Martin Summerhayes (martinsummerhay) wrote,
Martin Summerhayes

Customer Service - What is Appreciative Inquiry? Solving problems by looking at what is going right

“Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”
― Voltaire

In a previous article [] I talked about why you would even bother with putting Customer Service at the heart of your business. One of the ways I countered this argument was to use the latest research on what customer experience was and the evolutionary changes occurring across industries and it positive impact on the bottom line of companies that embraced the idea of delivering great customer service.

I looked at a number of research organisations - Gartner and Forrester; to see what their take was on customer service, customer experience and how you differentiate your services from others. Gartner is a global research and advisory organisation, specialising in the IT sector. It does not really have a focus on customer experience and customer service. Forrester on the other hand does. I will come back to Forrester and some of the work they have done in a future article.

I also wanted to find out what the latest research was in the academic field, so talked over the challenge with a member of the customer service team that was working with a professor from Reading University on an MBA in Business Administration. His dissertation was on Appreciative Inquiry.

“What on earth was this?” I asked him. “well, it’s a way to engage your people in a different way and get them to express positive possibilities.” was his answer.

Sorry, but, if like me, you have just read that and gone “what the xxxx…????” I can completely concur. I had no idea what he was talking about.

However, I remember clearly, he & I sitting out in the sunshine at lunchtime at the Pinewood campus, near Bracknell and going through the theory and also the practical implications for our organisation. It was like a light bulb had gone off in my head. And it is a light bulb that has stayed lit since.

So what is Appreciative Inquiry [AI]; why would you use such a method in the services business and what benefits does it give to you as a change agent?

Lets start with the following premise - whatever service industry you are in, be it catering, food, retail, manufacturing, or even IT, we are all faced on a daily basis with negative emotions and feedback.

“your service sucks!...”, “The food was late / cold / inedible…..”, “The room was cold / hot / dirty….”, “The product did not do x…..”, “The x is broken…”. We have all heard, seen and been on the receiving end of these comments. We even create these emotions as consumers ourselves.

As a result, for most service industries, when faced with a poor customer experience or service, people reflect and refer to the negative side, as if they are trying to fix something that is fundamentally broken.

But it is not. your service is not broken, otherwise, you would have no customers and the organisation would not exist. Rather, you might have poor working practices; processes that do not support the customer's experience; procedures that people have to follow that put your companies complexity on the customer or have just forgotten what great service is.

What is Appreciative Inquiry?
Anyway, back to Appreciative Inquiry. What is it? AI a method of problem solving that was pioneered by David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University in the mid 1980s. They wrote a book on the subject if yu would like to delve deeper, A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry by David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney.

To understand the basis of Appreciative Inquiry it is useful to look at the meaning of the two words in context.

Appreciation means to recognize and value the contributions or attributes of things and people around us.

Inquiry means to explore and discover, in the spirit of seeking to better understand, and being open to new possibilities.

When combined, this means that by appreciating what is good and valuable in the present situation, we can discover and learn about ways to effect positive change for the future.
In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking positive questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential.

How to apply Appreciative Inquiry?
To apply Appreciative Inquiry to a problem solving situation, it's important to focus on positives. A positive energy approach helps you build on your strengths, just as conventional problem-solving can help you manage or eliminate your weaknesses. The AI approach is described in the 5 steps below.

Step 1. "Define" the Problem: Before you can analyze a situation, you need to define what it is you are looking at.

Step 2. "Discovery" Phase: Here you need to look for the best of what has happened in the past, and what is currently working well. Involve as many people as sensibly possible, and design your questions to get people talking and telling stories about what they find is most valuable (or appreciated), and what works particularly well.

Step 3. "Dream" Phase: In this phase, you and your team dream of "what might be". Think about how you can take the positives you identified in the Discovery phase, and reinforce them to build real strengths.

Step 4. "Design" Phase: Building on the Dream phase, this phase looks at the practicalities needed to support the vision. Here you start to drill down the types of systems, processes, and strategies that will enable the dream to be realized.

Step 5. "Deliver" Phase: The last of the Ds is the deliver phase and it requires a great deal of planning and preparation. The key to successful delivery is ensuring that the Dream (vision) is the focal point. While the various parts of the team will typically have their own processes to complete, the overall result is a raft of changes that occur simultaneously throughout the organization, that all serve to support and sustain the dream.

Did we use it and did it work?
Yes we did. We got together as a leadership team; was shown through the process and we then designed our set of questions and structured interview sheets. We went out to the various parts of our organisation and did interviews with frontline staff, support staff and back office people. Not just senior leaders, but managers and the people at the “sharp end”.
We took the consolidated output and used these stories, metaphors and glimpses of great customer service in the way we interacted across our organisation. We published the stories, got people to talk about them in team meetings and events. It helped change the service approach from one of negative, blame games; to one of positive, what we can achieve together.

For much more detail, research, books, videos etc on AI, please go to:

I leave you with the following quote……...

“Forget yesterday - it has already forgotten you. Don't sweat tomorrow - you haven't even met. Instead, open your eyes and your heart to a truly precious gift - today.”
― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free

Tags: appreciative inquiry, customer service, work

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