Filtering Demand to Optimize Processes

There are many approaches we might take to optimizing a process. Often, we will focus inside the process itself, working with our stakeholders to understand flows between departments.

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We’ll look for bottlenecks, handovers, pinch-points and any area where we can improve the effectiveness or efficiency of the process. This is an undoubtedly valuable approach, however, it is easy to overlook the types of demand that the process needs to respond to. It can be extremely helpful to study and consider demand, whilst also considering the other optimization factors mentioned.

There are many ways of defining ‘demand’, and for the purposes of this blog, I am using the term in a fairly general way. At its essence, we can consider demand to be things that ‘pull’ on the process for some kind of response. This could be different types of customer request, incoming cases, post, e-mail and many more things beside.

Different types of demand tend to manifest themselves as different types of business event—and these business events tend to trigger or change the flow of the process. Imagine the kitchen staff at a popular Chinese restaurant respond to four main types of demand:

  • Customer orders (via waiter)
  • Customer orders (via receptionist who answers phone and records ‘take out’ order)
  • Customer orders (via web for delivery via third-party fast food delivery firm)
  • Order canceled/changed

The way that the work is undertaken will vary depending on who has ordered, whether the food is being served in the restaurant, whether it’s being held for the customer to collect, or whether it is being boxed up for delivery. The process might be 80% the same, but this variation—that is driven by the nature of demand and by what outcome the customer desires—is crucial for us to understand.  If we had not understood the different types of demand that the process was needing to deal with it would have been easy to suggest ‘standardization’—perhaps serving all food in a take-away container, which would likely have upset our dine-in customers! Of course, in a Chinese restaurant this would seem like an obvious mistake, and one we’re unlikely to make. Move this to a contact center environment with tens of processes and hundreds of employees, and it’s very easy to inadvertently over-simplify.

Thinking the Unthinkable: Do we Just Say ‘No?’

Discussion of demand is healthy for another reason too. It encourages us to have open conversations with our stakeholders over the types of services that we actually want to offer. Most private-sector companies will have specific customer types that they aim for, a particular sub-set of which is most profitable.  Analyzing the types of demand that are actually being met by processes might uncover that scope has been ‘creeping’, and there are some customers being served whose needs would be best met elsewhere.

This might sound harsh: surely its bad customer service to turn away a customer? In reality, taking on a customer whose needs we can’t easily meet will likely upset the customer (they are left waiting, or navigating processes that don’t quite work) and frustrate our staff (who are doing the best they can to help, but don’t have the right tools to do so). A far better response might be to simply say ‘no’ to the customer but have a recommended partner firm to refer them to. If you’ve ever stayed at a budget hotel without a restaurant, you’ve probably found that they will give recommendations of the nearest and best restaurant. This is probably a better outcome than the receptionist trying to knock together a meal with a microwave and kettle!

Using ‘triage’ and knowing volumes

Understanding demand also allows us to design ‘triage’ steps into our processes. Some customer requests might be more complicated than others, it is worth doing the complicated work only for those cases. An initial up-front check will allow us to ‘fast track’ the simple work and route complicated work through a different pathway.  This can lead to discussions over volumes—understanding how many cases get processed—and optimizing for particular peaks and troughs that occur.

Understanding the types of demands that are placed on processes will help us to design them to be efficient and effective. As well as looking at how the process works, we should also focus on what triggers it, and the types of outcomes that our customers are aiming for.

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