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Breathing fire into customer service: Dragons’ Den’s Deborah Meaden

28th Sep 2009
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Dragons' Den star Deborah Meaden explains how to get closer to your customers - something she has learned from first-hand experience. 

Deborah Meaden may be better known for her role on hit BBC show Dragons’ Den but having built up a successful business before TV fame, the multi-millionaire entrepreneur hasn’t forgotten the importance of good customer service.

“I see people, not customers,” she told editor Louise Druce at the recent Call Centre & Customer Management Expo in Birmingham. “I need to understand what the customer wants, talk the same language as them and have a relationship with them.”

Many call centres haven’t had the best of reputations in recent years, often languishing at the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys. But are they getting the true recognition they deserve? Before life as a Dragon, Meaden started out on the shop floor of her family’s leisure business, Weststar Holidays, eventually became managing director. Having ran her own in-house call centre during that time, Meaden questions whether the workforce are being given the right tools to deliver good customer service in the first place.

“It is too easy to box people in and say ‘you do this job, you do that job’ and put them on a time limit,” she said. “I think about the way I want to be treated.”

“I was very lucky. The people in my call centre saw the part that they had to play in the business because I worked very hard to make sure that they understood that part and what it meant not only to customer service but to the business as a whole.

“Call centre staff need to know their product well and be passionate about it. They are the absolute conduit from the top through to the customer. It’s about recognising that without them, nothing happens.”

Getting closer to your customers

Meaden is admittedly so passionate herself about delivering good customer service, during her keynote speech on how best to use service quality as your competitive advantage, she explained to a packed audience the value she placed on direct contact with her customers, including being approachable by walking around her leisure park.

“I didn’t have a head office,” she explained. “I could have stayed in the ivory tower but walking around the park sent a clear message that nothing was more important than the people spending their hard-earned money with us. How can we make sound board decisions when we don’t know what [the customers] are doing? 

“You have to keep your eye on your customers and understand the service you’re providing and their motivations and drivers, or you could end up spending out on something customers might not care about.”

She also explained that delivering good customer service means looking beyond mere job roles – it’s what companies do. “In my call centre, the workforce were not just answering the phones, they were helping my customers decide which holiday is right for them. That is getting lost in organisations. We need to boil things down to make life easier but if we stop thinking about the service that the customer wants, how can we provide good customer service?”

And it goes beyond the call centre. Meaden is a believer in delivering good service at every customer touch point. “At the holiday park we had a maintenance team. They thought that they just fixed things but they had more contact with customers than I did and in very stressed environments where the outcome of the problem would affect customers.” This meant they too had to see delivering good customer service as part of their job.  “It’s scary for people to look beyond what they do but it is more rewarding when they feel part of the business,” she said.

Business is good customer service

For Meaden, the key to a successful business is simple: “Business is customer service. Good customer service is good business; bad customer service is bad business, full stop.” And she admits that she’s had her fair share of both experiences, adding that delivering bad customer service is a decision companies decide to take. 

“Now I’ve been on TV, I don’t get bad customer service any more. It tells me that the same people who gave me a bad service [before being famous] can give me good service. It’s terrible but there is a glimmer of hope as we intrinsically know what good customer service is. You don’t have to teach what it is but the importance of delivering it.”

She cited an example of two extremes. The first was a company that has a board who is cautious about the business because of the current economic climate, deciding not to take on unnecessary projects and cutting costs. Because the board are worried and work is being scaled back, the workforce is worried, demoralised and demotivated. And because the workforce directly interface with the customer, the customer – who is equally cautious about taking risks and is making more considered purchasing decisions during precarious economic times – chooses the safest options. The company doesn’t give the customer anything to worry about so they are both treading water.

On the other hand, the second company she highlighted notices its competitors are quiet and that a space has opened up in the market. They grab the opportunity and offer customers something new. The board then turn to the workforce and ask for their help in finding out how their existing customers feel through research, phonecalls and engaging with them. Because the workforce are busy, they feel needed, motivated and proud. This translates to the customers, who are more inclined to listen and care. And because there is less competition out there, if you can get their attention you can get retention. 

“I’ve made more investments in the last 12 months than in the last three years,” said Meaden. "You need to spot the business and go for it."

The promise

Upfront, Meaden told the keynote audience that she wouldn’t offer a checklist of things of actions to take away and deploy but looked to offer advice for people to cherry pick, depending on what they thought was right for their customers.

“What would I do?” she offered, however. “I’d go back to the organisation and think do I know my service works? Do I understand the service my customer wants? Does my team understand that? Do I honestly know what my customer wants or what I think they want and where are they going? Check that and you’ll have a great source of information.

Once you have all the data, the most important part of all is deciding what your promise is and making sure that not only do the workforce understand and believe in it, you keep it. “The promise can’t be wishy-washy and repackaged slightly differently from before with a bow on top. Customers will know and feel cheated,” said Meaden.

She likened the whole customer relationship to a date. “You are trying the service being provided and you don’t know what you’re going to get. It evolves into a relationship and you make a commitment to make it work. Then comes the opportunity to fall out because you think you know them but they let you down,” she explained. “It’s no different in customer service.

“Customer service is about approach and attitude, from the board all the way through. It’s not a department; it’s not on the agenda occasionally; it’s what we do.”

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By shaungisbourne
28th Sep 2009 12:00

so why should it take someone with Deborah Meaden's profile to make us all aware of the qualities and the attitudes that should be taken for granted throughout an organisation?

The essence of Deborah's comments (for me) can be distilled to two words: Attitude and Communication. The HR guru's will say "hire for attitude and train for skill". If this were really happening then the appalling record that the call centre industry has in delivering service would be much less of an alarming situation than it is. The approach and attitude of penny pinching on customer service is rife, it basically says "be seen to be doing the right thing / lip service is enough". It's no wonder the price of utilities goes up beyond the rate of inflation: They're too busy profiteering and wasting time and money trying to silence their critics and make themselves appear to care about their customers. Spin doctors tend to be more costly than delivering customer service. When will business leaders wake up to this fact? 

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