The value in developing customer service

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How can we motivate our people and increase the cash flow and improve profit per employee?

This article from Brian Birkby looks at the impact that developing customer service can have on achieving these aims. Does your organisation give 'lip service' or real service?

Is customer service training something 'done to' the employees for better results, or 'owned by' the employees?

The Keys for Success

From our customer’s perspective, service is, 'did we value the experience?'

Customer Service is arguably the most important area for any organisation, public, private or not-for-profit. For without customers, there is no reason to exist. 'Customer Results' is certainly the highest scoring element in the EFQM Excellence Model and customer service a significant feature within Charter Mark. Research shows that over a five year period, profit per employee for organisations using excellence approaches out-performed the industry average by almost 80%.

To be successful, it isn't necessary to possess the methods of production or supply. As Professor Mohamed Zairi, Head of the European Centre for Total Quality Management expounded in a March 2001 seminar: "Organisations don’t have to own the operation – they have to own the customer relationship."

Organisations that are leaders in their field tend to be consistent in looking for ways to improve service. They recognise that to continue to do the same, means falling behind.

There are three key areas for improving customer service:

  • determine what customers want;
  • involve people;
  • measure quality achievements.

We need to work at all three to secure a lead and stay ahead. So that’s the theory, what about the practice. Let’s look at examples of how these keys affected three different types of organisation.

KEY 1: Determine What Customers Want

A manufacturer wanted to find out what its business-to-business customers thought of the service it provided. It decided to arrange an independently conducted series of focus groups. Customers were asked what they thought of the service provided, for example, 'how easy were they to contact?' and, in later groups, were also asked to review products and advertising.

Just one of the many valuable and surprising facts to emerge was that customers felt the slogan, used by the supplier, insulted them. On its own it looked fine, but from the customer point of view, their perception was that it caused offence. Not surprisingly, the slogan has been changed.

It’s what you don’t know that’s commercially damaging.

KEY 2: Involve People

A commercial organisation was undergoing substantial change both in its sector and through merger. New business areas were being developed, people had been recruited and workloads were high.

This resulted in different skill levels, attitudes and experiences between established and new employees. There was a need for teamwork projects to assist departmental integration. The aim of the projects was intended to positively impact on the level of customer service provided and improve motivation.

One-to-one confidential 'depth interviews' were held with employees to help determine what they thought was important. These helped in the development of facilitated Service Improvement Days. At the SIDs, front-line people discussed what was going wrong and what projects would be valuable for them to work on.

The externally supported self-directed teams had responsibility for creating meaningful change. The participative and on-going nature of the process was value-adding; energising for individuals and process-improving for the organisation.

Involving people and recognising their achievement is motivating.

KEY 3: Measure Quality Achievements

A utility had area teams who worked with customers. It was decided to use customer satisfaction to improve performance.

Independently conducted meetings were held with employees to discuss what customers found important. After thorough discussion, it was agreed that the 'quality of the experience' was top of the list.

In this way, employees were involved in a non-threatening environment, in the design and creation of 'Achievement Tables' based on external not (the previous) internal measures.

Typical performance measures continued to be taken, for example backlog of work. However, these now had a customer service focus. Involving employees helped change the culture and customer satisfaction scores improved – because quality was measured.

You get what you measure, but measure quality to get value.

However, some people are only convinced by the 'bottom line', they see issues in purely financial terms. So imagine being able to tell the Finance Director of an organisation that to get bills paid early he needs to concentrate on customer service development and training.

To help concentrate minds, a mention of the research conducted into 3,000 British businesses could help. This found that where the organisation delighted its customers then on average they paid bills two weeks earlier than otherwise.

Where value is the aim in not-for-profit organisations then having effective customer service and delighting customers means crisper achievement of goals and fewer complaints, gaining cost efficiency.

Here are three key question areas:

  • Research
    What methods do we use to ask customers what they think about the service provided and how regularly do we ask them?

    Service leaders use a range of methods, focus groups, questionnaires, comment cards, complaints analysis, internal service audits etc. and they do it regularly.

  • Teambuilding
    To what extent do teams have ownership and can decide actions?

    Service leaders empower and enable teams to achieve; this is a motivator that has particular value in flatter organisations.

  • Skills
    How knowledgeable and enthusiastic are our people?

    Service leaders ensure that skill development is a constant, not an add-on. It is a investment in quality and a can-do culture.

Customer Service is ...
...how we do what we do!

Brian Birkby is a specialist in customer service with Birkby Lancaster Consulting. BLC assists organisations to manage change.and improve through qualitative research, teamworking and skill development.

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By schma_m
17th Nov 2001 12:31

I tend to agree with Brian's position. However, I would suggest it is not radical enough. Employees need to be involved at a deep and fundamental level. If they can be shown how their behaviour and actions directly affects the customer and future business, if they can be given the freedom to determine the means (it is the job of management to determine the ends) then things can go from bad to excellent!

Visit the idc interact web site's Great Game area for more details - you will read about Jack Stack and the amazing story of his company.

I am not associated with this company, but had dealings with them during my previous role as Training Development Manager for a national telecoms/electronics company.

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