Customers’ and staff needs should not clash

It’s a growing challenge for organisations in all sectors. Customers are becoming evermore demanding while, at the same time, employees are increasingly concerned about work-life balance with employers having to offer more employment benefits to attract and retain the best staff.  How do business leaders balance these two apparently conflicting demands?

Amazon, for example, offers what many consider to be excellent customer service, but complaints about the way in which it treats its staff and the pressure it puts them under are aired regularly. Ryanair has long been criticised for the way in which it treats customers; a poll this summer of 87 global airlines based on quality and service ranked it at 83rd. But the fallout from its pilot rostering fiasco reveals how badly it has managed its staff too.

Certainly business leaders are aware of this challenge. Ninety per cent of them believe that engaged workers are better suited to provide superior customer service, but nearly the same percentage (87 per cent) say they face hurdles when trying to improve employee experience.

“The past 15 or so years have seen a relentless focus on revolutionising customer experience through digital transformation,” says Chris Barbin, chief executive of Appirio, a company that helps customers improve employee and customer experiences, and commissioned the research from Forrester Consulting. “Executives are just now beginning to understand how worker experience ultimately impacts the customer and the company’s bottom line. This is no longer an issue that lives only in human resources. Time and time again we see that the top-performing companies are the ones prioritising the worker.”

Technology is inevitably offering solutions to the problem of keeping staff and customers happy. Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust employs 11,000 staff who treat more than a million patients a year. But the annual staff survey placed it in the bottom 20 per cent of trusts nationally for employee engagement. Patients were also all too often dissatisfied. So the trust turned to a company called Qualtrics, which describes itself as “the world’s first experience management platform”.

Complex data analysis and machine-learning technology were used to examine employee feedback and develop new initiatives. These have forged greater collaboration across the trust with a survey revealing that 80 per cent of staff are engaged at work, while 72 per cent would recommend Imperial as a place to work. This in turn has resulted in better outcomes, lower mortality rates and an improved patient experience.

At the ibis hotel chain, mobile software enables employees to access information while being freed up to interact with guests, approaching them to offer help rather than waiting to be approached. This mobility has allowed ibis to remove the traditional check-in desk, with employees now trained to greet guests on arrival with room keys in hand.

Check-in and checkout are easier and more personal with staff encouraged and empowered to offer greater customer service. The idea is that this friendlier, more personal experience leads to greater customer loyalty. Three quarters of ibis employees are millennials who use their mobile devices for many tasks in their lives and so it’s familiar to them. It also offers them the opportunity to interact with guests, improving their job satisfaction, the company says.

BMW this year launched an “intrapreneur” programme. An internal innovation lab offers the company’s 1,300 UK employees time away from their day jobs to develop ideas to meet the challenge of shifting customer demands, in a process backed by the company. A number of ideas will be put forward for the backing of the Saïd Business School at Oxford University.

Collaborative working spaces can help employees feel more engaged with their organisation and connected to each other, and therefore better placed to identify new ways to serve their customers.

“We understand that our customers need help and support often out of working hours. To accommodate this, and to ensure our team isn’t restricted to working unsociable hours in the office, we let our customer service team work from home for their evening and weekend shifts,” says Matt Fox, chief executive of last-minute holiday rental provider

A happy and engaged team deliver a better experience for the customer

With clients who expect a very high level of service, luxury companies face a particular challenge. However, Laura Brown, retail director at Harrods, sees no conflict as celebrating good customer service makes staff feel good.

“A happy and engaged team deliver a better experience for the customer,” she says. The company has launched the Knightsbridge Club as a way of sharing stories of great customer service that inspire others. “One nomination was prompted by a customer letter,” says Ms Brown.

“A lady came in after a sudden downpour. A member of staff noticed that her espadrilles were sodden, so she invited her to take a seat and ran up to the staff loos to dry them under the hand dryer. The customer was almost in tears. With these small things you get an interaction that is beyond just selling; it’s about a relationship between two people and that creates an incredible sense of pride among staff.”

Instead of conflicting tensions, those companies thinking more imaginatively about how they operate are finding that a contented workforce and satisfied customers are actually two sides of the same coin.