Benchmark the process

11 August 2021

Top performing sportspeople often talk about the importance of focusing on the process, not the outcome.

It's partly about psychology — making sure that you stay focused on performing your discipline at a high level, without being distracted by the prize. I'm always impressed, for instance, by the ability of kickers in rugby to break off from in the intensity of a game to calmly take a penalty with all the pressure of thousands of fans' expectations on their shoulders.

Just as importantly, it's a reminder that relentless focus on turning up and doing the right things is how you achieve success. You can't dream your way to an Olympic gold, however talented you are, without putting the work in. That can be a trap in itself, because the quantity of work you put in is probably less important than the quality. It always seemed to me that people missed the point of the "10,000 hours rule" in Gladwell's Outliers — you don't become world class by mindlessly putting in the hours, you become world class through deliberate practice, i.e. learning and improving by working on specific things as a result of feedback.

Customer experience is exactly the same.

Too many organisations become focused on the outcome (the score) rather than the process, and their attempts to improve focus on quantity of effort rather than quality.

One of the places this is most obvious is in benchmarking. I have an instinct that benchmarking scores is less popular than it used to be, and if that's true I guess that means that more and more people have decided that it's not resulting in anything useful for the organisation.

Getting your score to the right place in a league table is little more than a vanity exercise, but I think it's a shame to write benchmarking off altogether. Used well, benchmarking can give you three important things:

1. Broad context

One thing that league tables (whether our own league tables of Satisfaction Index and NPS scores or public benchmarks such as UKCSI and ACSI) give you is the ability to interpret what your score means. Without them it would be very difficult to know whether a Satisfaction Index of 83 is good, bad, or indifferent.

Imagine you run a mile on your own, how do you know whether you're fast or slow? Well, by comparing to standard benchmarks you know that under 4 minutes is elite, under 5 minutes is very good, etc. The benchmark gives context to interpret your performance.

2. Market standing

You may not be that interested in some abstract idea of performance - perhaps you just want to make sure you beat the other parents at the school sports day? If winning is more important than performing well, then this is more like doing a market standing survey.

You'll have to work harder to get an accurate view, but a market standing survey gives you a real picture of where you sit in the eyes of customers throughout your market. This is incredibly valuable information from a strategic point of view.

3. Process

From a market standing survey you may find that you have some areas of weakness compared to competitors, but how do you address them? You can come up with ideas on your own, but often it's a better idea to look for organisations who have solved the same, or similar, problems before.

Those top-performing competitors are an obvious place to start — what is it that they're doing that puts them ahead of you in customers' eyes? There are two problems with this: firstly, they're likely to be reluctant to tell you how they do it; and secondly, benchmarking within your sector leads inevitably to a lack of differentiation.

Far more effective is to look for process benchmarks outside your sector. Who has solved this problem more effectively than anyone else? By looking outside of your sector for inspiration (and you may have to be a bit creative in your search for analogous problems and solutions) you can leapfrog everyone else in the market, even though you’re using a tried-and-tested approach.

Like the athletes topping the podium at the Olympics, the organisations who outperform their competitors aren't just working harder, they're the ones who understand how to focus on the right things.