The unveiling of this week’s Francis Report into the conduct of the Mid Staffordshire Foundation NHS Trust towards its patients is a shocking indictment of customer service at its worst, albeit in the form of patient care.
Speaking at the publication of the report, Robert Francis QC said people had entered Stafford Hospital with the expectation of being well cared for and treated. Instead, many suffered horrific experiences that will haunt them and their loved ones for the rest of their lives.
Hopefully, none of us will ever be on the receiving end of this type of customer service – we work with a number of NHS hospital Trusts and know Stafford is not the rule – but it is something that we in business can take lessons from, to ensure our customers feel valued.
At a recent talk I gave on customer service as part of the University of Bradford Business School’s European Regional Development Fund programme, feedback from my audience was reflective.
The session was open to high growth companies within Calderdale and despite an evening of wild weather, the turnout was strong and the seminar centre completely full.
1. Good Customer Service a Must
Customer service is obviously a theme of great interest for managers and business owners. Indeed, for SME managers and business owners, it could be said that customer service is essential – good customer service that is!
The problem with delivering such a seminar is that I don’t really want to teach any of the audience anything because giving good customer service should be something we all do every day. However, the reality is that this isn’t the case and whilst we moan about customer service provided by our personal suppliers, we frequently forget to apply the remedies for our frustrations in our own business! This has to be one of the reasons behind the demise of Comet – customers need businesses to go that extra mile.
So why does customer service take such a backseat? Well, the short answer is because business managers are so busy they often fail to grasp the fundamentals of why they are in business in the first place, something we pay particular attention to in our courses and makes us one of the best universities for business management in the UK.
So what did I talk about and was it earth shattering? Well it certainly wasn’t the latter but judging by the feedback to some of the points I made, I had obviously given my audience something to think about, improvements that were important enough to apply back into the work place.
2. The Importance of the Customer
I started with trying to get some consensus as to what is a customer and what is service, hence customer service. There were all sorts of views but the consensus was that the customer is someone who buys from us and service is something that either encourages or discourages retention and recommendation. Therefore, customer service could be another way of recruiting customers and developing relationships – a topic that is developed further in MBA courses in the UK.
Next, I talked about the fact that customer service needs some key foundations. Let’s start with the 24/7 call centre. There are good examples of these such as First Direct but others which do not deliver what they promise. How many times have the insomniacs amongst you tried to call at 2am with the hope that you’ll get through straightaway? Do you find that the wait is probably longer than if you telephoned during peak hours in the morning? Why? The answer is simple. Although, companies promote their 24/7 call centres, the reality is they reduce staff numbers so that there is hardly anybody left to take the calls. By 3am you might get through to an extremely personable and helpful call centre operative, but by that time the real essence of customer service has actually been lost.
Think about that city centre hotel you are trying to find. You’ve got directions and you are driving around a one way system in an unfamiliar city. But the directions are not current and your Sat Nav is suggesting alternative routings. You get lost, frustrated, annoyed and by the time you get to the hotel, no matter how good the reception service is, the experience has been lost.
And back to our hospitals. Visit almost any major NHS hospital in England and what do you see on your way into hospital when already you might be a little nervous? A line of smokers in pyjamas creating that grey and very unhealthy haze as you navigate your way to reception. The moment has been lost. This is very different to some hospitals in Wales. However, all of these examples demonstrate that foundations need to be in place before your personal customer service has any chance of kicking in and succeeding – a key factor incorporated into our business management programmes.
3. Developing Customer Relationships
I next spoke about how service levels need to reflect the nature of the customer relationship. To begin with the relationship is all about delivering polite, helpful and knowledgeable service but as we progress through the different stages of the customer relationship, then our service needs to reflect this by recognising the relationship we have with our customers, by remembering what they have purchased in the past and where possible addressing them by name. In 2011, People1st, the sector skills council for hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism published a report revealing that 65% of businesses stated that their employees lacked necessary customer service skills.
An example of the type of customer service we should all be offering is that which I have experienced in the Netherlands. I’ve stayed in the same hotel for the last ten years and when I arrive they ask for my signature and nothing else. The key card is waiting for me in a separate box, the room is one they know I like and the check-in transaction takes about 25 seconds. It’s always proceeded by a welcome back, my name is always recognised and I feel that I am a valued customer. None of this takes a particular amount of time, but all of it adds to my feeling of well-being as a customer. And if we think about what customers’ value, well its politeness, friendliness and action – all based on an understanding of needs.
4. Core Factors in Delivering Great Customer Service
I also spoke about three other key themes.
The first is that you shouldn’t over deliver because it can work against you. But surely, you ask, over delivery is what you need because it equates with exceeding customers’ expectations? Well, let’s go back to that call centre. Yes, hanging on for an hour at 2am is most definitely under delivery. But answering the telephone after just one second is over delivery. Think about telephoning a call centre. You are not prepared for them to answer within one second. You are more prepared in three or four seconds. That’s a good time to answer. Any earlier, well, you’re almost taken by surprise and what do you think about that company? They’ve obviously not got enough to do, they’re not busy, they’re waiting to pick that telephone up (even though we know that no-one in a call centre ever picks up an actual telephone!)
Secondly, to deliver great customer service has to be something you feel as well as being part of a defined process. Remember a few years ago the companies selling “fantastic” CRM systems? Wow, we all wanted some of them until we learnt that they were software packages without the all-important human element. So we knew everything about everybody except how to interact with them. To give great customer service you need to want to give great customer service. It comes from within. And how do we achieve this? By recruiting the right people, by giving the right training and by providing the right working conditions, key elements focussed on by us and making us one of the top management schools. If you try and coerce people into delivering great service by threat, it simply won’t work in the long term because the customer can see right through it.
And finally, if you forget one and two, think about how you would like to be treated. If the way you organise your customer service team goes against how you would like to be treated as a customer yourself, then think again, change your processes or maybe get another job!
Sam Walton, the owner and CEO of Walmart said: “There is only one boss and whether a person shines shoes or heads up the biggest company in the world, the boss remains the same. It’s the customer.”
This is something we all need to remember. But how can we ensure we achieve good customer service, time after time? Can a uniform strategy be put in place for all industries? And how do we get our businesses to remember that the customer is indeed the boss and one of our priorities is to service them?