The initial foundation of the whole "lean" movement was popularized in the 1980's with a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota. The joint venture was a way for both companies to use a former GM plant located in Fremont, California, to manufacture vehicles. The resulting relationship allowed Toyota to gain their first U.S. factory while GM spent time learning Toyota's efficient manufacturing process. The efficiency that GM gained is really the crux of the entire "lean" movement, regardless of how it's implemented in manufacturing, how it's been co-opted by the software industry, or even how it has become a foundation of leadership training.

As far as customer service goes, the efficiency inherent in lean practices is found by following three core concepts:

  1. Identifying and creating value for end users
  2. Eliminating waste in the customer service process
  3. Continually improving outreach and delivery of that service

Focusing on these three main goals leads to a lean operation and ultimately an increase in the level of customer service a company provides. In this short series of posts, I'll touch upon each concept, how it applies to the customer service ideal and what your helpdesk and customer service software can do to start you on the road to a lean operation. We'll start with the first concept:

Identify and Create Value

Creating value means actually participating in the support and customer service process. That means answering questions completely, extending professionalism and empathy, treating customers and end users as human beings and, of course, creating helpful content for people to consume. Some other things to consider:

Communicate with users on the user's own terms

Give users the ability to contact you however they want. That means providing multi-channel support options like being available via phone call, live chat, having email ticketing support options or simply empowering customers and end users to find their own answers to questions using self-service resources like a knowledge base. Having these various support options does a number of things for your company: It puts the customer at ease as they're using a communication method they're comfortable with, and if the customer is initially at ease, then that carries over into how their question or request is delivered to your front-line employees. Secondly, it can help build brand loyalty. Studies have shown that allowing customers to chose their own method of communication not only eases their interaction with a company but it also keeps customers loyal (The link downloads a paper written in 2006: "The Effects of CRM Practices And Multiple Channels on Customer Behavioral And Attitudinal Loyalty in Financial Services" - just some light reading). Lastly, the combination of the customer being at ease and using their preferred communication method means that their comfort level carries over to your agents and leads to an increase in overall customer satisfaction.

Consistency in communication methods

Consistency is key when dealing with customers and that consistency extends beyond your overall support message (i.e., how agents address concerns, refer to products, etc.) and the customer interaction from agent-to-agent. It's just as important to give customers a consistent set of tools and consistent methods of communicating with you as it is to ensure that all of your front-line agents handle customers in a consistent manner. Whether it's contact via telephone, email, web-based ticketing systems, live chat or even self-service methods, making all of your communication methods available from one location (or even from within one application) is key to keeping customers comfortable. If customers have to use a variety of different solutions to communicate with your agents (say you use Zendesk for your knowledge base but LivePerson for live chat), they can become confused or frustrated, thereby beginning their interaction with your agents on the wrong foot. The reason for the frustration? Well, it's difficult to keep the look and feel of these different applications consistent with what your customers are used to. While many products offer some form of customization so that you can make their solutions look like your website, you're only going to be as good as the customization tools you're provided. However, if your knowledge base, live chat, email ticket submission and support portal are available from a single entry point, it's easier to offer customers a consistent interaction with your support channels.

That consistency is just as important for your agents as well. If you have to cull together a variety of different solutions, agents can become flustered and have a hard time adapting to how the different systems are used, how they're integrated into the customer life cycle and how each is managed and monitored. Offering a single solution with multichannel support options, not to mention a single point of management and measurement, puts both customers and agents at ease and can lead to a much more satisfying customer service experience.

Mobility for customers and agents

Mobile support is key, especially in this day and age. Part of lean customer service means keeping costs to a minimum and that task can lead to things like agents using their own devices when providing support (i.e., the "consumerization of IT") or even having "out of office" days where agents and management work from home to help keep utility costs low. Having systems in place to accept mobile communications, like emails sent from a tablet or even allowing for mobile chat, are key.


All of these concepts--from offering consistent, identifiable interactions across multiple channels to offering mobility for both agents and end users alike--creates value for customers. Being able to identify these benefits and act upon them is crucial for a lean helpdesk and customer service experience.

In part 2 of this short series, I'll look at the second core concept of lean customer service: Eliminating waste. Thanks for reading and feel free to comment.