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Why it's time for customer service and HR to buddy up

4th Jun 2015
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It has been a long held belief in many boardrooms that employees don’t leave their jobs. This is nothing to do with senior executives living in ivory towers and being detached from the reality of the office or ‘factory’ floor. It’s much more about a simple truth – most people leave an organisation because of the individual responsible for managing them.

Yet, despite acknowledging what is an almost universal truth, many organisations are yet to translate the same relationship dynamics to those shared between a customer and the employee or organisation they buy from. It’s a strange anomaly, given the hugely competitive world in which we live, because increasingly savvy customers know there is often an alternative shop, supplier or service and they are not afraid to  move accordingly.

Take this a step further and the link between engaged staff and loyal customers begins to become clear. All of us, as customers, want to deal with employees - whether they are serving you from behind a counter or providing you with a service from behind a desk or screen – who are professional, helpful enthusiastic; in short – they genuinely want to do a do a good job. As employers we also want staff adept at providing relevant information, and able to do so at the appropriate time. In other words, staff who can read, understand and interpret what customers want and provide a quality service.

The fact is that the extent to which employees are engaged with their customers and the organisations they work for has tangible business benefits. Think about the other side of the same coin: you can often tell if someone doesn’t want to be at work simply because the quality of their output suffers. The net effect, of course, is that a wider impact will be seen in organisational year-end results. 

Our own research shows that engaged staff do help boost the bottom line. 69% of customers who had a memorably positive customer service experience with an employee, for example, go on to recommend that organisation to their friends. The same research - called ‘Are you Being Engaged?’ – also revealed that 62% of customers with good experiences have become repeat purchases and just over half who enjoyed a ‘good experience’ bought an additional, unplanned, product or service at the original point of purchase.

Yet, what worries me is that two trends seem to be getting stronger. The latest UK Customer Service Index suggests that consumers remain underwhelmed by the level of service they receive with customer satisfaction levels falling for the fourth consecutive time. And, the level of employee engagement displayed by staff in customer facing roles has dropped, too. In 2012 the average consumer rating for engaged staff was 6.8, on a 10-point scale. 12 months later (the last time it was measured), this had fallen to 6.5.

I don’t think that the views of thousands of consumers across the country can be ignored. Perhaps more importantly, we may be in the embryonic forms of economic recovery, meaning I also don’t believe there are many organisations out there who can afford to ignore them either.

Clear implications

The implications this has for customer service teams are clear. Action has to be taken to prevent satisfaction from falling any lower. In an environment where the desire for speed, value and convenience outweigh other customer demands, first impressions count. If a customer doesn’t feel valued, doesn’t feel that their needs or concerns matter to the employee they are talking to, the damage is hard to undo. Perhaps this means that frontline staff need training – but it is never that simple! 

Have the typical scenarios that your customer service teams face changed in recent years? Do their skills match up? If not, it’s probably time you considered activity-based training. In the same way that doctors have to undergo clinical training and assessments before they can treat patients unsupervised, it is worth exploring a range of scenarios so that staff can play out what might happen, in a safe environment. It’s not about creating a unit of automatons – that’s the last thing customers want. It’s more about equipping your teams with an understanding of their customer needs because with understanding comes empathy, and with empathy comes engagement.

But customer service teams can’t ‘go it alone’ and need to turn to their HR colleagues for support. 

Why? Simply because the idea of a job for life no longer exists. Today’s employees, particularly those of a younger generation, don’t even expect it. This, of course, extends to feelings of loyalty. But, if employees feel they are getting something back, they tend to stay for a longer period of time. The message is simple – help your staff improve their skills and you will reap the benefits.

Of course, it goes beyond skills development and this is where the savvy organisation will ensure that its customer service and HR departments work hand in glove. Right from the first point of contact - at recruitment – the approach taken must mirror the values and behaviours an organisation wants to communicate to its stakeholders and customers. This must, of course, permeate through induction and training programmes, too.

Addressing employee engagement and the culture and behaviour behind it also requires a range of actions and points of focus. For one thing, employee engagement strategies need to do more than address customer-facing staff; they need to involve senior management because unless engagement is taken seriously across the length and breadth of an organisation it will not work. 

Customers’ experience of dealing with employees has a significant impact on how they remember the transaction long after a purchase is over. With customer confidence in the economy beginning to return, the organisations with motivated, engaged, employees, are best placed to win and retain customers. But it’s not just about the here and now. As any boardroom knows, engaged employees are the key to long-term, sustainable performance and growth.

Jo Causon is CEO of Institute of Customer Service

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