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Happy Processes:
Keeping High Spirits in Service Delivery

By John R. Patterson and Chip R. Bell

The Native Americans believed every creation was alive. A tree had a spirit in the same way as a horse or a bird. This belief fostered a strong allegiance to insuring cooperation within nature. It also led to their strong focus on conservation. The buffalo was killed for meat, but was also revered as having a great spirit.

Organizations that create customer devotion look at their service processes in a similar way. While we rationally know the order entry process is not really alive, if we thought of it like that--a part of a living, organic system to achieve goals--we would ensure it was the appropriate process for our "tribe."

Caretaking "live" processes would ensure the service process always worked well and worked cooperatively with other processes. A "live" perspective would increase the chances the process received proper maintenance. It would guarantee custodians of the process oversaw it with great respect, not only for the process itself but for what it helped provide to customers. Service processes receiving this type of TLC would always have high morale.

What is a service process? A service process can be defined from two perspectives. From the inside looking out, it is a collection of procedures and/or practices that govern a complete operation. Bottom line, it is the means organizations use to deliver service to customers. However, from customers’ viewpoints, it is what an organization puts them through to get what they need or want.

A hotel has a process for check-in. While the operation ("check-in") from the customer’s perspective might start when the guest approaches the front desk and end with the guest’s departure with a room key, for the hotel the process might start with reservations or someone alerting the front desk the hotel was overbooked. And, it might not end until the night audit had done a review and balanced the shift.

Customers do not generally desire a service process. Most would prefer to simply snap their fingers and instantly get the product or outcome they desire. Can you imagine a customer just asking for the service process? ("I only stopped by to see if you had some forms I could fill out" or "I called for one reason--so you could put me on hold!") Granted, some organizations have created processes so delightful customers look forward to going through the hoops. Yet, the primary rationale for installing processes is to insure that service is delivered consistently, efficiently and productively.

A process might be governed by a set a procedures (fill out the application in triplicate), a collection of regulations (complete in one hour and provide a copy to security), or even certain laws (enter into the company ledger). Some processes are complex involving many steps and involving many units; some are simple and short. All have the potential for having high morale.

How to Make a Process Happy

There are a number of principles for creating happy processes. Remember: a happy process works hard for everyone—the customer, employees, leaders, the organization…as well as their fellow processes. Below are ten principles for service process morale management.

  1. Processes must be viewed from the customers’ perspective. The customers’ perspective trumps company convenience every time.
  2. Processes must be in sync with the organization's service vision. If the service vision is about 'customer comfort,' then every process must be crafted to facilitate "customer comfort."
  3. Processes must always defer to the organization's core values and service standards. Values and standards take precedence over processes and procedures.
  4. Processes must facilitate great internal service, not just external service. Silos and shaky handoffs hurt process morale. In the case of a tie, external service trumps internal service.
  5. Process changes driven by "economics" must be scrutinized for their impact on customers before an accurate return on investment can be determined.
  6. Processes must be regularly reviewed and updated to insure they work properly, and that they reflect customers’ ever changing expectations for service.
  7. The top ten most important processes must be annually singled out for an "alignment check" and "tune up." The criteria for "top 10’ is that process’ impact on customers.
  8. Processes that cease to achieve their purpose must be eliminated before their continued presence fools someone into thinking they are needed and they begin to fall under "special protection" by their custodian.
  9. Processes are never completely happy unless they are employee friendly.
  10. Leaders are responsible for the morale of processes, not the process’s custodian.

The Sound of a Happy Process

Sounds were important to Native Americans. The wind in the trees, the noise of the cricket, and the howl of the distant coyote all formed a language that fostered understanding and appreciation. What if you interviewed a really happy process? Let’s listen in on a part of a recent interview we conducted with the checking account process (Cap) at a large bank. As you review the transcript of our conversation, ask yourself: If I could interview our service processes what would I learn?

Us: We know what you do, Cap, but who would you say you are?

Cap: Well, I’ve been called a lot names! Actually, it depends on who you talk with. To my customer, I consider myself a conduit. You know, like the electric wires in your home. I’m not the power…that’s the customer’s funds. I just help them get the power. But, to the bank I’m a counter. I help them keep track of how much money is in the bank so they can invest it or lend it out. I also secretly work for the FDIC, but we won’t talk about that!

Us: I realize its different strokes for different folks…or, should I say different payments of different processes…but, what turns you on, Cap? What makes you happy?

Cap: Oh, that’s easy. It’s when I see customers have that really confident, secure look on their faces…like I worked for them just exactly like they hoped I would.

Us: Let’s talk about. What’s the main way that happens?

Cap: Well, when I’m truly taken care of, I’m almost invisible to customers; everything works like clockwork. It means there’s a standard way of doing what I do and everybody remembers what it is. But, there’s another way it happens. This bank is all about "impeccable accuracy." When those who use me remember and are guided by that mantra, I get to do my job in a very special way.

Us: Okay, Cap, what else makes you a super happy process?

Cap: You know that I don’t work alone here. Customers who use me also use an ATM card and sometimes have direct payment or deposit processes. Some have loans and a savings account. It means I have to get along with other bank processes. What makes me happy is when my caretaker helps me to talk with these processes. And, we’re all pretty cooperative if we get to speak the same language.

Us: One more question. What’s the one thing that stresses you the most?

Cap: It’s when my caretakers think I am here for their benefit only. I can guarantee you when that happens…and it happened to me with my last caretaker…customers get pretty angry. And, they blame me for it!

What does this conversation with Cap teach us? Consistent customer loyalty will not happen without corporate standards, norms and processes all aligned with the service vision. Service breakdown typically happens at the intersection of two internal units that only care about their process or their part of a process. However, if there are precise a shared vision and worked-out-in-advance procedures, there is a blueprint for efficient and effective execution.

Cap also told us that customers want trust---that is, "Will this experience go as well or better than I expect." The overall goal of happy processes is aligned efforts throughout the organization. Alignment helps ensure the trust that bolsters customer confidence. With confidence and trust, loyalty and devotion are possible.

Process alignment and process morale improvement can also play a helpful role in culture change efforts. As employees attempt change, they obviously find themselves "plowing new ground." This uncertainly naturally causes employees to look for assurance that their pioneering efforts are relevant and valued. A major source of that solace comes from evidence that leadership is committed to the change. If employees find themselves continuing to use the same old processes and procedures, it signals that the change is only lip service. They will likely dismiss the change effort as cosmetic and operate as they always have.

The term "happy process" originated with one of our international clients. We were grappling for a way to explain the meaning of process alignment as a part of developing company wide service standards and norms. Our client thought about the end result and suggested that one outcome of alignment might be "happy processes." The label proved to be a powerful metaphor that vastly contributed to understanding and efficiency in the company-wide alignment effort.

Processes are different than people. With people, morale is nurtured from the inside. We don’t motivate people, we help them motivate themselves. However, with process, you contribute morale from the outside. Processes are much more dependent on the leadership of the organization for their happiness.

The secret to maintaining processes in a state of "happiness" is to remember they are means, not ends. They are the ultimate servant in the quest for customer loyalty and devotion. Treating them as a common slave may give you process acquiescence and ultimately customer distain. But treating them as a contributing partner will yield you process alignment and customer devotion.


John Patterson is president of the Atlanta-based Progressive Insights, Inc., a CBG alliance company. Chip R. Bell is a senior partner and founder of The Chip Bell Group headquartered near Dallas. They can be reached through