Are You a Six Sigma Salmon?

In 2003, the Benchmarking Exchange conducted a survey of Six Sigma companies. The first question they asked was:

Within the past 24 months, what business processes have you or your company targeted for improvement?

Top answer? Customer service and help desk-the mouth of the river of defects and delay, not the source!

Most companies make the same mistake. The pain they feel is in their customer service and help desk areas. Too many calls. One wireless company I worked with received 300,000 calls a month on only 600,000 subscribers. Ouch!

But the root cause is rarely in the customer service center; it's somewhere UPSTREAM: incorrect orders, fulfillment, service delivery, billing, etc. The customer service center is just a major piece of your company's "fix-it" factory.

In my small SPC software business, I consider every customer "service" call to represent a defect. Let's face it, if every customer service call costs $8-12, how many calls do you want to take? NONE, right?

Me either. So I ruthlessly try to find ways to make the installation and operation of the software painless and effortless. I try to put all the answers a customer will ever need on my website, so that they can serve themselves when we aren't available. I try to mistake-proof everything in every interaction.

The wireless company I mentioned had set up their entire business to systematically herd customers into the customer service center. They assumed that their customers knew nothing about cell phones and would need to call them to learn how. Every piece of documentation directed customers to call. The monthly bill with roaming charges and extra minutes drove people to call. It was a nightmare.

My business, on the other hand, is more like the Maytag repair man commercials. I NEVER want a customer to have to call. What caused most of my calls? When we looked at the data, it was ordering, not the software. So we streamlined and mistake proofed the ordering process.

Of course, it's possible to go overboard. Look at Microsoft. I can't figure out where to call to get help when I need it. There's an enormous knowledge base at:, but I can't always find what I need there. Seems like everyday I get a new message that there's some new Windows XP update waiting to be installed. (This makes me think their software is awfully buggy. Does it really need daily updates?)

Look Upstream

The customer service center is a great place to GATHER DATA about the customer's problems, difficulties, and issues. It is a terrible place to try to SOLVE those issues. Analyze the data from your customer service center and then initiate root cause teams in the appropriate departments tosolve the upstream problems that are drowning your customer service help desk.

Don't be a salmon! Start at the source. Clean up the sewage at the headwaters of your business. Keep analyzing why customers call, but use it to fix operations, not the call center. Sure, call centers need improvement too, but if customers don't need to call, do you really need a call center? Maybe, but does it need to be as big as it is?

  • Mistake-proof your operations, products, and services;
  • Simplify your product or service;
  • Make more things self-service.

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, (888) 468-1537,"

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