In the City, You are Never More Than 6 Feet from a Customer Service Employee….

… to borrow from a well-known “ick-factor” myth.   Now whether or not it is true that in a city you are never more than 6 feet from a rat, a new survey from the Institute of Customer Service confirms that we are indeed very likely to be close to a customer service employee, given the dramatic rise in the number of people employed in these roles.

The number of people employed in customer service occupations has tripled since 2002 and now stands at 328, 000 which is 1.5% of the employed adult population. 

This means that there are slightly more customer service employees than accountants, more than twice as many as CIPD-registered Human Resources professionals and almost three times as many customer service employees as the number of practicing lawyers and Gas Safe heating engineers, prompting the Institute of Customer Service (IoCS) to argue for the professionalisation of the role.

It would certainly reflect the importance of the role to the economy, as the IoCS study reports that almost 77% of the UK’s GDP is now service related.  However, given that average earnings for customer service employees are 34% below the national average wage (£14,868 vs £22,568), the appropriateness of the urban myth of the title takes on another nuance.

Could it be that a good many employers are significantly undervaluing their customer service employees and the return on investment they bring? 

Are they concentrating on “putting bums on seats” rather than considering the unique qualities that enable someone to deliver outstanding and engaging brand-specific customer service?

Might they even have a view of the people who fill their critical customer-facing roles that indicates a “lesser species” mentality?

Yes it’s harsh and probably unfair, but let’s face it – the average customer service employee is paid only just over minimum wage, retention rates are expected to be low and at the coal-face individuals often feel eminently expendable and replaceable.  And aren’t customer service employees in contact centres often herded together en-masse in separate buildings to other employees, given highly controlled work to do and subjected to “special” management practices and expectations in order to get them to perform? 

I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that there may be similarities to the conditions of a lab rat. 

But, of course, this isn’t the whole picture.  Step in Anthony Thomson, Chairman and co-founder of Metro Bank, writing in yesterday’s HR magazine.  In this article, Anthony Thomson, who 14 months ago started the first UK bank with the explicit goal of creating a “bank that customers love” succinctly describes the central importance of treating employees well and valuing their unique aptitude for service to sustainable business success.  His 4 aims of :

  •  recruiting people who inherently want to give great service;
  • equipping them through training with the skills needed for the role;
  • rewarding them for service not sales; and,
  • empowering them to deliver the service they believe will make the difference to each customer,

 should be a clarion call to other banking leaders and demonstrates a clarity of vision that is rare in the sector.

All this is in sharp focus with the most recent FSA report on complaints in the banking sector which was released this week.  The financial sector received a staggering 1.85 million complaints in the first 6 months of 2011.  Although there are excuses presented  about the recent decisions made about the miss-selling of PPI inflating the complaints figures, the underlying number of complaints is shocking and indicative of fundamentally flawed thinking about customer service and customer satisfaction.

Unfortunately there has been little choice for banking customers but to grin and bear it. Although Barclays tops the league in number of complaints, all the other banks have similarly high levels of customer complaints which are simply the tip of the iceberg for dissatisfied customers. 

Despite contrite mutterings about the situation being disappointing and exciting new initiatives being introduced at the customer interface, the widespread tolerance at leadership level for such numbers of complaints demonstrates at the very least a depressing level of complacency in their willingness to really examine and change the way they work. 

Although tinkering around the edges, and seeking out useful positive customer service PR very few banks are prepared to put customers centre stage and invest in their employees so that the customer experience is fundamentally improved.

For both customers and customer service employees the words of the Metro Bank Chairman will perhaps bring a glimmer of cheer in a depressing customer service landscape.  

Anthony Thomson talks boldly about “creating fans not customers” and presents compelling evidence for his policy of recruiting and rewarding for delivering great customer service.  Perhaps his vision will introduce some real competition for customer service professionals and the banking public.  And perhaps it will also signal the start of a sea-change in how we experience customer service and, crucially for the customer service employee sitting only a few feet away from you right at this moment, the way we all think about customer service employment.

References and further information

The Institute of Customer Service and CEBR study is reported at

Anthony Thomson of Metro Bank writing in HR Magazine article on the FSA complaints report

Information on the number of licensed lawyers in the UK

 Information on the number of accountants in theUK


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