Turning bricklayers into cathedral builders: Ao.com’s 10 customer experience principles

18th Feb 2015

Ao.com’s mission is fairly ambitious: to “become a leading European online retailer of electrical products” and “be at the forefront of online retail innovation”.

It’s a bold statement from the Bolton-based appliances provider, but recent achievements such as its February IPO on the London Stock Exchange, which valued the company at £1.2bn, and 2014 Christmas sales figures, which leapt by 38% in the quarter to the end of December, suggest Ao is more than achieving its goals.   

Much of the etailer’s success is said to boil down to its approach to customer service, with call-centre staff empowered to resolve any issue without financial restraints or having to seek approval, and staff throughout the organisation encouraged to go the extra mile to keep customers happy at every stage of their buying journey.

This type of approach to service is almost alien in comparison to the much-maligned experiences provided by the UK’s previous leading, but subsequently, crest fallen electrical goods supplier, Comet.

Yet, as Ao’s CEO and founder, John Roberts explained at the recent Delivery Conference in London, this level of service is only possible due to the corporate culture he and his co-founder, Alan Latchford penned when they first set out into the world of business in the year 2000; a culture driven by 10 simple principles designed to empower employees in providing the best end-to-end experience for Ao’s customers:  

1. Build an amazing team

“Build a team full of passionate people who fundamentally care. It’s not complex. Within that, there are two key things – the first is, you cannot pay people to care. This is not about money, it’s about DNA. It’s about fundamentally caring.

“There are responsibilities on both sides – there are responsibilities for the business and responsibilities for the individual. The individuals need to fundamentally care, and businesses need to care about individuals.”

2. Explain why

“When I am sick to the back teeth of saying something, everybody else may just be getting it. The idea that you can tell people something once and expect them to care as passionately as you do, frankly, is farcical and naïve.

“In our business we think about this in terms of three guys laying bricks. And all they’re doing, fundamentally, is individually building three walls that are all at the same stage. You ask the first guy what he’s doing, and he says “I’m laying bricks”. You ask the second guy what they’re doing, and they say, “I’m building a wall”; so someone has explained to them it’s a wall they’re putting up. Then you ask the third guy, and they say, “I’m building a cathedral”.

“They’re all laying bricks, but which one is going to care the most? Somebody took the third guy aside and walked them through just what that cathedral was going to look like, so they could get passionate about the bigger picture rather than just being told to lay some bricks.”       

3. Work to principles, not prescriptions

“You need to localise things and you need to empower people. Depots in Glasgow are completely different to depots in Croydon. If you try and impose the same culture and standards across regions, frankly, it won’t work.

“Give people more reason to care by giving more responsibility. When you empower people, they will care more. 99.9% of people are honest, so set the rules up for them and not the tiny amount that abuse the system. Just trust people, and empower them.”   

4. The customer pays the bills

“The consumer pays the bills, and they vote with their credit cards.

“The customer is not always right by the way, because if the customer is always right then my guys are spending all day getting it wrong, and that’s not right either. It doesn’t matter – the only thing that matters is that the customer is happy. The vast majority are honest people, they’re not trying to rip you off, so trust them and believe them and suck it up when they’re not.”  

5. Great service is more profitable than poor service

“When we fail on delivery, for instance, it spits costs. It spits costs into call centres dealing with a problem, into ops when managing returns, into renewed delivery. Very few businesses will tell you what the true cost of their failed delivery is. If you worked out what the true cost of a failed delivery, I reckon you might pay a little more in the first place, but in the long-run you’re paying a whole load more.   

“The driver is the only person that ever meets the customer. So the experience they deliver at the point says everything about the brand. That is worth investing in. We view it as marketing; because when we get more repeat customers it becomes more profitable than acquisition.”  

6. Always look for structural advantage

“We want competitors to wonder how on earth we do what we do. The logic of Sunday deliveries, for instance – it just makes sense. You need people that are hugely ambitious to do things, and very humble if they get them right. People that are disciplined about how they do things, but creative about it at the same time.   

“We want people to be restlessly paranoid, but bold about what they’re prepared to do. The gain for trying is just so small relative to the cost of failure. If you’re not failing on things, you’re just not trying hard enough, and if you’re not trying hard enough you won’t push the boundaries of innovation and you won’t deliver the service that excites your customers.”

7. Challenge everything constructively

“Know all of the detail of your business to a micro level, and be involved in none of it.

“If you get too involved you become restricted to what people do. Make a huge effort to get around the stuff that most people wouldn’t get involved. Sign those apology letters for complaints. Keep in touch with reality, because otherwise you’ll end up with people messing you around quite easily. You need to know that what the employees around you are telling you is true.”

8. Always do the right thing

“Never let the profit and loss sheets be your guide. It really doesn’t matter how much you win and lose. Money comes and goes, your reputation doesn’t. If you had to sit down with your mum and explain the decision you made and why you made it, would she be proud of the decision you took? If the answer is yes, you probably made the right decision. It’s as simple as that.

“As an example, we have no financial restrictions at all for what our guys can do for our customers in the call centre. As a result, we normally see 96 – 97% of phone calls dealt with by the first person the customer speaks to. And all we’ve done is get them thinking that if they had to ask them to explain what they’d done to their mum, would she be proud?”   

9. The value of praise and recognition relative to the cost of praise and recognition

“Most praise and recognition costs nothing. All you need to do is say thank you, sincerely. It makes a huge difference to your teams, and all you have to do is put a little bit of thought into things.   

“If nobody recognises the efforts your teams go to, next time, will they care as much? Maybe, maybe not, but the key is to keep putting a bit in the tank when you don’t need it, because when you need it and have to call on people, you don’t have to pay people extra to do it. They do it because they want to.”  

10. Simplicity is a very sharp knife

“Big words normally conceal bullshit. If you can’t explain it to me, you don’t understand it. Keep things phenomenally simple. Simplicity is a really, really important thing to incorporate into a business.

“There’s an old phrase that goes, ‘perfection is achieved when there’s nothing left to take away, rather than when there’s nothing less to add’.”

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