Customer Insight

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Customer service starts at the top

By TLF Research

Don Hales, Founder & Chairman of Judges of the National Customer Service Awards has had the opportunity to study at close quarters customer service in many leading organisations in every service sector. He is convinced that the secret to great customer service lies in leadership. He has linked with leading research organisation, Glowinkowski International to establish the behaviours of top customer service leaders...

My main professional interest lies in customer service and proving the link between great service and its beneficial effect upon the bottom-line. Occasionally however my business activities stray into other fields and this was so a few years ago when, on the strength of the reputation of the National Customer Service Awards, I was invited by the British Computer Society to advise and help them with their award programme. My IT skills do not extend beyond those rudimentary enough to get me around Word, Excel and PowerPoint but I do know about running award programmes and together we reinvigorated the BCS IT Awards, such that they now rival the National Customer Service Awards in size and delivery.

What I did not anticipate was that from my liaison with the BCS would spring a project that, I believe, can be a lynchpin in our understanding of how to produce great service on a consistent and profitable basis. My opinion has always been that great, and for that matter poor, service starts at the top of an organisation and percolates all the way down if the vision and strength of the leader is strong enough. Just look at the companies in the UK that enjoy reputations for great service – John Lewis, Tesco, First Direct and others – in all cases the passion and commitment starts at the very top.

It is the same for poor service. In my area, we recently had an example. A young man chained himself to a bed in the window of a local furniture store and refused to move until the company delivered the bed that he had ordered months before but which consistently failed to be delivered. The police were called and tried to reason with him. He explained the history of how many calls he had made and of all the broken promises. Unsurprisingly, the company managed to deliver the bed whilst this saga was being played out to the amusement of the midweek shoppers. The local paper carried the story on its front page and what stood out for me was the statement that when he had tried to ring the managing director at the furniture company, he was told “the M.D. does not talk to customers” That being the case, what do you think aspiring executives feel they need to do to reach the pinnacle in that company? Well, not speaking to customers would be high on the list. As I said it starts at the top.

So what has all this got to do with the British Computer Society? Well whilst I was working with them, I was able to observe a research project that was taking place in the IT industry. It was a project aimed at determining the behaviour characteristics of top IT directors. The rationale behind the project came from within the IT industry and was ignited by the feeling that IT directors are not always sufficiently influential at the senior boardroom level to get the IT message across. This got my ears pricked up because it mirrors exactly what I continually hear coming from customer service professionals. The thought behind the project was that if it was possible to determine the characteristics or behaviours of leading IT directors, it would be easier to develop future leaders to that level thereby raising the standard and ultimately providing enough IT directors of the right kind to strengthen the IT message at the very top of the organisation.

As the project began to unfurl and the research became published, I was sufficiently encouraged by the enthusiasm and interest shown by the IT community to discuss with the research company, Glowinkowski International, the possibility of running a parallel project for customer service leaders.

The result is that I have linked with David Physick of Glowinkowski to develop the Customer Service Directors’ Competency Framework. The aim is to develop a behavioural competency framework for senior service leaders, including customer service directors, customer relations directors and heads of departments in these areas.

At this stage it is important that the Glowinkowski definition of competency, for the purpose of this research is understood. They use the original definition of the word as “characteristic behaviours associated with organisational success” If we can define the characteristic behaviours of successful customer service lead-ers, then we know what to look for and develop as we recruit, train, coach and inspire the customer service leaders of tomorrow. For certain, we are going to need them because, in today’s commercial world, service levels will increasingly be the differentiating value that will determine success for the majority of organisations.

The research being carried out has two main strands. The first is quantitative and the second is qualitative. The quantitative research comprises of a questionnaire and to make sure that the outcome is sound, we need as many service leaders as possible to complete the document (on-line, or by hand). Already we have well over 100 completed questionnaires, enough to provide reliable information. There is still time to add to the data and any reader who is a customer service leader is invited to contact me to participate. As an incentive, it is worth pointing out that all participants will receive a free copy of the research findings which will otherwise only be available on a commercial basis from Glowinkowski International.

The second and qualitative part of the research comprises a series of focus groups. The intention of the focus groups is to examine again the question of “what are the behavioural competencies associated with superior performance as a customer service leader?”. Although the questions asked at the focus groups are couched within these terms and extended to address some of the points that have been thrown up by the early returned questionnaires, the discussions have been far-ranging and have provoked and stimulated strong and intense discussions.

Early Findings

Although it is too early to draw final and firm conclusions from the initial inputs, and the final report is unlikely to be available until the New Year, already some interesting insights are emerging. The research shows that outstanding customer service leaders:

  • are keen students of customer service and look beyond the boundaries of their own industry sector
  • spend time, effort and energy in making sure that they continue to be in touch with customers on a regular basis – meeting them and making sure that they are aware of customer feelings and trends
  • are proactive also in dealing with customers, approaching them – rather than just waiting for the dissatisfied customers with whom they feel that they are obliged to deal
  • make sure that they are involved in organisational strategy and that the customer is at the centre of this
  • are tenacious in pursuing their goals for customers but are also flexible in their approach, keeping an open mind for changing dynamics
  • learn from service failures, rather than just fixing the problem, thereby ensuring future service improvement
  • are committed to development of staff, including themselves, to improve the overall customer experience
  • understand the value associated with service, enabling them to quantify the costs and benefits of service improvements when seeking investment by the organisation

Service remains the most crucial area for most companies to develop if they are to continue to survive. The importance of the subject is such that the development of customer service leaders is vital to the well being of UK commerce and industry. This being so, the timing of the Customer Service Directors’ Competency framework is absolutely right. The results are awaited with keen anticipation but meantime there is still an opportunity to become involved.

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