way to be his usual self.

One day, we decided to go to the main library to study. We had been there for just over an hour when this chap got up and started packing his books. As expected, his action got the attention of a number of students around. I was as shocked as everybody else. I thought he was not feeling well. So I asked him why he was leaving so soon. His response shocked everyone around. He said he had realised that what he had learnt up till that time was enough to get him over the pass mark for that paper! So he was done.

Those within hearing distance of his statements could not help but burst out laughing. With the most serious look on his face, he continued to explain that as a born-again Christian, he did not want to be greedy and so he was leaving the rest of the learning to those of us who were not too smart. With that he took his backpack and walked out, amidst the peals of laughter from other colleagues around. He was a real character but apparent this guy was not as crazy as I thought.

I recently came across a phenomenon or management decision-making strategy that might give some credence to this guy’s examination preparation strategy. This approach argues that entities (individuals and organisations alike) prefer a satisfactory or adequate result, rather than the best solution because aiming for the very best demands unnecessary use of time, energy and other resources.

This approach is called SATISFICING.

The word is an amalgam of two words “SATISFY” and “SUFFICE”. In other words, to satisfice is to find a solution that would satisfy and suffice although it might not be the very best. Others have said that the word is actually a combination of “SATISFY” and “SACRIFICE”. In that sense, when we SATISFICE, we tend to be satisfied with the results but we still end up sacrificing better options.

Satisficing is widely attributed to American political scientist, economist, sociologist, psychologist and winner of 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics, Herbert Alexander Simon. In propounding his Theory of Bounded Rationality, Simon argued that people do not necessarily seek the best out of every situation but rather that which is just good enough. Using this theory, he made a very strong case for why there are limits to the use of rationality in making everyday decisions.

It has been argued that satisficing plays an important role in our lives as it tends to save us time and energy—resources that we do not always have unlimited access to. Satisficing also means that we do not have to worry about whether a decision we have taken is the very best or not. All we need to know is that, given the limited resources of time and energy, we have taken a decision which is just good enough. Satisficing therefore takes out any need for perfectionism that we might have. In short, we survive this crazy world by resorting to satisficing.

Apparently, it is of such importance to us that we satisfice in every single decision we take, including our business decisions. In business, the aim is to turn in a profit as soon as practicable. Therefore, it is expected of management to take pragmatic steps to achieve that. To do this would require at times going for satisfactory or just adequate results rather than the very best results. That is satisficing.

Satisficing might be in business but do we also bring this phenomenon into out dealings with customers, as well? You bet, we do. The examples of Customer Service Satisficing are all around us. When a customer lodges a complaint, the organisation does not have all the time in the world to put together all the information and resources needed to offer the optimal solution. The best course of action therefore is to satisfice. We end up providing the customer with a solution that is just about good enough. Satisficing customer service might get us out of a tight corner when it comes to dealing with an angry customer who is in a hurry to get her problem solved.

In my experience as a customer service professional, there are many times when I know a particular solution I have proffered to a customer is actually not the very best. I do this knowing that there are better options. However, at that particular moment, that solution would have to do.

If a customer comes to withdraw money from a bank and asks for only fresh or new notes, get the new notes for the customer becomes the ideal situation. If the cashier is able to help the customer secure the wad of new notes, then that is all well and good. In the situation where the bank is unable to provide the customer with exactly what he wants, the cashier can give the customer a combination of both new and used notes. That will not be the ideal situation but it is better than the case of the customer getting only used or old notes. That is satisficing.

Also, if a customer sends her vehicle for servicing and she does not get the vehicle on time. The best situation is for her vehicle to be worked on and given back to her. However, at that particular moment, working on her vehicle and releasing to her might not be practical. The company can however give her another vehicle to use in the meantime. As a matter of fact, there is a name used in the industry for such a vehicle. It is called a Courtesy Car. It is a temporary vehicle offered by a garage for use while your car is being repaired. That is satisficing.

The above scenarios show satisficing at its most practical. Satisficing can be said to be is going for the next best solution if the ideal is not available.

However, businesses that rely on satisficing must be careful so as not to give their customers the impression that they, the customers, are not important enough to warrant the best solution.  Customers must believe that they are the reason or the existence of the business. They must know that they are at the very centre of the business’ universe—with everything revolving around them. It is therefore safe to say that when it comes to customer service, the best bet is to know when to seek the best solution for customers and when to satisfice.

Smart customer service managers are those who can combine perfection and satisficing.  A good manager has both hats and knows exactly when to wear which at what time. When schedules are tight, a smart manager satisfices, but when the customer is one of her most important ones, she optimises.

Whether it is dealing with internal or external customers, great managers handle issues well. When there is an internal committee set up to come out with a solution, it is best to have a manager who satisfices. The reason being that committees can take such a long time that the usefulness of the solution the committee proposes might be lost by the time the solution comes out. This is why you need a manager who can look at the next best result and go with it. One of the challenges of working in committees is the need to build a consensus from all the divergent views that are present. Managers who know how to satisfice tend to be good team players. They are able to bring together opposing views together to find a common ground.

As much as every business would want to have an ideal situation when providing service to its customers, the truth is that nothing is ever ideal. There are always going to be those less-than-ideal situations. A business cannot wait for the ideal to perform. It must perform even when things are not at their optimum. In those situations, satisficing the customer might be the only way out. That is when good enough is just good enough.

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