Leadership and Customer Service

Customer service is one of the most important aspects of running an organisation, no matter what it is that the organisation does. Every organisation has customers. Essentially customer service is simple, but it seems that it’s hard to deliver consistently. Start well with it, and it’s great. Let it slip, and disaster can strike. We all know what good customer service looks, and feels like, and we’ve all experienced the opposite. If we know that, you’d imagine that all organisations would consistently want to deliver the best.

Well, of course, the best way to give amazing customer service is to make sure that we understand precisely what our customers want. And what they want alters; sometimes vendors don’t change to match want or need. Sounds easier than it is and if we look hard at how customers interface with our organisation and how they, the customers, interact with it and, more importantly, how the organisation interacts with them. One has only to look at High Streets around the world to see how this is a huge reality. Many High Streets retailers wait until the bitter end before they properly realise that people who were their customers are now buying elsewhere – other retailers or via the Internet. Customer service is as much about marketing and business strategy planning as it is about making you feel valued face-to-face.

It's important that every single employee, no matter what s/he does in any organisation, knows what the organisation’s brand is, what it means to the outside world and what’s good about it.  Do customers like the brand or love it? Why? If the brand is disliked for any reason, are the reasons known? A brand is the essence of what makes an organisation what it is. It stands for something – safety, taste, ability to do what it should do, trustworthiness, quality, delivery and so on. The variables are long and wide. People talk tweet and blog about these things – all the time, 24/7. Word of mouth or its digital equivalent is the most powerful ally we have on our side in the promotion of any brand. What customers say or write can make, or indeed break, any business. Customers remember the brands they like. Some brands, of course, are wanted, desired and cherished, but not always possible to have. We can’t all have a Rolls Royce or a newly built house in the Bahamas. We can’t all have the latest iPhone but we can save for one, and we’ll feel we’ve reached a satisfying pinnacle when we get it. Brands pull interest and customers which is why many brands that excel in one thing such as, for example, heavy machinery (John Deere, say) now make a great deal of money out of related products such as boots,  work wear and some fashion. Brands must be looked after and safeguarded – important when one realises that the Coca Cola brand, for instance, is worth more than the actual company itself.

Consumers are by and large technologically savvy. With the proliferation of communication devices and the ubiquity of Internet access, people have easy access to companies and services. The result is that customers are more discerning about levels of service and have far higher expectations. They want value, yes, and they demand service certainly. It was a mantra that, for example, the Apple shops began to promulgate from the outset. The value was perceived as a benefit and product price sometimes took a secondary role. Apple also understands that fantastic in-store service, help, care and reassurance all ensures that the experience for a customer is first class. Customer service is of course all about the experience. You can also argue that the same approach sits with McDonald’s where, again from the outset, every outlet would look the same, with the same products and the same quality service. That’s altered a bit of course where in certain countries different cultures and religions demand different products – but the overall principle is still the same.

These days, people will only stay loyal to a company if there is a good reason to stay to do so. As a result, an organisation has to work even harder to keep customers and build their trust in the brand. By providing the best in customer service, the trust grows - and that could mean the difference between customer loyalty and customers who jump ship. In the UK not long ago, major bank TSB (part of Santander) upgraded its back-office software and hardware. Systems crashed overnight and stayed crashed for some time. Some accounts were emptied by cybercriminals while others were hit by fraud. The problem existed for months, and the effects were disastrous with people even now seeking full reimbursement. Customers left in droves not least because the then CEO didn’t publicly and quickly state what the position was and what regarding the resolution. Telling customers via radio and TV interviews not to worry when all about them there was chaos caused outrage. Railway companies frequently apologise for delays and cancellations, but in this case, there’s no choice for customers, so they have to bear it. None of these customers would be classed as loyal if there was a choice.

Loyalty is also partly born out of the process of what happens to complaints.  If customers know that they can voice complaints and that those issues are handled properly, they will feel more comfortable and remain as customers. Interestingly, there are still massive organisations which don’t seem much to care how customers feel about the way they’re treated. That’s down to lack of leadership, lack of management, lack of training, lack of awareness and lack of intelligence.

No matter whether customers receive terrific or dreadful customer service, they will always remember it. Even if a customer has been buying from a business for years, one poor customer service error can damage the entire relationship – forever. It could also lead to bad press damaging the entire brand’s reputation. Often, for certain types of businesses, customer service is the only contact a customer has with that organisation. Some businesses have customers for months or even longer without having to interact with them. Usually, those customers will only contact a business if they have a question or if they want to repurchase or have an issue with a product/service. Customers will expect the customer service department to solve their issues or answer questions. When that doesn’t happen, it’s more likely than ever that the customer will go elsewhere if he or she can. And all it needs is to be kept waiting and to listen to Vivaldi for half an hour and then finding another thirty minutes later that your concern is still not satisfied. Organisations need to be much more careful about the whole customer experience. They must also mean what they say and say what they mean. 

Great customer-centric companies usually have one fundamental quality in common: customer-centric leadership and management which will communicate everything about customer focus to the entire organisation. Superb training and regular reinforcement is part of the culture. These organisations constantly seek new ideas and improved methods of implementation. The restaurant chain Yo Sushi made a great hit out of what the Japanese had been doing for years – running dishes of food on a conveyor belt right in front of diners. Add tasty food to that gimmick, and people loved it. However over the years there was nothing to add to the idea and the business became stale and lost ground – and customers. Market leadership had dissipated.

A true leader does one very important thing: lead. The more employees who embrace customer service and strive to become customer service leaders, the higher the likelihood an organisation will succeed. Praising and rewarding exemplary customer service (actually at any level) are both seen as important motivators. But that has to be done properly and with as much planning and clever thought as any other part of the business. Motivation leads to excellence. Consistent excellence will lead to brilliant customer service that others envy. Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “The secret of success is the consistency of purpose.” Becoming a customer service leader takes effort and consistency. Most important, employees who enjoy offering great customer service to happy customers tend to be very happy employees.

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