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People Are Not Machines


 By Chris Parker

The traditional definition of operational excellence is “do it right the first time”. While this is a beautiful ambition and industries have been built on the back of Total Quality Management and Six Sigma, the problem is things don’t always work as planned when humans are involved. It quickly becomes your employee’s challenge to maintain the customers’ satisfaction once the customer has stepped out of the process your company hoped they would follow. The use of external partners to deliver services further complicates this as the employees interacting with your customers might not work for you directly. Too often, customers with a question get lost in a maze of departments and ultimately end up in the complaints management queue. The CIO has an important role to play to ensure this doesn’t happen. Having an explicitly designed experience for your employees and customers will enable you to avoid investing in technologies and processes which are not important for these people. This helps you focus your spending and has a positive impact on your brand image in the market.

Enhancing the employee experience in order to improve the customer experience is not a new concept, although historically different words have been used to explain the ambition. The ‘Service Profit Chain’ as described in the Harvard Business Review in the early 1990’s quantified the benefits of customer satisfaction and loyalty which results from employee satisfaction and loyalty. The experience customers and employees have with your company is the most important factor contributing to their satisfaction and loyalty. Companies which realise this are able to achieve an enlightened definition of operational excellence, which is having engaged and empowered employees who continuously improve the customer’s experience. It is your responsibility to create the conditions where your employees will desire to serve your customers.

Making Travel Human Again

Daan Lenderink had this in mind when he started Schiphol Travel ( in 2000, which is an independent business travel agency. After working for many years in the travel industry for the largest players, he realised there could be a better way than the traditional approach. Daan built his travel company specifically to address the unmet needs he saw with midsized and multinational clients. He was inspired by Peter Senge’s concept of the learning organisation where a company continually transforms itself by enabling the learning of its staff. Traditional travel agencies fail to deliver a consistent customer experience due to the complexity caused by having many different departments being responsible for different parts of the process. Schiphol Travel simply makes the dedicated Account Manager solely responsible for everything. This means the Account Manager is responsible for the overall operation including handling reservations, ticketing, invoicing, credit control, reporting, contracting, relationship management, evaluation and providing internal analysis on expected turnover.

There are no part-time Account Managers on the team, because the customer experience design is based on being personally available every day for their assigned customers. In order to ensure a high level of quality among its staff, Schiphol Travel pays about 20% more for their staff than competitors do. With headcount being the largest contributor to overhead this is significant. They have provided high quality wood desks and placed them in some of the most expensive office space located at international airports so they are close to the industry and to allow staff to come from great distances every day using public transport. Where Schiphol Travel doesn’t invest is unnecessary bureaucracy or fringe benefits which are less important to the staff. They don’t have sales staff and only have three directors for over 70 Account Managers and they don’t provide their staff with mobiles phones or lease cars.

Daan refers to this operating model of focussing on the employee experience as the ‘anti-call centre’ and it has enabled Schiphol Travel to be the fastest growing travel agency in the Netherlands for the last four years, and they have expanded to Heathrow in the United Kingdom. The Account Managers at Schiphol Travel are not your typical travel agents, as Daan spends more than half his time recruiting and developing his team. Because each of his staff is responsible for the whole process, they are motivated by the feeling of running their own business and have a much stronger desire to satisfy the traveller immediately. After all, it’s their personal client, and if isn’t done right the first time they will be the one to clean it up later. When Daan is interviewing potential Account Managers, what he looks for is this devotion to getting the job done for clients.

My Client Is My Baby

Having a dedicated person assigned to a customer account is the foundation on which Schiphol Travel designed its service model. Although they charge less than their competitions full-service fees due to lower overhead, they are still more expensive than online travel booking options.   Their ‘secret sauce’ is called ‘Smart Ticketing’, and is comprised of over thirty creative ticketing techniques which they have perfected over time. These techniques are not possible without the skilled Account Managers who have a deep understanding of the customer’s travel patterns. For example, a common technique is booking overlapping flights to take advantage of discounts when a traveller has a consistent travel pattern. This, and other more advanced techniques enable Schiphol Travel to regularly save their clients over 20% on fares which are available to the public. Another approach, which saves costs for their customers, is their simple invoicing. They charge a fee only when the customer makes a booking which generates a travel invoice. All other activities, including unlimited changes, are not charged separately. They differentiate themselves in their processes and the simplicity of their invoicing.

What really contributes to the loyalty of their customers are the things which the Account Managers do outside of the normal procedures. They have effectively unlimited authority to resolve a customer problem on the spot in whatever way they deem most appropriate. This resulted in Daan having only 10 complaint escalations last year across all 700 customers. In addition to finding creative ways to solve customer issues, they have also found ways to make life easier for the travellers. Booking tickets with air miles is not as easy as paying for a ticket, and most travel agents won’t make these types of arrangements.   Schiphol Travel has been known to use miles on the request of a traveller, as this helps the customer even though it is less profitable for the company on the short-term. These aren’t the only times where a competitors failure has been turned into opportunity by an Account Manager. During the flight disruption last year due to the ash cloud, they won a big new account after helping someone get home who wasn’t even their customer.

Schiphol Travel does not use exotic technology to enable their Account Managers to deliver this level of customised service. They use the Galileo ( for flight reservations and use a separate bespoke system to manage the travel records. Their IT support has been outsourced completely to BizQIT (, a local managed services provider. In order to provide their travellers with mobile access, they worked with Sound of Data ( last year to develop and release the first mobile app for the business travel market in the Netherlands.

Technology Comes To Life

A similar philosophy has been applied in an industry which is closer to home for the CIO. Vineet Nayar, of HCL Technologies (, adopted a daring philosophy which he called the ‘Employees First, Customers Second’ in order to get the company back on track when he was appointed as President in 2005. He was used to being able to completely transform his organization every two years, however this was not immediately possible with this larger organisation and its history. He saw to major issues preventing him from making HCL into an organization which is constantly improving and transforming. First, he observed a lingering trust deficit in corporate leadership in the market in general, and secondly, he concluded that value is now created between the customer and the front-line employee.   In response to this, he inverted the accountability structure in the company, making management accountable to enable the work performance of the staff.

HCL lost a few customers almost immediately because they didn’t believe in the new approach. However, pretty quickly they won three global deals and the organisation became more confident. In addition to commercial successes in the market, the benefits continued to come in unexpected ways. For example, when Vineet was visiting his offices around the world to communicate the introduction of a new ticketing system, an employee in the United Kingdom challenged him why they have tickets at all? If they are managing their customers technology to the levels they aspire to, shouldn’t this mean zero tickets? This evolved into a company-wide objective to have zero tickets, which went on to break down functional barriers as the staff started working collectively towards this higher purpose.

Let The Machine Work For You

There are various technologies a CIO can deploy to further improve the performance of an engaged and empowered workforce. Ted Schadler and Josh Bernoff described four of these technologies in their book ‘Empowered’, which you can deploy today: smart mobile devices, pervasive video, cloud computing services and social technology. These technologies won’t help the customer experience by themselves. Their successful use requires a change in perspective from management. Because the employee experience is where the customer experience begins, management must first focus on ensuring the employees have a positive experience. Bruce Tempkin of the Tempkin Group ( has developed the ‘Employee Experience Virtuous Cycle’ which clearly shows the self perpetuating nature of investing in the employee experience. The challenge for the CIO is to develop his or her own strategy to create a consistent and appropriate employee experience for the staff.

CIO 4 temkin

It’s Time To Tune-up Your Team

Any business in any industry can improve its customer experience by improving its employee experience. This is also possible for internal support services like those a CIO is often responsible for. If you are aspiring to this level, then the journey needs to start with engaged and empowered employees.   Technology alone won’t create a team like Schiphol Travel’s Account Managers. As Daan has proven, this level of customer service doesn’t actually need advanced technology or large investments in additional staff or marketing programmes. The next time you are confronted with a complaint escalation from one of your customers, maybe it’s time to take a hard look at the employee experience you are providing instead of pointing your finger at the employee.

The next CIO Survival Guide will explore how the CIO can improve your company’s performance in creating meaningful Customer Experiences.

Chris Parker ([email protected]) is a customer experience expert and helps business leaders around the world improve customer experiences by embracing emerging technologies.


The CIO’s Employee Experience Survival Action List:

  1. Educate yourself and your team on the importance of the employee experience
  2. Assess how your current operating model is contributing to this experience
  3. Enhance the level of empowerment your staff have to serve your customers
  4. Test if this improves the level of engagement of your staff
  5. Hire or partner with a employee engagement specialist
  6. Make friends with the HRM, because you will need them to change some rules

Resources on Employee Experience

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge (1990)

Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, Transform Your Business by

Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler (2010)

Employees First, Customers Second by Vineet Nayar (2010)

Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology by Paul Glen (2003)

The Service Profit Chain by James L. Heskett (1997)

Call Center Experiences Leave Consumers On Hold For Something Better – Forrester Report by Kerry Bodine (2011)

How the Janitor Saved Our Company (

Return on Behaviour Magazine (

Building a Learning Organisation Course (

Branding from the Inside Out Master Class (