Lessons from Marks & Spencer: How to revitalise your service experience

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Jo Moran, Marks & Spencer's head of customer service, tells MyC about how she refreshed its service proposition.

When High Street giant Marks & Spencer announced it was orchestrating a recovery plan in 2004, there were three areas in particular that were targeted for an overhaul – product, shopping environment and the service proposition.
Refreshing a brand’s service experience can be a daunting prospect at the best of times. But for Jo Moran, Marks & Spencer’s head of customer service, staffing and productivity, this meant undertaking change at a business that has over 700 stores across UK and Ireland. Jobs don’t get much bigger than this.
Speaking of the decision to refresh the company’s service proposition, she explains: “The catalyst was that we were being told very clearly by our customers that more could be done to meet greater customer service expectations. Other retailers and sectors had been making significant strides in the area, so customers were comparing us to other organisations they interacted with as well. It wasn’t just traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers but online and other sectors too.”
The comments centred on a number of factors: customers couldn’t find what they wanted; they couldn’t find people who could help them; the shopping environments were criticised as being “a bit dismal and a bit bland”. It all culminated in complaints about service.
In 2004, the process of revitalising the business began. As the first step in the recovery plan, the business focused on defining precisely what it was that it needed to improve. “Unless you’re clear what your objective is and where you’re trying to get to, then it is very difficult to put all the other building blocks in place,” explains Moran.
Adopting a more rigorous approach to customer research, M&S talked extensively to customers about their expectations, drilling down into specifics, while also drawing up an external plan of what other organisations were doing at the time.
“We were identifying the gap that we needed to not just fill, but really overtake and take the lead again,” says Moran. “We talked to our customers and listened to them about their expectations. What they were looking for was friendly, helpful, knowledgeable people. That was the very essence of it. And so that was our starting part – putting that definition in place.”
This definition, what Marks & Spencer calls 'Our Service Style', consists of four elements: be positive, be determined, take ownership and responsibility, be respectful.
Service Circle
With that in place, the business began the next stage of infusing service into its traditionally ‘product-centric’ approach, embedding it into the company structure via a model it calls ‘the Service Circle’. This required a “massive collaboration” with the M&S human resources team to ensure that recruitment, training and rewards were aligned with the new service-centric approach.
“If you want to integrate service into your fabric, then you have to design it and build it in from the beginning,” says Moran. “We worked with our HR colleagues to look at our recruitment to ensure we were hiring people who wanted to be friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. After recruiting the right people, we then did a huge amount of training and coaching. You have to build a framework which will take raw talent - e.g. people who want to be friendly and helpful - and match it to the M&S brand. Whilst we probably did quite a good job of induction training, I’d be the first to say we didn’t continue that training and engagement and coaching all the way through someone’s career, which is really important. So ongoing training became important.”
A range of training is now available to staff, from one-off events to more developed career paths. And in addition, a new role of Coach was developed to act as role model and trainer on the shop floor to guide staff in delivering the appropriate service style.
Demonstrating the success of the company’s initiatives, M&S’ customer service training was awarded a landmark accreditation standard by the Institute of Customer Service last year. Moran notes: “I think we have a good training programme but I wanted it independently verified by the ICS to ensure that we were covering everything we should cover. It’s an external benchmark to make sure we are absolutely doing everything at the top of that.”
As well as its training, Marks & Spencer then also re-evaluated its rewards structure, making changes to ensure that it truly celebrated great service through regular recognition programmes as well as the annual customer service awards – something that Moran admits was “quite a fundamental change” for the business.
She says: "We have reinvested money into recognising great service and put in place some rigorous performance management - so again, celebrating success but also identifying those who needed more development in meeting our standards of customer service."
Customer listening
And the final piece of the puzzle, designed to drive continuous improvement, is a measurement programme, deploying mystery shoppers and a Voice of the Customer programme that captures feedback through mediums including social platforms.
“We put our first mystery shopper programme in place in 2005 and we’ve been running that for eight years. We also do customer satisfaction surveys based on our store customers and online customers, which is very much about the service experience. And we also have a customer insight unit which does exit surveys and customer groups.
“But the thing we’re really trying to drive is getting our store colleagues to talk more to the customers about what they think so that they can deal with it on the spot. And I’m trying to raise awareness of what I call ‘free feedback’ – customer feedback that comes into my service centres by letter, email and social media. Somebody has taken the time and effort to contact us about their experience, we should be doing something about it.”
She continues: “Having invested in definition, the recruitment, the training, the rewards, and the performance management, you need to keep talking to your customer to say are we doing what you want us to do. This information is then fed in at the top of the pipe again because their expectations will always grow. So while we will always use that Service Circle as a roadmap and a set of guiding principles, what goes on to deliver it clearly has to change if you’re going to keep pace with the competition and your customers’ expectations.”
What is clear from Moran’s overview of the initiative is that without full cooperation between departments, all of the definitions, structures and training would be for nought. “I don’t manage recruitment, I don’t manage training, I don’t manage rewards,” elaborates Moran. “We worked with HR to define what we needed to change the dynamic and engage the team heavily, because ultimately it was them that had to make the changes to their processes and rewrite all of the training. So it was a huge collaboration and is still ongoing.”
Despite the journey beginning in 2004, Moran believes it took until 2008 before there was real landmark improvement. “We had got all the piece of the Service Circle in place and we could absolutely see some traction through our mystery shopper calls,” she recalls. “We had just done a trial and pilot around customer satisfaction and our retention figures for people were better and our employee engagement scores were good. So that really was the landmark of seeing it move forward.”
For those who remain undaunted by the magnitude of such a project, Moran has these final words of advice.
“The first thing is don’t see it as a project – because a project as a start and a finish date,” she says. “Have a clear plan recognising that you’ll need to be flexible with that plan as to how it will develop and how you’ll need to respond with it. And I think you also have to be quite bold – some things that we did were quite bold in terms of reward and benefits, recruitment and the use of  mystery shoppers.
She concludes: “But the most fundamental thing would be to use what customers are telling you. A lot of organisations do a huge amount of research, but I think sometimes they are asking the questions that they want answered, rather than just listening to what customers are telling you.”

About Neil Davey

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Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.

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