Now, Next, and Later: Customer Relationships at Interserve

Summer 2020

Now is a good time for all businesses to reflect on our priorities, our ways of working, and the nature of our relationships with customers. Will the pandemic change things forever, or will we go back to business as usual? How may customer needs, both practical and emotional, have shifted? What do we need to do to make sure that we meet those needs and keep our people safe?

We caught up with Iain Shorthose, Director of Customer and Workplace Experience at Interserve, to find out what their approach has been, to talk about how they use their customer research to build stronger relationships with customers, and to understand why it’s so important to their business.

We Can Work It Out

Inevitably, COVID-19 loomed large when I asked Iain about what’s occupying his time at the moment, as Interserve work to support their customers and make sure that they’re in a position to serve their own customers in turn. A “now, next, later” approach helps to clarify where each customer is in their thinking.

“We don't have any customers that aren't impacted in one way or another. The ‘now’ is the critical stage, it's about working with them to do whatever needs to be done with the backdrop that we've been dealt. The ‘next’ is how do we work with them to either reoccupy their workspaces or to start improving their productivity, to make sure they're able to service their customers. ‘Later’ is thinking about things like repurposing estates and what to do with corporate buildings.”

I was interested in what Iain was able to tell me about what the future of workspaces may look like. Are we looking at permanent, seismic, change; or will things return to normal as soon as the threat of infection is over (whenever that may be)?

Most likely it will be somewhere in the middle. There’s no question that the pandemic and lockdown have forced a step change, but that many of the adjustments we’ve made align with trends that were already in progress, such as increased flexibility of working. As Iain says,

 “The fundamental purpose of a workplace is twofold. It's around supporting your productivity as an individual, and it's about office space supporting your wellbeing. Now the challenge is quite straightforward when you say, ‘How productive can I be working differently? How does that flexibility support productivity, but also how I feel both physically and mentally?’.

During lockdown, as well as the challenges we all know very well, organisations have seen benefits to productivity and employee health and wellbeing from the increased time spent at home. As it stands, those benefits have not been equally spread—we know, for example, from our panel research that parents with young children have found working from home much more difficult—but they are real. At the same time, many organisations have seen that moving to a model in which far more people spend much more time working from home can lead to benefits in terms of sustainability (e.g. by reducing carbon footprint) and cost savings that accrue from reducing the size of their estate, recruiting from a wider (and often cheaper) talent pool, and less travel.

Judging the impact on physical and mental wellbeing can be tricky, and the two don’t always go hand in hand:

“I find myself able to exercise more now than ever before as I’ve been predominantly homebased - I'm not traveling here, there, and everywhere. Equally, even though that supports my physical wellbeing, in terms of my mental wellbeing I am an extrovert, so I’m missing face-to-face interaction and collaborating with colleagues and customers.”

Put it all together, and are the potential gains enough to overcome concerns about the negative impact that isolation may have on our mental wellbeing, the challenges that many have in creating a good working environment at home, or the difficulty of managing a culture remotely? Not completely, but it does change the basis for the discussion:

“I think employers will be more accommodating. I think they might be brave now and take advantage of the commercial benefits of this way of working. And I think employees might be a bit more assertive about how they would like to work.”

Ask Me Why

We moved on to talk about research, and in particular the question of whether or not now is a good time to do research with customers. We’ve found that clients who have kept their surveys going have seen customers more than happy to take part, in fact they often appreciate the fact that clients are reaching out to them at this time, but for some there is a danger that steaming in with a standard questionnaire might seem a little tone-deaf. As Iain says,

“I'm trying to get back to business as usual, but many of our customers are facing considerable head winds still as a direct impact of COVID-19. So, do you really want to talk to them about how they feel about their FM provider? Probably not.”

So, is now the right time to run your annual survey with customers? Operational teams are working with customers very closely to make sure they have the support and expertise they need, but is it a good time to run your normal research? Maybe not, for a lot of businesses, but by the same token it would be a mistake not to engage with your customers at all. Iain comments,

“The question for me is, right now in the current climate, what is the role of insight? Should we be sticking to our usual calendar? Or should we be brave enough to adapt and be a bit more agile, and accept that what we've measured for the last five years we won’t be able to track. To use that budget, use that conversation time with your customers, to understand something a bit different. By having that conversation, they feel you’re switched on, you understand them, you’re connected to them, and you're not just going through the motions.”

So the point is not to delay your relationship survey until it seems like the right time, but to adapt your customer research so that it’s fit for purpose in the current climate.

“If we do something this year, maybe we'll do it a little bit differently. We'll try to reflect the current situation, where people are and what they're feeling, and maybe position the research in a slightly different way, so it's being more empathetic to what's going on. I still want to answer my usual five main questions for the purposes of benchmarking, but I also want to understand how you've experienced us and how we’ve supported you through this, and then I would want to understand how your priorities have possibly changed. It's back to this ‘now, next and later’.”

In terms of timing, Iain’s view is we should now be proactive in seeking the views of our customers to ensure we are able to add maximum value for the client: 

“It is now time to start the conversations. The current focus is reoccupying building space. We are now starting to see restrictions in most sectors being reduced or even removed. In the majority of cases, Interserve is playing a key role in the safe utilisation of buildings and the outdoor spaces of our customers.”

Using research with customers is essential in order to understand their needs and priorities properly, particularly in times of crisis, and that’s important for Interserve to find opportunities to add value for customers. Facilities Management contracts can very easily be seen as a commodity, but Iain believes that it’s by adding value to the basics of the contract that they will be able to retain customers and build stronger relationships with them.

“For us as a service provider, we deliver a contract which is about Service Level Aagreements and Key Performance Indicators; the reality is you've got to do that to be paid. What we do in order to retain our customers is deliver incremental value. What else have we got in our locker we can bring to you and demonstrate value above and beyond? It's not a commodity anymore. And that is the space that we need to properly understand now in terms of, if we used to add value for you in this way, if your priorities change are you looking for something else?”

Understanding those changing priorities is crucial, because, as Iain says,

“If we are to create incremental value, I need to understand what your priorities are.”

Come Together

Business to business (B2B) customer research is different from business to consumer research in some obvious ways, but there are some less-obvious differences that many researchers can fail to understand. Perhaps the most important is that, in order to be effective, B2B customer research has to dovetail with account management.

One of the immediate benefits of conducting a relationship survey in a B2B market is that it often highlights at-risk customers that no-one knew about, and conversely customers who represent a great opportunity for growth. It’s not uncommon for a B2B survey to pay for itself after a single follow-up call to a key account who was beginning to feel unloved. We often find that this is a vital hurdle to clear in the first year of a survey, to demonstrate to the business the immediate, practical, utility of customer insight:

“Our clear purpose for our relationship survey is about retention. It's about not getting caught out at the last minute, and it's about identifying opportunities to grow contracts. Now we've got to that point where everyone's aligned and see that there is real value in it. People are engaged with it now because it has a very clear purpose, and everyone's now had time to see the benefit of it.”

This is great, but there’s a common challenge in B2B research which Iain has been wrestling with: what to do about customers who choose to respond anonymously? Their comments, however insightful, don’t permit you to take this kind of account-specific action. From a purist research point of view, that’s fine—we treat those customers as representative of wider trends in our customer base. Fine. But, that kind of answer doesn’t tend to go down very well in the board room (and believe me, I know exactly how uncomfortable it can be to face the incredulous glare from the CEO when you tell them you can’t reveal who gave a particular negative comment).

“My biggest frustration is how to not have these anonymous customers, because I want to be able to do something with it and I can't do anything that’s targeted and specific to them.”

Good B2B research means linking the insight to account management, and that requires everyone within Interserve to be on the same page.

“There needs to be a level of professional maturity from the account leads, to say ‘this is insightful and useful, and I want some help to understand what to do with it’, rather than ‘I can't believe my customer said that - you must have got them on a bad day’.”

Many organisations, understandably, experience resistance from account management, and it’s the role of whoever is leading on customer experience to make sure that they support account managers rather than simply blaming them when things go wrong. The research is the beginning of an opportunity to work together, not a stick to beat people with.

“There's a responsibility as a leadership team that you support the insight, but you also support the account directors, and don't just immediately go to ‘right, you're doing a bad job’. That's what, as a customer experience team, we do with our account leads. We work with them on the customer, because however it looks, it won't be the first account to look like that. We've been here before; we know what needs to be done.”

That’s not to diminish the role of the account lead in terms of building and maintaining relationships with customers. They are the main point of contact, and they have more influence on that customer’s perception of Interserve than anyone else, but it’s about using the resources and experience that Interserve can bring to bear to make their job easier, and to work alongside them to add value for each customer in the most appropriate way.

“Those account leads are absolutely fundamental. You have to get to a point where they're able to get closer to the customer, to be able to have the right kind of conversations, to talk about the issues and not just having to field problems. We now have a module in the leadership program purely around customer.
It's about relationships. It's about how can
we get the account leads to do the things
CX do, so we’ve got more scale.”

Fixing a Hole

A customer survey is a significant investment. How do you prove that it’s worth the money, time, and effort spent on it? One thing that will guarantee that it’s a waste of money is if you do nothing with it, so make sure you’re committed to taking action before you launch your survey.

Assuming that you do take action, you should be able to quickly prove the benefit of intervention in three crucial ways:

  • Saving customers at imminent risk of defection

  • Finding further opportunities with customers

  • Proving the impact that interventions have on customer scores

Iain has taken advantage of all of these to ensure that all of his internal stakeholders are now bought in to the importance of customer research:

“When we first started doing this as an organisation, you had a mixed bag. You had those that were saying, ‘thank goodness, we're going to bring a customer lens to this’, and you had those that said, ‘I don't need to ask customers. I know what my customers want’. What you have to do is to demonstrate how they can use this and how it compliments existing data in terms of decision making. The way that we do our research, we connect it to the commercials and we connect it to retention, so it becomes an indicator. Whether you’re looking at a Net Promoter Score, an effort score, a satisfaction score or a trust score - fundamentally the real benefit is to say, ‘it looks like that customer account is in jeopardy’.”

The research doesn’t fix that of course, but it does highlight the customers who may be at risk and, just as importantly, it helps you to understand the reasons that they are at risk, and gives you the opportunity to discuss it with them.

“Whether you like it or not, research is only step one. The first layer for me is the Hot Alert process that we've got in place, which means that, good or bad, we get in touch. We also give the customer a choice about if they don't want the account lead to be the ones getting in touch. Then they would have, depending on what the customer chooses to do, further conversations and meetings to move through the gears in terms of understanding a bit more and then making sure that we have the right answers and improvement plans. The MDs will get involved, my team would get involved, I would get involved.”

Following up with customers is crucial to give the survey credibility in their eyes. Iain sees part of the job of his team to make sure that customers are followed up, and that the communication they receive about what has been done helps to convince them that the survey will result in change. More important than communication, though, is their own experience:

“I'd rather that the responses they see can be physically or operationally experienced because of a change in standard or performance.”

Much of the time, building stronger relationships with customers means Iain and his team working alongside the account teams to make sure that Interserve understand the customer well enough, and can bring in ideas from the wider Interserve business:

“The impact sometimes of just me, or my team, or a member of a different team, going to the account and spending that time with them, bringing some expertise or talking about what we've done in another account, is immense. We try to bring best practice from an account that’s very similar, and also one from a completely different sector, but one which has some synergy, and thirdly to bring best practice from us as an organisation.”

Does that process work? That’s something that can be easily demonstrated by looking at the way scores for individual accounts change from year to year:

“We took the score they gave us the year before. Then we recorded which accounts we, as a CX team, went in, listened, understood, and supported our account team to improve delivery. And every time we do that, we see an uplift. Understanding the real value of that research, one of the things is to say, ‘here's the customers who we intervened with this year, here's how their scores have changed.’ I did that for the board last May, and our NPS for accounts in which we intervened was 59 points higher. There's your business case.”

Getting Better

One thing that Iain comments on is the way in which, particularly for their NHS contracts, the COVID-19 crisis has brought together Interserve employees and the people they work with in NHS buildings. There’s no question that a crisis helps to sharpen our focus on the things which really matter: 

“In the last three months you've got real shared purpose. No matter who pays your salary, if it's the UK Government or if it's Interserve, as key workers they've all come together. They probably haven't written it [purpose] down. They haven't come together to ask, ‘right guys, what is the shared purpose here?’ It's easy, right? It's save lives, and look after each other.”

So what does the future look like for customer experience at Interserve, and what lessons can we learn from them? I think there are a few key points:

  • Demonstrate the value of customer research in saving and developing accounts

  • Make the bridge between research and account management

  • Prove the benefit of investing in customer relationships through changes to scores from year to year

  • Most important of all, understand that relationships are what lift you above commoditisation:

“I do think customer experience in B2B is more and more about relationships. Without that what you’ve developed is a commodity, because all you'll ever do is meet the rational needs and not the emotional needs.” 

Iain Shorthose

Director of Customer & Workplace Experience

For 15 years, Iain has been developing and delivering Customer strategies for organisations ranging from those focused on specific sectors, to those with diverse propositions and Global operational footprints. He has established CX Strategies that are sustainable, offer a compelling reason for change, and are engaging for people.