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The real value of customer service

Jul 17th

We’ve all heard and experienced a lot of claptrap about customer service, but who’s really putting the customer first? This issue also includes: The Arab Spring; keeping strategy simple; and how to deal with an awful boss.

Editor’s view

The real value of customer service

We’ve all heard and experienced a lot of claptrap about customer service. Which company doesn’t put their customer first? Or rather which company really does? Of course there is good theory (e.g. ‘the Customer value chain’ showing that higher customer service leads to higher profits₁)

I’ve been working recently with two companies which really do go that extra mile and see customer service as major competitive advantage. They’re both in very different markets – one high end luxury consumer brand, the other a commodity supplier, essentially business-to-business. Both are in ‘challenger’ market positions, with some much bigger and more powerful brands ahead of them.

For the luxury brand, personal service is at the heart of their brand promise. For them the trick is not just about teaching their staff customer service by rote. It is about enabling their staff to gain a deep understanding of individual customers and to respond to those in a personal, authentic and empathetic way. The latter requires so much more than the plastic smiling ‘have a good day’ style of customer service.

For the commodity supplier, customer service is about creating relationships in the round with their customers (who in turn sell to consumers). So having market research about consumers is valuable if it helps the customer; investing in marketing direct to consumers is valuable if it helps the customer; ditto the basics of supplying the goods in full, on time and to quality which may mean sophisticated modelling and building in of flexibility in the supply chain around customer demands.

For both these companies, their route to customer service is something rather more than a one off brand slogan. It requires a whole company culture of service, responding to customer (and internally to colleague) needs. It requires being on the front foot, anticipating customer needs, always looking ahead. And it requires leadership that walks that talk every moment.

1 Harvard Business Review 2008, ‘Putting the Service-Profit chain to work’ by James L. Heskett, Thomas O. Jones, Gary W. Loveman, W. Earl Sasser, Jr., and Leonard A. Schlesinger

In the news

The Arab Spring

The failings of many of the Arab regimes under threat comes from years of political suppression and dictators who are wholly out of touch with their people. I can’t help but reflect on what this means for leaders in organisations.

Reading Sherard Cowper-Coles recent memoir ‘Cables from Kabul’ shows the intensity of diplomatic life in its most important role. The issues are of life and death and require leadership on an international scale against a problem of great complexity. I witnessed glimpses of this as a consultant at the embassy in Kabul. The memoir shows the deep frustration in efforts to herd the international community (notably the US) into common positions and policies.

Looking at wider developments on the international scene, the events of the Arab Spring must be grist to the chaos theorist’s mill. The failings of many of the Arab regimes under threat comes from years of political suppression and dictators who are wholly out of touch with their people. I can’t help but reflect on what this means for leaders in organisations.

Contrast those in their plush offices surrounded by flattering layers of cotton wool, with those who really tune into the people in their organisations. Increasingly the latter use their personal blogs to show how they are thinking and to elicit feedback (I’ve seen some of this with a few clients and on occasion the feedback is pretty brutal); they get themselves out and about, feeling the pulse of their organisation; their leadership moves to a higher level as they tune into the emotional resonances of their organisation.

Tip of the month

Keep strategy simple (KSS)

It’s one of the lesser joys of being an organisational consultant when the client hands you their latest strategy study. It’s invariably long and full of great analysis. All very clever stuff you are tempted to say, but does anyone really understand it? Most good strategy comes down to a few simple ideas which you can often express as simple ‘shifts’. These capture the essence of what is going to be different in the future, for example:

  • ‘Moving from being a regional player to being a global player’
  • ‘Moving from being a set of disconnected businesses to being one firm’
  • ‘Moving from a series of different technologies in different boxes to making the best use of all technologies across the company’

So next time you’re confronted with a complex strategy document, just ask what are the three or four things that are going to be different in the future from how they are today.

(And if anyone wants your theoretical source for this, point them to Ockham’s razor– from the 14th century philosopher William of Ockham’s dictum that in complex things, keep to the simplest explanation)

Your questions answered

I’ve got an awful boss, what shall i do?

Alas this is a question we come across too often for comfort. There are basically three types of answer, which depend on the one hand on the nature and degree of awfulness of the boss, and on the other on your own resilience and what is at stake for you.

Answer 1 – get out. Life is too short to work for an awful boss. If their behaviour is damaging (not just annoying) and beyond reconstruction, go.

Answer 2 – accommodate. This is the ‘learn to live with’ answer. Try and understand them a bit better and what drives some of their less attractive behaviour, build an understanding of how to duck when you see that behaviour coming, consider your own behaviour and relationship with your boss and what you might be contributing to their behaviour, learn the tactics to deal with them.

Answer 3 – convert. This puts you on a mission to help your boss improve. You need to be strong for this one and prepared to take some risks, e.g. in calling their behaviour, offering them constructive feedback, befriending them, coaching them and showing them better paths (without challenging their authority), engaging others in the campaign. This all requires a good degree of skill and knowledge of how to make personal interventions.

Alas none of these answers answer the real questions, which are:

  • Why are there so many awful bosses?
  • Why do so many people suffer their awful bosses in silence?

This article is filed under: Change, employee motivation, , executive coaching, leadership, organisational culture, people, strategy, strategy implementation, team leadership

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