Top 50 tips to achieving customer service excellence

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This piece was written by Chris Tyrrell, Senior Assessor with standards organisation Customer Service Excellence (CSE). Customer Service Excellence was set up and trade marked by the Cabinet Office.

With the economy still as unpredictable as ever, with major organisations going into administration every week, good customer service is more important now than it ever has been for companies not only to survive, but also thrive.

With this in mind, and with the business scene as competitive as ever, we’ve gone out and asked a number of our leading assessors for some top tips to help businesses achieve Customer Service Excellence. Here are our top tips:

Core Values

1 - When companies identify, agree, and embed clear core values, staff start pulling together to achieve better delivery of all aspects of the business, including customer service. Staff and where possible, customers should be involved in agreeing the values

2 - Once in place appraisal and supervision processes structured around the core values help to further embed them. This should happen regularly

Broad statements

3 - Every customer would like a personalised, customised service, whereas the most cost-effective service delivery is ‘one size fits all’. Excellent customer satisfaction should be achieved when the provider strikes the right balance between the two

4 - Excellent customer service may mean a premium can be charged for that service – but only up to a limit. The skill is knowing what that limit is

5 - No organisation can provide excellent customer service unless everybody, whatever their function and whatever their place in the hierarchy, recognises they have customers, be they external – or internal

6 - No organisation can count on excellent service delivery unless frontline services get excellent service delivery from internal/corporate/support services for whom they are an internal customer. Staff job satisfaction supports customer service satisfaction. The same applies to any organisations you work in partnership with to deliver your services

7 - No organisation can survive by treating its customers as an homogenous mass – you need to segment your customers in ways that make sense to you as the service provider – and to them as the customer. And give your customer segments catchy titles such as ‘Income rich – Time poor’ or ‘Asset rich – Income poor’

No organisation really likes complaints – but they provide unsolicited customer feedback

8 - The organisation can learn from such feedback and improve its service delivery. By publishing the actions and service improvements it has taken as a result of complaints and comments, it can demonstrate it is a ‘listening and learning’ organisation, and welcomes customer feedback

9 - The received wisdom that ‘customers will pass good customer service onto half-a-dozen people, while bad customer service gets spread much more widely, can be turned on its head. A swift, effective, resolution of a complaint can transform the customer’s perception

10 - It’s good practice to ask a complainant what outcome they would like – and then check whether they’re satisfied with the outcome achieved

11 - Again, it’s good practice to empower frontline staff to deal with customer service issues when they arise, if they can – but, if they do, it’s important to capture those expressions of dissatisfaction, or ‘informal complaints’ in order spot any emerging issues that could lead to formal complaints

12 - It’s not good practice for an organisation to set a cap on the maximum number of complaints that should be received – it sends the wrong message to staff, who may feel they’re encouraged to ignore or not designate dissatisfaction as a complaint

13 - Another good practice is to encourage customers to submit complaints though all the access channels available, while offering the support of frontline staff to assist them

14 - A very good practice is to scan incoming emails for key words expressing some form of dissatisfaction, and then fast-tracking those emails

15 - Do not say – “this is the first time anyone has mentioned this” – wrong message! It can be seen as casting doubt on the validity of the feedback

16 - Ensure, if you are providing a service with a commercial partner, that they have a compatible approach to complaints handling – and that you are notified of all complaints and their outcome

Channel Shift to online service provision, support, information and payment:

17 - Invite real customers in to check out the relevance and accessibility of the on-line offering. As they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch!

18 - Assuming you’ve done your customer segmentation, then make sure what the preferred access channel of each segment is – and if it includes customers who can’t, or prefer not to, use online services, then make sure there’s a viable alternative for them

19 - Use your website to demonstrate your transparency as an organisation by publishing your:

  • a. Core business standards and your performance against them
  • b. Your standards for the timeliness and quality of response to customer contact, and your performance against them
  • c. An explanation of any dips in performance, together with any remedial or preventive action you are taking
  • d. Action you are taking in response to customer satisfaction surveys, comment cards, and complaints

20 - A good practice is to pro-actively search incoming emails for words expressing urgency

Survey fatigue – the need to plan how you survey customers

21 - Your analysis of customer segments should reveal how each segment would be preferred to be consulted, and how often!

22 - Consultation should be a mixture of quantative (e.g. surveys) and qualitative (e.g. forums, focus groups and the response to open ended questions in surveys)

23 - The Net Promotor Score (NPS) is a particularly useful technique. This is a simple but powerful tool that allows you to track over time the response to the key question: ‘ to what extent would your customers recommend your service on a scale of one to 10’ This would need to be backed up by more detailed analysis of customer survey data to explore any issues

24 - Don’t treat your customers as a homogenous mass – if you’ve identified customer segment, and you provide various services to them, then the logic is to compare and contrast the relative satisfaction levels of each segment with each service it receives

25 - Be sure you know the statistical significance of your survey results – is a two percent year-on-year apparent improvement, a real improvement? BUT ALSO, be aware the more you dig down into the data (see point above), the less reliable the trend and comparative data becomes

26 - Extensive research by IPSO/MORI has shown that 2/3 of the difference of the levels of customer satisfaction with UK public services is down to main drivers of customer satisfaction and two other subsidiary drivers. These apply equally to the private sector. Make sure your customer satisfaction surveys cover these drivers – delivery, timeliness, access and the quality of customer service

27 - Mystery shopping can be a useful supplementary tool, especially if it is carried out by trained customers

28 - If you are commissioning external survey consultants, ask them to strip out and forward the text comments before they process the raw data and validate the results, which may take weeks, if not months

29 - The views of the five percent dissatisfied may be worth more than those of the 95 percent satisfied!

30 - It is not good practice for the person providing the service to supervise the filling out of a customer survey. This should be done by someone independent

31 - If you’re regularly getting customer satisfaction ratings above 90 percent, then it may be lulling you into a false sense of security. Try focusing on raising the level of ‘very satisfieds’.

Driven by the top management but embraced by all staff:

32 - Everybody and I mean everybody, in the organisation should have a customer-focused key work objective/competence/behaviour in their job description for recruitment and induction, and subsequent performance reviews

33 - Again, all staff need to be encouraged to put forward their ideas for service improvement, especially newcomers who bring a new perspective, and management need to show how they’ve responded to these suggestions

34 - Management need to pro-actively recognise (and, if appropriate, reward) staff who suggest customer service improvements or who go beyond the call of customer service duty

35 - Senior Managers also need to demonstrate, on a regular basis, their personal commitment to excellent customer service

36 - Don’t hide compliments – they should be brought up at annual appraisal, but also publicised more widely to encourage other staff to put these forward – and challenge the British reticence of not blowing our own trumpet

Experiencing the customer journey. Every organisation has its process path diagrams, but:

37 - Test out the actual customer journey – the process path may represent the theoretical customer journey but how do you test it in practice? It’s important to capture the customers’ experiences:

  • a. Ask a group of customers to record their emotional highs and lows along their journey
  • b. Alternatively, structure a customer survey to ask customers about their experiences and emotions along the journey
  • c. As a last resort, ask staff who are not involved to mystery shop the customer journey
  • d. Reducing unnecessary customer contact along their journey should be a key objective for any customer-focused organisation. There are various ways of doing this - customer journey mapping (above) is one example. Good practice for call centres is to log each call as to whether it could have been avoided by e.g. accessing the web site
  • e. Get managers to ‘work the talk’ - do a frontline job for a day or more

Delivering the service – at the office, in the customer’s home, or elsewhere:

38 - Always acknowledge the new customer, especially if you can’t deal with them immediately

39 - Apologise for any un-due wait - don’t do it automatically, and please don’t give the customer an automatic ‘have a nice day’. Try and personalise it, within the organisation’s acceptable boundaries

40 - Ensure that any private interview facilities are well publicised. Customer-facing staff should pro-actively recognise when this might be appropriate

41 - Immediately identify any other unspoken assistance needs and arrange for them to be provided

42 - It’s good practice in reception areas to separate out different customer streams

43 - Where the nature of the service is that there are queues (e.g. post offices or call centres), it is good practice to let waiting customers know what the current response waiting time is

44 - If you’ve arranged to meet a customer at their home, ring (if appropriate) to confirm, or if you’re going to be delayed, and always show your identification

45 - Good practice is to ask a customer who uses a wheel chair, a visually impaired customer, and a hearing-impaired customer to experience, and report on the customer journey through your publically accessible areas

46 - Manage customer expectations – keep them informed about the progress of their enquiry, request for service, or complaint

47 - Be careful if you operate a queuing system that issues tickets to those who arrive, in order, and then call them by their appointment time - which will upset those with earlier ticket numbers!

Benchmarking – Don’t rely on your own feedback and management information

48 - Benchmark your core business performance against sector comparators

49 - Benchmark the timeliness and quality of response to customer contact – but comparators need not necessarily be in the same sector

50 - If you have Service Standards or a Customer Charter or Pledge always review on an annual basis that you actually delivered them and publicise the results to your customers. This will show your promises are genuine and deliverable and will stop them becoming cosmetic statements. As a result you will deliver excellence!

About Jamie Lawrence

Jamie Lawrence, HRZone

Jamie Lawrence is editor of global online HR publication and community HRZone.com. He is committed to driving forward the HR agenda and making sure that HR directors have the knowledge and insight necessary to make HR felt across the whole organisation. He regularly speaks to audiences of 250+ and has interviewed key HR industry names, including Daniel H. Pink. He has worked previously as a small business journalist and a copywriter and has published non-fiction that reached #2 on the NYT Children's Bestseller List. In his spare time Jamie likes writing fiction, films, fitness and eating out.

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