How do we make sure the customer really is the boss?

By | February 11, 2013
Stafford Hospital

Courtesy of

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 survey

Image courtesy 89studio/

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.

first direct

Courtesy of

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.

Image courtesy Ambro/

Image courtesy Ambro/

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!



Courtesy of

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?

About Julian Rawel

Julian Rawel is Director of Executive Education at the School of Management. He has previously held positions of Groups Sales and Marketing Director, Eurocamp plc and Marketing Director, Royal Armouries Museum. Julian has been a non executive director of travel industry bodies ABTA and AITO. He has a BA in Geography from Leicester University and an MSc in Tourism Management from Manchester Metropolitan University. Julian is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and a Chartered Marketer.

Specialties:  Consumer and business marketing, Branding, General management, Management development

12 thoughts on “How do we make sure the customer really is the boss?

  1. Alessandro

    Hi Julian,

    I’ll approach this as an open discussion, I hope it’s ok.

    My (humble) personal belief is that businesses (SMEs and Multinationals alike) tend to detach the concept of customer service from those of “product/service” and “marketing”, often branding it as an independent department, with independent KPIs, independent drivers, independent goals and showing it to the market as almost an independent product; a practice that i feel no longer reflects nor satisfies the nature, needs and wants of the modern customer and marketplace.

    Years ago, poor or “oversold” customer service would get by without too much of a fuss, and with “controlled” consequences on the brand and company’s operations. Nowadays, a misfire on the customer service side “locally”, especially in B2C companies, can have an impact well beyond their local/national market, in a heartbeat, due to the increasingly important role that new technologies play in the lives of most consumers that can amplify even the smallest dissatisfaction. Disaster is just one phone call / email / letter away. Just as a branding / sales /marketing / product victory. Customer service is slowly taking a stronger role in the product, marketing and sales strategy of any given company, sometimes down to product-specific customer service approaches within the same company, in many cases even merging (if not fully, at least in part) with marketing and sales efforts. From a customer point of view, i think it is now a consolidated part of the product/service experience, and an added value / key value within the product-service, not separated or complementary from it. This also thanks to an increasingly competitive and international marketplace and consumer landscape.

    I put forward the example of a recently viral “customer service epic win” by LEGO: (it links to a Forbes story from within, but my browser is acting up, sorry). In the digital era, where the entire customer-facing process can actually be executed online, from pre-marketing to branding, to marketing/customer acquisition, from sales & payment to sometimes even supply chain/delivery, and of course customer service, customer retention, loyalty creation and sales/branding/marketing virality, the line between “customer service” and sales/marketing is maybe disappearing. Customer service is now merging into the product itself, into marketing itself, into sales itself.

    I discussed this very same topic a few weeks ago with some professionals & Italian university personnel with whom i often “smash heads” on various topics ( today, we tackled the “Swiss knife approach vs single-knife approach” and the associated dilemmas of “business & resources focus vs risk dilution” ) and i closed that discussion with a wanted provocation, that i would like to share with you as well: for marketing, the Glocal movement says “think globally, act locally”…for customer service it seems to be whispering, in an increasingly louder manner, to think globally and maybe act globally as well (and by globally here i hint at the fact that the concept of “local market” is approaching the status of a lost mirage, as well as the detached, independent, “localized” and marginalized role of customer service within an organization that no longer keeps up with the modern customer and marketplace.

    Oh, How i love the evolution of things 😉

  2. Alessandro

    a straight-to-the-point summary of the above, as i know you are all very busy:

    How do we make sure the customer really is the boss? By merging (really!) customer service into the product, and sales & marketing … because the customer, product, market, and market-fit are all kings. Keeping customer service segregated fights the solution we seek, in addition to being wildly inefficient nowadays.

  3. Liz Cable

    I think your points about circumstances seemingly “beyond your control” is really worth thinking about. It may be beyond your remit, but if its ruining your customer experience, you need to do something about it. (your example of a line of smokers outside a hospital really resonated with me). This is very different from “over-delivering” – which can and does set expectations for subsequent encounters.

  4. Jane

    Absolutely a critical area which so many businesses still seem to struggle with. One area which I think is little understood or acknowledged is the issue of what customer’s value as part of the relationship they have with suppliers. When there is so much competition for the same products and services customers draw value from the relationship, ambience and, as you say, the ‘feeling’ they get from the transaction. I commend to you John Lewis, QVC, Mercedes, Opera North and The Alhambra Theatre, Bradford for understanding customer relationship valuies.

  5. Chrissie

    I think that it has to be said, that the amount of time it does actually take to record those little details (like in the Netherlands hotel) and act on them can be very considerable! It’s only when you have good systems in place that it takes no time at all.

    Consistency is another factor. There’s no point in doing great one week and not the next. A customer will expect to have the same experience time and time again – which is a key factor on why they return to that supplier. If their experience is even slightly changed, then the customer may well be lost.

    For example, a customer may visit a dentist not only because of the great work that the dentist does but also because the customer is greeted with a glass of water and a piece of fruit. If the customer is then presented with a cup of tea and a biscuit then this is not a consistent experience and may well be not what the customer wants.

    So, it’s useful to know what experience the customer DOES want, because each one is different and therefore, that’s where the good system comes into place rather than recording things on a spreadsheet and being a very manual process.

  6. Chris Saunders

    One thing that really annoys me is when a company or organisation professes to give sublime customer service on their website but fail to deliver everytime. I’ve had horrendous personal experience recently with dire customer service from Toxic Fox and Select Furnishings. I’ve never experienced such poor customer service in 30+ years working in sales and marketing. Marstons the pub and restaurant chain offer exceptional customer service, the staff are all well trained, greet customers with a smile and deliver a great product at value for money prices. The Running Hare in Deeside is a great example. Tom Peters although over the top at times said that the customer is king – he really is and always should be – bring back Tom Peters we need him or someone like him.

  7. Julian Rawel

    Thanks for all your comments. Alessandro looks at integrating everything – what I’ve taught in session 1 Marketing for years. Liz, Jane, Chrissie and Chris represent the frustration of the consumer in the street.
    You are all correct…so why don’t so many suppliers “get it”?

    Here’s my latest example of over delivery. Have you noticed how many retailers now apologise for “keeping you waiting” when you have not waited at all? I mentioned this on Saturday when being apologised to. “But there was no one in front of me”. The check out operator didn’t know what to say.

  8. Henry Royer

    Greetings! Very useful advice within this post! It’s the little changes which will make the most important changes. Many thanks for sharing!

  9. The 1875 Restaurant

    Dear Julian
    Thank you for the very interesting insight into Customer Service.
    You have made some useful points that lots of businesses don’t seem to grasp or take on board.
    Certainly there is a lot we can implement here.
    A few pointers that may help others from our branding point of view:
    1) we ask for and give our names to the diners when taking the order and call them by name throughout their experience with us.
    2) Our staff our highly trained from the hospitality industry and hence any casuals we employ must have the same background. Hence the diners experience is as good as can be.
    3) When there are delays or other factors effecting the diner – we communicate with them and follow through so they are not left wondering. When people are left wondering they ALWAYS begin to think negative.

    Also there are some customers – though thankfully a small minority indeed that will never be satisfied and will always be difficult. We can handle customers who have had a bad day and wants to be left alone and dine. But recently we have a couple who dined with us for the very first time. At the end of the meal – they mentioned they had a great time and the food was the best they had ever had – they ordered liqueur coffees. I personally made these myself. As you can imagine these coffees are not has hot as an ordinary coffee as cold alcohol and cream(cold) goes in. The couple complained that the coffees are cold. Well what do you say to that!!!!! Diners trying to be posh above their comfort level or knowledge level?

    Thankfully ALL our customers come back EXCEPT those who don’t want genuine bona-fide Indian food cooked and prepared by MasterChefs from India…..

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