Root cause

The true root cause of a customer’s experience often lies deep within your organization and operations, the result of its underlying policies, processes, people, culture or even of the expectations you set. Uncovering these deep underlying causes can be a journey of discovery.

The journey starts, ideally, with a manager reaching out to the customer to gather more information about what the customer experienced (and, if possible, to solve that individual’s problem immediately). At Charles Schwab, branch managers call back individual detractors, usually within 24 hours, to learn more about their problem. Companies that do high-quality root cause analysis discover quickly that it takes at least three or four follow-up questions to determine the real problem that needs attention.

The next question isn’t for the customer, but for the organization itself: “What do we know about this customer, the situation, our marketing, our products and our operations that produced this result?” This is not a question that can be handed to a market research firm. Figuring out the root cause of a customer’s concerns typically requires digging into information about both the customer and the transaction—knowledge no outside telephone interviewer can have.

A car rental company, for example, might need to know if a detractor’s experience happened in a temporarily understaffed branch, or whether the customer was a first-time renter or repeat customer. When software maker Intuit first launched its Net Promoter effort, the results from its telephone survey vendor were woefully inadequate. Promoters frequently praised the simplicity of a product, while detractors of that same product griped about its complexity. The company obviously needed to drill deeper—and it built business teams to do so for each product.

Finding the true root cause is an iterative effort. Net Promoter System companies often find it useful to think in terms of the “Five Whys” Total Quality Management approach, repeating “why” for each answer until they arrive at the root cause, the point at which an internal change would prevent the situation from happening again.

Of course, once a root cause is identified, organizations must also weigh the relative impact of addressing it. Some have greater impact on performance than others, while some require substantial investment, so it’s important to develop the ability to construct cost-benefit analyses. After Charles Schwab launched a Net Promoter program, it reduced prices aggressively, invested in its branches, overhauled its website and embarked on a two-and-a-half-year plan that wiped out the nuisance and penalty fees that were creating detractors.

Those steps, driven by Schwab’s understanding of the root cause of its customer’s experiences, represented huge changes and massive investments. Today, Schwab executives view the company’s client service as a competitive advantage. They continue to invest heavily in call centers and IT systems that alert branch managers to detractors—and they continue to probe for the root cause.

Customers can’t always tell you what it really was about your company that upset or delighted them. In this short video, Rob Markey explains how to get the full story.