By Stephen Hampshire, Client Manager, TLF Research
In March we hosted our Annual Client Conference in London, returning to One Great George Street’s impressive Brunel lecture theatre and Great Hall. Whether they’ll let us back after Rob built a campfire on stage is another question…but more on that later.
The conference is our chance to get clients together to share ideas, to learn from each other, and to be inspired. This year was a sell out, with 240 clients and friends coming to London to hear three clients share their stories alongside Sir Ranulph Fiennes and some TLF speakers. There was lots of opportunity for networking (and drinking wine) to round the day off.
Greg Roche, TLF Research – “What is World Class?”
Greg opened the day by breaking down 10 simple (though not easy) things which the best organisations do to create world class customer experiences. First, though, he reminded us why customer satisfaction is so important: it’s only when satisfaction is very high that customers behave in ways which are good for the business. He completed a quick run-through of the Service Profit Chain by pointing out that it’s your people who create good (or bad) customer experiences.
“For your customers to be more satisfied tomorrow than they are today, someone has to do something different in your organisation.”
The 10 principles can be used as a checklist for you to examine (and improve) your own customer experience programme. Have a look through the list and think about how you would score.
1 - Senior management commitment
2 - Understanding ‘perception is reality’ (& sometimes it is perception that needs to change, not reality)
3 - Don’t let ‘paralysis by analysis’ cause inaction
4 - Focus on the priorities for improvement
5 - Implement actions...& do it quickly (the smallest action achieves more than the greatest of intentions)
6 - Strong communication to all levels of staff of customer needs
7 - Align targets and bonuses to customer satisfaction to keep employees motivated & focused
8 - Make external & internal suppliers responsible for delivering customer satisfaction
9 - Have a robust process for handling problems
10 - Impactful communication to customers using the ‘you said, we did’ mantra at all levels
Greg revealed that there’s a secret eleventh entry—you need to be in it for the long haul, which he illustrated with a metaphor. If you water giant timber bamboo every day for 3 years it will grow wildly (90 feet in 60 days), but only after 3 years of patient perseverance with little visible result.
Changing an organisation’s culture is much the same, it often takes persistent effort over years for the rewards to become apparent. This is an effect we can observe with our own clients, whose customer satisfaction scores often accelerate after the third or fourth year of working with us. When they do, the financial benefits are well worth it, but it all starts with sustained effort by employees.
Stephen Hampshire, TLF Research - The Top of the Pyramid
Stephen spoke about the links between customer insight and service design, and argued that a design thinking approach to the customer experience requires a combination of insight (from talking to customers) and intuition. Somehow this involved the Great Pyramid of Khufu, artisan furniture makers, Philippe Starck, M&S queues, and Mailchimp.
“Design is not about making things look good, it’s about helping people to get things done.”
He argued that talking to customers (qualitative research) is the best way to understand them, to build up empathy for how they feel and why. Effective experience design means being clear about how you want customers to feel, and then fusing your understanding of customers with insights from facts and figures, your own experience, and psychology to create those feelings.
Customer surveys are an effective jumping-off point for experience design. A design thinking mindset in customer experience can use research to take a more deliberate, systematic, and holistic approach to improvement.
“…it’s the meaning we create for customers that determines if our products and services are effective. The emotional dimension of an experience is not an add-on, it’s the core of the experience from the customer’s point of view.”
Ian Wakelin, Chief Executive, Biffa
Ian, who you may recognise from his appearance on Undercover Boss, spoke about the importance of the customer for Biffa. He started by explaining the surprisingly complex detail underlying waste recycling and processing, little of which is seen by customers, and why customer experience is so important for Biffa.
Waste is a highly regulated sector, so some of it is down to a vigilant regulator making sure that they are doing what they say they do, but more importantly it’s a very competitive sector. Particularly with commercial customers, rolling easily-terminated contracts, and a queue of people assuring customers that they could do a better job for less money, mean that meeting customer needs is paramount. With 3 million collections a week, as Ian said, “There are 3 million opportunities for us to get it wrong every week.”
As well as the core bin collections, 8 years ago Biffa was dealing with an enormous amount of queries from customers. Ian told us that their 75,000 customers contact Biffa a total of 1.4 million times a year. Managing that effectively, and eliminating a lot of unnecessary contact or replacing it with online self-service, is a clear win-win for Biffa and its customers.
When they looked at their call centre stats, they knew that more important than speed to answer or abandonment rate was the reason for the call. Digging into that would enable them to understand how to be better able to resolve the customer’s question there and then.
In terms of the core business of waste collection, for many customers the only priority is reliability. Biffa logged every instance of a failure to pick up a bin (a “103”), and these were published to encourage competition and peer pressure. Two missed collections in a row led to a “105”, and a trip to the Chief Exec’s office to explain.
Ian is a big fan of going back to the floor (though not necessarily of using Channel 4 to do it).
“You learn so much, as senior managers, from sitting next to the people who actually do the work. I’d encourage everyone to do it.”
He also stresses the importance of using a customer survey to understand what really matters to customers. Your sales people may be telling you that it’s all about price, but in Biffa’s case the most important factors were keeping promises, solving problems, and understanding customers’ needs. It might seem like a commodity market, but in fact service and reliability are more important than price.
To be effective, your business strategy must be simple (which doesn’t mean that the systems and processes which enact it are simple). In Biffa’s case that meant being easy to do business with and solving the customer’s problem first time. It has paid off. Over 8 years Biffa has seen an enormous drop in avoidable contact, improved customer satisfaction, and a huge increase in online bookings and self service. Unsurprisingly, the financial performance of the company has also been strong.
Hazel Fagon, Director, Visa
Hazel told us about Visa’s amazing transformation of the customer experience within their customer support service. Visa’s first line and second line support are a business to business function dealing with enquiries from their customers, the banks who issue the credit card you have in your wallet, or deal with the merchant you want to buy something from.
They started their journey back in 2004 with a score which, while not bad, was not something the business was happy with. As Hazel said, “When we did our first benchmark survey, we knew we had to do something.” That sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo is often important to getting the ball rolling on behavioural and culture change that can be very hard work.
Hazel talked about the importance of communication with customers, stakeholders, and staff; and, alongside that, listening to people and being seen to take action. She showed us photographs of a huge vinyl wall covering which Visa used to share the journey they had been on, their three year plan, and how it related to their vision in the centre.
“I thought it was important for all of the team to see it very clearly, and know what we were looking to achieve over the next three years.”
Regular communication of customer feedback, a clear focus on the Priorities for Improvement, and appropriate goals and targets have enabled them to sustain improvement. It’s also allowed them to put some myths to bed (for example data from their survey showed that updating customers is more important for customer satisfaction than the speed of handling queries).
“There’s nothing stronger than a comment, good or bad, being shared with an employee that has come from a customer.”
Now the key challenge for Visa is to maintain satisfaction at a very high level - the journey goes on.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes - A Life at the Limits
Sir Ranulph is the world’s greatest living explorer, so we were expecting to be gobsmacked. We were expecting tales of suffering and endurance in the harshest conditions on Earth. We were expecting world records. We were not necessarily expecting him to be so funny…albeit not particularly politically correct.
“If you get to the goal, you stick your flag there before anybody else sticks their flag in the same place…especially the French.”
For over an hour Sir Ranulph kept the room captivated with his straightforward storytelling, dry wit, and photographs from his decades of world-record-setting adventures. What did we learn? The main takeaways were the importance of grit and endurance and, above all, the fact that what Sir Ranulph calls the “motivation factor” is his most important criterion when recruiting people to join his expedition teams.
“How a person is motivated is how they behave for themselves, and therefore for their company or expedition.”
Rob Ward, TLF Design - Bringing the Voice of the Customer to Life
Rob began his talk, in the style of an underwhelmed A-lister winning a BAFTA, by video link. Fortunately he had, just about, managed to get himself to London (with a van load of props); and he soon emerged from a tent on stage to tell us about the story of storytelling. Stories have been with us since the dawn of time and, as Rob said, “As humans we crave stories.”
He went on to share an array of different ideas for bringing customer stories to life within your business, from videos and animation to infographics and Augmented Reality posters.
“The more you tell a story, the more you engage with your employees and customers, the more they’ll hear and respond to your messages.”
Catrin Jones, Director of Customer Services, Clarion Housing Group
Clarion Housing Group, recently formed by the merger of Affinity Sutton and Circle Housing Group has 125,000 homes, making it the biggest landlord in the UK. Catrin explained that it sees its purpose as being to build more affordable housing and that it believes its size gives it the strength and capacity needed to achieve the ambition of building 50,000 new homes over the next 10 years.
Clarion is a very modern housing association, but its heritage goes back to the 1900s. Its values and social purpose, as well as entrepreneurial spirit and need to change and adapt, can be traced back to William Sutton, who donated his fortune to build homes in London.
Bringing two companies together is always challenging, but Clarion has big ideas. Catrin said “We want to be not only the biggest, we want to be the best.”
Improving customer satisfaction required a focus on the transactional parts of the customer experience such as repairs, reporting antisocial behaviour and so on. They knew that empathy within the contact centre was very high, but that calls could be long and a bit uncontrolled. A programme of “Brilliant Basics” training was a great way to focus staff on looking for a solution, taking ownership, and getting the simple things right.
Surveys conducted by TLF revealed clear Priorities for Improvement from customers. In particular, customers understanding what was going to happen next and keeping customers informed were crucial. It also became clear that it was frustrating for staff if they felt like they were simply call handlers. By focusing on the most common queries being passed on, they were able to build knowledge at the front line, and increase the number of queries that could be dealt with at the first point of contact. This is better for customers and much more rewarding for staff.
For other staff, the customer could feel quite distant. It was essential to make all staff understand that, even if they never talk to a customer, they still made a difference. Bonuses played a part, but more importantly the ability to show that the changes being made were making a difference for customers was key.
Repairs can be a challenging service for many housing associations. Many years of repairs tracker surveys with highly specific questioning focused on the critical moments of truth in the customer journey have enabled Clarion to significantly improve resident satisfaction. Often very specific actions that are easy to implement will improve financial performance as well as satisfaction. For example, setting realistic expectations (e.g. if the repair may not be completed on the first visit) and keeping tenants informed about what’s happening if there are delays reduces incoming calls, saving money and creating time for call handlers to improve service by making more outbound calls to keep people informed.
In the repairs side of the business, there was work to do to restore the sense of empowerment that a move to digital control had taken away. For some tenants these are the staff that customers deal with most often, so their role in representing the organisation is crucial.
“Repairs operatives are the face of the company, they’re the people our customers see every day. There are lots of opportunities to get things wrong, but also lots of opportunities to impress.”