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Interview: New ICS chief on putting customers at the heart of your business

29th May 2009
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MyCustomer.com

Customers should be at the heart of every organisation, says Jo Causon, the new chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service (ICS) - but some firms have a long way to go yet. Causon explains to Louise Druce how she is looking to achieve this goal through her new role, some of the key barriers to be overcome and why a simple ‘thank you’ can pay dividends in customer service.

By Louise Druce, editor

Nobody is in doubt that good customer service is absolutely critical to an organisation but in her new role as chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service (ICS), Jo Causon is driving the message home that customers should be at the heart of every business if they are to thrive. In order to do this, she has tasked herself with taking the lead on raising customer service performance and professionalism to demonstrate its impact when firms get it right – or wrong. But it’s by no means an easy task. Research suggests that while many firms agree that customers should be firmly planted at their core, many are still not letting their heart rule their head.

Causon herself is familiar with this struggle. She joined the ICS from the Chartered Management Institute, where she had been director of marketing and corporate affairs since July 2005. She previously held director roles in brand and business consulting and, prior to that, was head of group marketing and strategic executive to the director-general at City & Guilds. “Because of my experience of having worked in both not-for-profit and the commercial sectors, I understand how important getting customer service right is. For me, it’s not just about the front line service, it’s about the whole of the organisation having that focus,” she says.

"Organisations need to look at their processes, their people strategies, their overall strategies and the culture that they are creating. All of those aspects need to be aligned around the customer."

Jo Causon, chief executive, Institute of Customer Service

“Marketing and customer service delivery is something I’m absolutely passionate about but having worked in professional bodies in the past, I also understand how they work and the whole importance of both raising the professionalism and performance in customer service to help drive business performance.”

Disconnect

But if it isn’t all about customer service delivery on the front line, where do you start making it a priority? “Organisations need to look at their processes, their people strategies, their overall strategies and the culture that they are creating. All of those aspects need to be aligned around the customer,” says Causon. “Often, what happens is that you can have really good end customer service but the processes aren’t supporting that. If staff are not enabled in the back-office then there is a disconnect. Firms offering excellent customer service understand this.”

And when times are hard, this can be a key differentiator between those businesses that thrive or fail during the credit crunch, she suggests. One positive thing to come out of the economic downturn, however, is that most companies have come round to the idea that random cost-cutting might have short-term benefits but long-term, negative repercussions. Instead, they have recognised the importance of sticking with what (and who) they know by scaling back on more expensive new acquisition schemes in favour of focusing on retaining existing customers and fostering their loyalty to stay buoyant.

That said, recognition is one thing but whether they are actually putting these thoughts into action is another matter. The BBC’s Watchdog programme exposed some of the worst offenders when it comes to contact centre customer service and a recent surveyalso highlighted differing approaches to customer retention between small businesses and the big corporates. But is this a fair reflection that firms are just paying lip service to good customer service?

The ICS also publishes a twice yearly UK Customer Satisfaction Index. Its January results revealed that, overall, customer satisfaction is on the up, rising from 66% to 72%. The retail sector in particular performed well, with local government, utilities and telecommunications sectors having ‘ample scope’ for further service improvement. However, Causon says customer service is still not yet at a level she would want from UK plc. “It’s about encouraging organisations to constantly improve their customer service,” she explains, stating that she is looking for satisfaction levels of 80% and above.

“It’s not so much about sectors performing well but having shining examples of business excellence - and there are clearly some organisations who are really upping their game when it comes to the delivery of customer service. That’s really what we should be focusing on. I truly believe mediocre service is not going to allow organisations to survive, let alone prosper.”

Extra mile

Causon also champions the fact that organisations who focus on their customers will also see improvements when it comes to return on investment - a clear lure if they want to perform well. “We know that if you’re scoring in the top box for customer satisfaction, rather than just ‘satisfied’, customers are twice as likely to remain with you and three times more likely to recommend or refer you,” she explains. “One of the things consumers are looking for is organisations that go that extra mile.”

Underpinning this is a change in the way customers themselves view organisations, with higher expectations when it comes to the standard of service they receive. Causon believes they are much more likely to complain than they may have been in the past. New technology and social networking have also made it much easier for them to spread the word if a company has offered an exceptional service – or a diabolical one.

"It’s not so much about sectors performing well but having shining examples of business excellence - and there are clearly some organisations who are really upping their game.

With their reputations on the line (or online!), organisations would do well to take heed and make sure that all customer feedback – good or bad – is taken on board and dealt with. “There is quite a lot of debate about what frustrates us but a major complaint is feeling like we are not being listened to or that we don’t feel the problem is being sorted out,” says Causon. “Even a negative experience can be turned into a positive one if problems are addressed and successfully resolved.”

If you want your customer service to be truly excellent, though, it must be delivered consistently across all channels, she adds. “If I buy something online and I want to return it, I should be able to take it back to the store,” Causon highlights as an example. “It’s about database management and making sure there is understanding between the different routes to the customer. It also goes back to the DNA of the organisation and being easy to do business with. Most of us are time poor and probably, given the economic challenges we’re facing, more short-fused. We want to be able to get resolution quicker than perhaps we used to. Those organisations that listen to us and make that easy for us are going to clearly perform better. “

You're welcome!

And when firms do deliver an excellent customer service and experience, an acknowledgment wouldn’t go amiss. “What you don’t hear very often when customers have received an excellent service is people actually thanking those who have gone out of their way for them,” says Causon. “We shouldn’t take everything for granted and it’s nice to be thanked when you have delivered a resolution.”

So is Causon practising what she preaches at the ICS when it comes to delivering good customer service? Absolutely, she says, as it goes hand in hand with her plans to improve the skills agenda and raise awareness of the processes that are needed to put customers and customer satisfaction at the forefront of UK business. “It’s about the ICS putting its members at the heart of what we do as an organisation and really focussing on our own customer service,” she adds. “We have the opportunity to help and support organisations achieve ROI through good customer service, proving that it really matters.

“When good individuals perform well in an organisation, the organisation performs well, and when organisations perform well, UK plc performs well.”

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