Putting customers at the centre of business

In a computer age driven by process and protocols, emotionally intelligent human interaction is paramount in achieving good customer service

Plenty of companies like to boast that they put the customer first, but creating a truly customer-centric culture takes more than a statement on a website or in a glossy brochure; it requires strategy, leadership and real commitment from employees and managers at every level and in every part of an organisation. It is not easy, but companies that get it right benefit, according to the Institute of Customer Service.

“Consumers and customers are far savvier than they were a decade ago, and they have higher expectations of good service,” says Jo Causon, the institute’s chief executive. “So organisations that can do this, that can deliver a customer-focused culture over a sustained period, are more likely to outperform their competitors over the longer term.”

Building that culture needs to start from the top. “Chief executives and boards need to lead by example, and demonstrate genuine commitment to customer service,” she says. “This means including a report in the accounts, talking to their investor community about it and treating it as a strategic business driver.” This will in turn mean the company works in a more collaborative way; if customer service is part of the company’s core strategy it has to be part of all departments and all individuals’ performance measures.Key elements of customer centricity

First Direct

This is the case at First Direct, where every person in every department is measured against how effectively they deliver against the company’s customer relationship goals, according to Tracy Garrad, the bank’s chief executive. It is also a core part of her own role. From her open-plan office, she can monitor the displays that show how many callers are waiting for help from the contact centre. If things are not progressing as smoothly as she would like, she will walk down the hall and pick up the phone herself.

“I spend time in the call centre at least once a month,” she says. “And if I have a complaint directed to me, I’ll ring the customer about it. There’s often a bit of a shock when I ring them and tell them who I am… but I think it is important for business leaders to be close to what’s going on.”

Alongside this, customer satisfaction is on Ms Garrad’s leadership team meeting agenda every week. “We also have a voice of the customer forum every month, looking at every piece of insight we have from customers and with front-line staff telling us how we are doing,” she says.

How companies optimise the customer experience for each of the following tactics

Customer insight

Customer insight comes from a variety of sources. Some of it is fairly conventional, such as “point-of-contact surveys” – short questionnaires sent to customers after they have interacted with the bank by phone, web or e-mail – and support from specialist providers, but Ms Garrad also keeps a close eye on less traditional measures. “We track sentiment, especially changing sentiment, on social media,” she says. “I have live feeds next to my desk and I review them personally.”

Keeping an eye on Twitter, Facebook and their like gives the bank a way of monitoring unexpected customer feedback, and creates the opportunity to respond fast to criticism. This allows it to resolve the customer’s problem and, hopefully, change the message being conveyed by his or her posts. “We don’t always get things right the first time, so if a customer contacts us with negative feedback on social media, we track that feedback, respond and see how fast we can turn it around,” says Ms Garrad.

There is no room for ‘computer says no’ – the world is more and more driven by process and systems, but there is a major requirement for human interaction

Nick Wheeler, the founder of Charles Tyrwhitt, is another business leader who puts customer service at the centre of his thinking. For instance, he invites customers to e-mail him directly if they want to raise a concern or, more often, praise someone for great service, says Mathis Wagner, the shirt company’s head of customer services. “Service is one of the three pillars of the company,” he says. “We try to make it as easy as possible to do business with us, so we are open 24/7, you can call, e-mail, web chat with us in a number of languages.”

Putting the customer first

All staff, not just those who interact directly with companies, are expected to put the customer first – something that is made clear from the moment new recruits join the company. “Whether you start in the buying department or IT or whatever, and regardless of the level at which you join, you will spend time in customer services,” says Mr Wagner. “They listen in to calls in the contact centre and get a feel for how it is to interact with our customers on a daily basis.”

This helps cement the customer at the centre of their thinking and helps them to understand how their own department relates to that. For instance, an IT professional will better grasp the importance of prioritising technical requests raised on behalf of customers or developing websites that better meet their needs.

The qualities companies look for in their new recruits is just as important as how they are inducted. The best look for people who have high levels of emotional intelligence, a good grasp of commercial reality and the ability to use technology to solve customers’ problems rather than being a slave to it.

There is no room for “computer says no”, says Ms Causon. “The world is more and more driven by process and systems, but there is a major requirement for human interaction. Good customer service requires people who can read the situation and react appropriately – they know when to approach a customer and when to leave them alone, whether they are interacting in person or through a web chat window, for instance.”

They will also be able to think innovatively about what customers really want and how their organisation can deliver it, in collaboration with another company, if necessary, she says. “For example, if I am going to fly short haul, I don’t choose who I fly with by the airline, but by the airport. I often go from City because it’s close, the security is quick, they have decent coffee and there are plenty of charging points so I can get work done while I wait.

“Customers aren’t interested in just one part of the picture… so what is going on now is about the ability to collaborate across many industries to create an end-to-end customer experience.”