Customer Service: how to make them king

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Special Report Customer Service How business can improve

Customer service has come a long way in the UK and it matters more than ever when times are tough and social media is on the rise. Here, a group of experts and entrepreneurs reveal how businesses can improve their approach

“If you do 20 things well and one thing badly the customer will remember the bad”

Alistair Stewart, managing director, etc.venues
Sector: Events
Tip: Plan ahead and be ready

Staff at some companies seem scared of relaxing and being themselves long enough to actually give good customer service—hamstrung by pressure, company policies or working methods. The general manager in each venue sets our example. The message is be yourself, be natural and be memorable.

We arm our staff with things to help give good service—CRM (customer relationship management) tools, so that conversations can be made relevant and interesting to the client.

Many companies fall down on customer service by being good only at reacting when something goes wrong. Customer service in this industry involves planning ahead and being ready. Staff must be aware that if they do 20 things well and one thing badly, the customer will remember it as a bad event. Our philosophy is to be as welcoming as possible, in contrast to many hotels whose reception staff seem more intent on keeping people out.

“The need for small business to react quickly and decisively is important”

Andrew Dunn, founder, Scott Dunn
Sector: Travel
Tip: Put in place systems to help you react quickly

Small businesses can benefit from the systems and structures of big players whereas big players can learn from small businesses that the need to react quickly and decisively is incredibly important.

The travel industry suffered from the ash cloud in April. We rallied our crisis team, which took instantaneous decisions to hire coaches in the UK and book ferry crossings prior to knowing how long the ash cloud may last. In the event, this decision proved invaluable as we managed to get all our Alpine guests home the day after their scheduled return. Our staff rebooked our long-haul guests on to alternative flights throughout the night. The result is that many guests have already rebooked their holidays for next year.

“Good service starts with leadership and the ability to communicate a vision”

Derek Williams, founder and chief executive, the WOW! Awards
Sector: Customer service awards
Tip: Listen to customers and look for long-term growth

Some organisations need to give better service. Their customers, employees and profits are telling them so. Then there are those organisations that recognise the importance of listening to customers, creating a culture with high levels of employee engagement, and building their bottom line and goodwill. Often these organisations don’t need big budgets for advertising, recruitment or training. I’ve never seen an advertisement for Pret A Manger yet its service is outstanding and the business has grown rapidly.

It starts with leadership, a vision, the ability to communicate that vision and the strength to look for long-term growth rather than short-term profits. You can feel the leadership running through the organisation like the word Blackpool in a stick of rock. I feel the influence of Julian Richer at Richer Sounds, John and James Timpson at Timpson shoe bars, [Sir] Richard Branson at Virgin Atlantic and Charles Dunstone at The Carphone Warehouse.

“Companies with effective technology make more informed decisions about service”

Dr Fiona Ellis-Chadwick, senior lecturer in retail management, The Open University Business School
Sector: Academic
Tip: Use technology to improve service

New technology plays an important role in the development of successful customer relationships by providing the means to gather and analyse customer data and discover everything about a customer’s likes, dislikes and future needs.

Companies with effective technology resources and appropriate management capabilities are making more informed decisions about all aspects of service encounters, from new product development and choice of marketing communications tools to target marketing strategies.

Web-based technologies are raising customer expectations in terms of communication response times, customer benefits and price flexibility. Online, there is a power shift in service relationships, giving the customer a new level of control. More specifically, social media platforms create communication opportunities, with few controls over the messages being exchanged, allowing immediate engagement in a two-way dialogue that can result in positive or negative outcome for a company. Get the service encounter wrong and the whole population could quickly be informed.

“A fundamental power shift is taking place in favour of the customer”

Jo Causon, chief executive, Institute of Customer Service
Sector: Professional body
Tip: Think of customers as collaborative partners

Customer service matters more than ever. We see an increasing focus on its importance as more organisations view it as the only sustainable competitive advantage in a fast-changing marketplace. The challenges for organisations are that customers have higher expectations than two years ago, let alone a decade ago. We are also more likely to complain—up to 75 per cent of people in 2010 from 50 per cent in 2001.

Ninety per cent of people will tell others [using social media] about their bad experiences with an organisation, a 10 per cent rise from the start of the millennium. One fifth of consumers are willing to tell 10 or more people.

A fundamental power shift is taking place in favour of the customer. Organisations must focus on their customers, their expectations and their needs, and develop a much more partnership-orientated approach. If they don’t, others will.

“Treat your employees the same way you treat your customers”

Joanne Mathews, co-founder and managing director, TenPilates
Sector: Health and fitness
Tip: Chase the quality, not the money

Everyone in our business needs to demonstrate that they genuinely care. For us, it’s about standing in our customer’s shoes—addressing customers by name, listening and encouraging them to progress in their training, congratulating them on improvement and being empathetic. My tips for making sure the customer is happy? Chase the quality, not the money; where there is a problem, solve it quickly and fairly; treat your staff in the same way you treat customers; recruit the right people; doing the basics is a given, to surprise and delight makes the difference.

At a time when there is more pressure on customers’ disposable income, some of the big companies in our sector might rethink their strategy of operating as a commodity product in what’s essentially a feelgood sector. Some have more people on their sales team than on the gym floor.

“Create an environment for regular, open and honest communication”

Mike Trup, managing director, Interactive Ideas
Sector: Technology
Tip: Have multiple points of contact with your customer

Every transaction should be as easy and frictionless as possible—the customer’s needs and not the company’s organisational needs come first. In B2B sectors, this requires having a good understanding of your customer’s business and the ways in which it creates value for customers and realising that facilitating this is a key part of the value you create as a supplier.

Creating an environment and channels for regular, open and honest communication is not easy. Make sure you have multiple points of contact with your customer. A regular, single core point of contact can also be a bottleneck to communication.

Larger businesses tend to have more defined processes for experimenting with service improvements and also for measuring and reviewing quality. Small companies often lack the data and the resource for doing this. But by studying what large firms do it may be possible to identify proxy data for some of these quality issues-just a simple monthly review of credit notes looking for patterns will tell you if you have a quality of service problem.

“The whole organisation has to be dedicated to serving the customer “

Julian Richer, founder, Richer Sounds
Sector: Retail
Tip: Recruit and train the right people

It’s no good “discovering” customer service and thinking you can introduce it into your organisation by sending front-line staff on a three-day training course. The whole organisation has to be dedicated to serving the customer.

Good customer service is a combination of product, procedures and people. The product must do what it is supposed to. You can have the best products on the market, but if they are not on the shelf or customers have to queue for half an hour to buy them, you are not giving good service. And you cannot give good service without friendly, helpful, knowledgeable people. I want not just good, but legendary customer service. It is the cheapest and by far the most effective form of advertising; it is a differentiating factor; it makes people come back, and it prompts impulse buying.

Responsibility for customer service lies in the hands of the many employees who come into contact with the customer. The potential for getting it wrong is enormous.

One of the basic principles of my approach is: under-promise, over-deliver. How? Management commitment-living and breathing it. Recruit and train the right people. And motivate them. If you do not treat your staff well, they will not treat customers well. Accountability and measurement are important. What gets measured gets done; if they give bad service, staff must answer for it.

And whatever your office or shop is like it should be welcoming. Richer Sounds shops have a sign up inviting people in to ask for directions or shelter from the rain. We want people inside our shops. Everyone who comes in is a potential customer.

“A customer that feels listened to and take seriously will be happy”

Jason Sharpe, sales and service director, First Direct
Sector: Finance
Tip: Give employees the power to make decisions

Good customer service should be business as usual. We go about this by making sure colleagues feel empowered to do their job by having the necessary freedom—within a framework. Giving autonomy to our colleagues allows us to deliver customers’ needs in a quick and efficient way, which leaves them recommending us time and time again. Listen to your customer and act on what you’ve been told, innovate and make improvements. Communicate to your customers how you’ve acted on their feedback, even if you’ve decided not to go ahead. A customer that feels listened to and taken seriously will be a happy one.

The biggest does not make you the best, it’s quality over quantity. A relationship with a business has to be two-way; a customer must want to belong to your organisation. Equally, a business should be clear on what type of customer they want to attract. This is the basis of any good relationship and the key to success or failure.

When a customer called the First Direct customer service department with no money, having had her purse stolen, a customer representative spoke to his team leader, who agreed to let him finish early. He took a taxi and £10 of his own money to the stranded customer, who was ecstatic and is now a lifelong advocate of First Direct.

“When the customer is king, two-way communication is vital”

Nik Nesbitt, chief executive, KenCall
Sector: Outsourcing
Tip: Use social media to engage with customers

The third sector is lagging behind when it comes to engaging with stakeholders using social media. Our study reveals that one in four charities do not have a social media facility and, of those that do, just over half are using it to engage in open dialogue with stakeholders.

When customer is king, two-way communication with customers is vital in order to understand and effectively meet their needs. This is particularly important for third sector organisations, which need to maintain a constant level of stakeholder engagement to successfully fulfil their missions.

But the sector is not unique. Recent research revealed that the financial services sector fared worst, while telecoms providers offered consumers the most choice.

Offering customers variety and a choice of channels through which to communicate is a key part of giving good service. In this customer-centric digital age, we expect organisations to cater to individual communication needs.

Organisations that ignore social media alienate themselves from a growing customer market segment and forgo significant cost-savings.

“Companies have got away with inadequate online service, but the honeymoon is over”

Andrew Yeoman, managing director, Trimble MRM
Sector: Technology
Tip: Use available technology to meet customer needs

Lose the highest standards of customer service and you will lose the customer, no matter what the product is. Companies have got away with inadequate online customer service while the technology has found its feet. The honeymoon period is over.

The majority of suppliers still offer customers half-day slots for deliveries. But for the average worker, taking half a day off work to get something fixed or delivered is simply not feasible.

Minimising appointment times to within a one- or two-hour timeframe should be the goal for every service/delivery company. It won’t be long before the majority of major suppliers and services will be competing to offer the narrowest delivery slot.

Tracking and scheduling technologies have combined to provide a revolution in the planning of appointments and are available to businesses of all sizes, from small firms to large corporations. They benefit companies because the fewest number of vehicles are used, with the lowest fuel usage and CO2 emissions.

View from America

Linda Ireland, director, consulting firm Aveus
There are five things that forward-thinking organisations do to achieve excellent customer experiences. They define a clear ideal, or target customer experience. Everyone in the organisation understands what should happen and how the customer should feel.

They pay attention to tangible (price, product or service features) and emotional parts of the customer experience. And they engage employees as a team to improve customer experience.

They use target customer experience as a guide for daily decision-making. They believe stronger customer experiences drive more robust financial performance, and don’t see improvements in customer experience as a trade-off to profitability.

Achieving an excellent customer experience requires a holistic look at brand, service, product, technology and talent decisions. New ideas are evaluated by comparing possibilities to the ideal. As an example, I hear many leaders ask if social media can strengthen a customer experience.

My answer? Yes, it can, if it is used to: attract the right target customers and cause those who aren’t a good fit to go another way; demonstrate, rather than tell, that a company is the best choice; affirm a customer’s choice to buy; connect customers in conversations about what happens and how they feel as they use a product or service; and listen to and capture emerging customer needs.

I put my employees first

Vineet Nayar, author, Employees First, Customers Second, Harvard Business Press

Determine where your value zone is—that place in your company where employees interact directly with customers to create real value for them. Identify who works in your value zone. I bet that the people who are there are not the top executives, senior managers, or finance and HR directors. They will be front-line employees. Make senior managers accountable to value-creating employees. Empower employees to ask questions of, seek solutions from, and share information with managers.

Distinguish the span of control from the zone of influence. In formal hierarchies, employees are expected to evaluate their bosses through a 360-degree review process, but can rarely be candid for fear of jeopardising their own position.

In value-creating companies, employees evaluate how managers anywhere in the organisation influence their work. Put employees first and customers second. This is what we say at my company, HCL Technologies. It is provocative, but true. We tell customers that our employees come first, and they say: “Great.”

Rethink the role of the chief executive. If you want to achieve a new standard of customer service, don’t let him or her figure out what it is or how to achieve it. Ask employees in the value zone.

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Director is the magazine for business leaders. Free to IoD members and available to purchase through subscription, each edition is full of insightful interviews with entrepreneurs and company directors.

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