Walk down any high street in the UK, and you will generally see the same shops - large retailers - who are competing for your custom. Restaurants, fast food outlets, shoe sellers, clothing retailers, book sellers [less and less as time has gone on] and finally supermarkets. When was the last time you reflected on the service you encountered, the feelings that were elicited and the reaction of the staff when having given a great service, you reacted in a different way? The experiences we encounter today are homogeneous and bland. Come on face it, for the past twenty years, we have been driving the uniqueness and creativity out of the way we deliver service to customers.
In any industry, there is a tendency to become insular and only reflect on the competitors within your own segment. Sometimes, organisations look outside, but it is not common to look across a broad spectrum of industries and see where people are doing things differently, that you can leverage back in your own space.
So how do you think, reflect and act as a business - big or small - to understand what customer service is.
Our business had been exceptionally profitable and we had delivered what was considered at the time to be the best service in the industry. However, after a number of years where we were voted number one in independent customer satisfaction surveys, suddenly our business was no longer number one. In addition, we had started to see a decline in customers renewing their business with us and this was worrying.
I recall, running a meeting for the senior leadership team for the services business. They asked the questions, “What is customer service and do we need to do anything differently? Why bother to put customer service at the heart of our business?”. We could not in all honesty answer the questions. I came away from the meeting with a series of actions to find out.
I had a long discussion with the senior director, Bill and we agreed that the only way to really get under the questions was to put a programme together to try to address those questions. I came up with the following ideas:
Outside In Appreciation
We would not look at IT competitors to see how they serviced their customers. Rather, we would look at the high street. At the interactions that occurred every day. After all, it is every day actions that build up the service experience, not something that only happens once. This meant, actually taking the leadership team out of the office, giving them questionnaires and structured notebooks with prompted observation points; and then getting them to visit shops, restaurants, cafes’, boutiques, stall holders in the local markets, and as many different types of retailers as possible. The objective - to record all the customer experiences they encountered - positive and negative, to ask where possible why the service was as it was, and to enable a collation exercise of the best practices.
Research & Best Practice
We used the latest research on what customer experience was and the evolutionary changes occurring across industries. This involved me, contacting a number of research organisations - Downton Consulting, Forrester and Gartner; to the group, the latest and greatest insight, not only from the UK, but from across the globe. I worked with a professor from Reading University to help bring to the group a different way of looking at issues - called Appreciative Inquiry. I will publish a separate article on this and the techniques we employed.
What did this all mean? What did we do? What were the results?
We ran a three month programme with the leadership team, sponsored by Bill; getting them out in the high street and local towns. We ran a research and development session - getting in the research companies and the professor to present; we gave each of the leadership team work buddies, to take them through the current service provisions. We ran Appreciative Inquiry sessions and captured the key learning. We took all of this and spent 3 days on a retreat as a wrap up and conclusion workshop at the end of the three months. We came out of that wrap up session with a set of plans, actions and a clear agenda for change which we all committed to delivering.
Every single one of the leadership team involved, said how much the experience had affected them. How, rather than just accepting and normalising the high street experiences, they had stepped outside of themselves to observe exactly how the interactions went and the feelings that they had had. And, how they could relate to these in the way we treated our customers.
They realised, that the service model we had in in the organisation was fundamentally flawed and needed completely revamping if it was to remain relevant and also develop and change and adapt to the market and the way customers and people interacted.
Appreciative Inquiry dramatically changed how we, as individuals interacted with our staff and team members. The outcomes from this were awe inspiring.
Live the desired experiences
We, as the leadership team would live the experiences we wanted and also call out those we did not want. We would walk in the shoes of the people in our organisation that worked for our customers every day - demonstrating the desired experiences.
In the end, I went back to the leadership team and re-phrased the questions that they had asked at the start of the exercise. As a leadership team they were certainly able to answer the questions:
“What is customer service and do we need to do anything differently? Why bother to put customer service at the heart of our business?”.
Our answers were:
“Customer Service is the heart and soul of every interaction we have with our customers. We put serving our customers first, seeking always to delight them. We positively support our staff and colleagues to deliver exceptional service.”
Over the space of eighteen months, we worked hard on this approach and got back our number one position.
The next article will focus on Outside In Customer Feedback.
The goal as a company is to have customer service that is not just the best but legendary. ~ Sam Walton