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Customer service lessons from Mary Portas: Secret Shopper

21st Jan 2011
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Royalty returned to the small screen this week in the shape of Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ Portas. Riding in on a wave of publicity, she launched her new series ‘Secret Shopper’. Based on the unsupported premise that customer service in the UK is among the worst of the world, she is looking at retailing from the customers’ point of view. 

What we got was Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, meets the Hotel Inspector with a healthy dose of personal campaigning from Jamie Oliver’s school dinners series.
The result was standard ‘car-crash’ TV which having quickly trashed the customer experience in some of the City’s best loved (i.e. highly profitable) fashion chains (Primark, H&M etc), she turned her full attention to the awful failings of the 44-store Pilot fast fashion chain.
What leavened the stock fare was the passion with which Ms Portas set about turning around the chain’s worst performing store in Braintree, Essex.
She is correct in her view that any drive to improve customer service has to come from the top. Chris George, the managing director of Pilot, appointed shop managers without meeting them first, felt they should be self motivated, thought staff ‘were no worse than most other companies in the fashion sector’. The results were as painful as they were inevitable and had you cringing behind the sofa with embarrassment.
Lesson 1: Customer service ethos has to be lead from the top and involve the whole organisation.
As a result the store’s staff were, to put it politely, disenchanted. Staff attitude has an enormous impact not only on customer service but on the overall performance of a company. Institute research into the link between an organisation’s performance and customer service shows that three of the top seven criteria delivering return on investment were employee-based attributes.
Lesson 2: Hire for attitude, train for skills.
Portas’ profile certainly shone the spotlight on the issue of customer service as did Michel Roux Jr’s new series ‘Service’ on the BBC. The strength of TV series’ like this focusing on these subjects is also, I think, their weakness. The format is vivid and hard hitting, but only allows programme makers to look at the issues superficially.
Portas’ solution to Pilot’s problem was to demonstrate to MD Chris how good his Braintree employees could be by putting them behind the counter of a fast food chain which invested in staff training. The transformation in staff attitudes and behaviour was a revelation.
Lesson 3: Train staff, involve staff, give them the freedom to sort out customers' problems.
I have doubts about the long-term results of her other innovation; to upgrade the changing rooms with glitzy pop star personas and high tech equipment.
Yes, customers and staff were delighted with the results, as was the main man Chris who thought Mary had found the ‘magic formula’ to transform his company’s customer service. He planned to roll out the Braintree trial across the whole chain at a projected cost of £1m.
However, what happens when the novelty and the gloss wears off?
How does he motivate the employees of his other 43 stores? The Braintree staff had been closely involved in the project and had been exposed to the passion of Ms Portas and her battles with Chris who still thought only in terms of profit.
Lesson 4: There is no magic bullet to provide consistent, sustainable customer service excellence. It is not a bolt–on.
It is only achieved by aligning all aspects of the company, culture, people and processes around the customer.  

Duncan Baker is director of strategic marketing and communications at the
Institute of Customer Service.

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