Dave Cox, managing director of Swallow Information Systems, says it doesn’t take a genius to work it out – service is not a new concept, but it differentiates one company from another.
What is new, though, is the customer’s rise to power in deciding whether a company will sink or swim.
“Traditionally, service was left languishing somewhere in the frontline confined to the call centre, the checkout and over-the-counter banter. For years, service in this country has been as much about demonstrating a presence as actually delivering. Set up a dedicated department, and the customer will be happy – never mind the indifferent performance and regular complaints.
Times have moved on, though. Products, channels and prices are converging, competition has rocketed and the old ‘location, location, location’ rule has become obsolete with the arrival of global Internet shops.
Cornerstone of high performance
Consumers travel abroad and visit service-led cultures more often - and they expect more from UK companies. Faster, easier, better service every time. What we are saying is customer service has become the cornerstone of high performance for any company, so let’s promote it to where it belongs – the very top of the organisation – into the board. Its value is on a par with efficiency, productivity and operations strategies, and its results are fundamental across every department and through every strategy.
But what is good service?
From a company point of view, it’s the difference between death or survival. Service isn’t about a quick interaction to get the customer back out the door in the shortest time. It’s about satisfaction, reputation, brand image, making relationships and growing loyalty. Customers want quick response to enquiries, action on complaints and a genuine two-way flow of information - so why don’t we give it to them?
OK, so we’re agreed. Good service is the way forward for lifelong, happy customers and bigger sales, but what do we need to do about it? How can we improve what we already have? And more to the point, how can we make it work for us?
Back to basics
Let’s start from the bottom. Fielding customer contact and service enquiries at the coalface is the foundation for any service-led industry. Doing it well and making use of the information your customers give you for free is where companies can make strides against the opposition. Customer data is only an asset if you know what to do with it.
This doesn’t mean endless hours of labour intensive call logging, reporting and comparing feedback. Invest in the right technology and it’s as easy as plugging directly into your customer. Instead of the odd report filtering through to marketing - upstairs, second on the left - manage customer information, spread it to other departments and use software to analyse data, spot trends and recommend areas for improvement.
“Well, we’ve already got a CRM strategy so we know all this,” I hear you say. Good CRM is an ingredient in the mix, but it doesn’t always equate to good service and it definitely doesn’t mean using customer data to its full potential. Responding quickly to an enquiry is not the same as adding points to a loyalty card or sending out a piece of direct mail.
And it doesn’t end there. Service shouldn’t stop at the frontline. It should run through the heart of every company and permeate every department and activity. Customers can drive your business if you tune in to what they say, what they want and what they need.
Customer information held in databases in the service department provides the clues that sales, marketing and development are looking for to understand their customers. So share it. Integrate the systems and let everybody listen to what customers are telling you. If customer services don’t talk to product development, making a purple velvet edition of the latest gadget is a bit pointless if your customers didn’t like the product in the first place. Where’s the sense in that?
Sharing customer information isn’t limited to spread across horizontal departments. Vertical dissemination is arguably more useful for setting the company course along the customer groove. Sales and marketing have their say at board level, so why not customer service - it is the third side of the CRM triangle after all.
Tell the shareholders
When was the last time your CEO checked out what goes on at ground level? The danger is that shareholder demands are given priority over providing what customers tell you they want. So what’s the best-fit solution? Simple: involve your customer service manager in board decisions. Nobody knows your customers better. They can tell you every problem, every success, which policies they like, where problems are coming from and make real recommendations.
Bottom-up, customer-led, service-driven, call it what you want, but customer feedback must be included in the strategic decision-making process for any hope of continued success. And this is what you can tell shareholders.
Promote the service ethic
Making the CEO spend a week on the shop floor isn’t the only way to show them where they are going wrong. Promoting the service ethic to board level will allow consistent input in directional strategies, and add the most value for customers.
Good service isn’t just about providing a helpline or a support desk any more. It’s about gathering the information, disseminating it throughout the company, and considering customers’ opinions in corporate decision making.
More importantly, it’s about education. Every person in a company needs to understand that customer service isn’t just the name of the office down the corridor. Customer service is a culture, it’s a strategy and every employee can actively improve it. Their jobs may well rely on it, after all.”