December 2, 2011

Is There Really Nothing That Can be Improved with John Lewis’s Customer Service?

Simon Goodley writing recently in the Guardian on the collapse of Carphone Warehouse’s Bestbuy venture with US partners, reports that Andy Street, the MD of John Lewis, believes the endeavour was doomed from the start.  He is reported as saying “The US model is keen prices combined with high service. The truth of the matter is that prices were already extremely keen and high service is being provided by us … Put that together and there was not a gap in the market.”

Well now this is interesting.  We know that John Lewis are consistently voted as having the highest customer service ratings on the high street.  But is Andy Street suggesting that the service John Lewis provides is so good that there is nothing more that customers could want?  (Read more here )  Or is he implying that John Lewis have understood the price that customers are willing to pay for the higher level of service provided as compared to the cheapest retailers?

If it’s the latter, and John Lewis knows the precise formula for the link between service level and the price customers are prepared to pay then there will be no stopping them and we can expect to see to see John Lewis achieving total high street domination in the next few years.  But this would be pretty miraculous.  The variables are too complex and dynamic to be completely confident that you know exactly what people will, and will continue to, pay as a premium for “high service”.

So perhaps he means that John Lewis sets the standard for “high service” and there was nowhere for Bestbuy to go with improved service levels.  But it’s a dangerous game to assume that the service levels you provide – good as they are – are the best that customers want or will come to expect in the future.  The gap in the market may not exist in the current market place but there is no reason whatsoever that other companies couldn’t raise the game.  John Lewis’s figures for customer satisfaction are high, but only marginally higher than its nearest competitors and a good way off 100% satisfaction.

This tells us that customers know there is more that can be done to improve the service they receive.  Customers are able to tell you who is best now, but this best isn’t the best it could be.  Aside from death and taxes, the only certainty is change, and any day now no gap in the market could become the gap that, by resting on comfortable and incomplete laurels, John Lewis didn’t see coming.

November 24, 2011

Anatomy of a Service Failure. How to Lose an Online Customer in 3 Easy Steps

Like a great many working parents, I do as much shopping as I can online.  It saves time and effort and reduces my carbon footprint.  Ok, I admit the last point is a happy coincidence and poor relation to the first two motivations, but I am working on it.

The point is that I and people like me are core customers of all the retailers who sell their wares in what everyone knows is a highly competitive marketplace.  However, I seem to have made the basic school-girl error of thinking that retailers understand that and more importantly that this makes me valuable to them and so every once in a while I am brought down to earth with an eye-opening bump. 

A bump that shocks me out of the inertia effect or “loyalty” so depended upon by banks, utility providers and others to keep us unthinkingly buying our services from the same organisations, despite increasing costs and the quiet downward creep of interest rates and value.  A bump which means I vow never to buy from that company again.  Service failure and no more chance of recovery.

For all the PR huff and puff about providing online ordering and delivery to make life easier and cheaper for us “valued” customers, the reality on the ground is rather different.  And it is pretty easy to lose a customer forever.  A recent experience with a big-name value retailer reminded me that there are 3 simple steps to making sure you don’t get another chance with the customer. Continue reading

October 27, 2011

Want To Know Who Ate All The Biscuits? It’s Obvious! It’s That Nice Person who is Always Helping Others

Fascinating research on the link between personality and a sweet tooth has been making the news recently.

A team of psychologists from the US have carried out a set of experiments which clearly suggest a link between a liking for sweet food and a “sweet nature”.

As compared to those who don’t like sweet things to eat, people who do like sweet things score more highly on the trait agreeableness which covers aspects of personality such as friendliness, warmth and cooperativeness.  What is more, these people are more likely to offer help to others in need than those who prefer other tastes.

Apparently the link is also evident to others. When asked to evaluate someone’s personality, if we are told they like sweet foods then we are more likely to say that they are friendly, warm and cooperative than if we think they like savoury foods. The link between cooperation and sweet foods doesn’t stop there. In a further experiment, Dr Brian Meier and his colleagues investigated whether eating something sweet – regardless of preferences – actually influences how agreeable we feel.  Amazingly, people who ate a piece of chocolate were more likely to help others and to see themselves as more friendly than people who ate something savoury.

So this is great news for chocoholics, who probably already knew to be suspicious of anyone who says they don’t like chocolate.  And obviously, for those of us who can polish off a family pack of Maltesers/M&Ms/chocolate digestives in under 30 seconds, this is vindicating evidence at last that we are simply demonstrating and enhancing our innate loveliness…

Leaving this self-congratulation aside however, the research also highlights a fundamental human tendency to ascribe certain characteristics to people on the basis of other, apparently unrelated evidence.  Here, the research reveals that there may be real links between the ascribed characteristics and the observed one, but there are many other intuitive links made in the course of our social interactions which are as yet untested, but which create influential and often self-fulfilling models of other people’s personality.  Continue reading

October 13, 2011

Nothing New Under the Human Nature Sun: Why we Already Know How to “Win Friends and Influence People In the Digital Age”

Dale Carnegie’s classic 1936 best-seller “How to Win Friends and Influence People” has had a social media era update.

Taking all the tried and tested methods of Carnegie’s ground-breaking guide to successful personal influence, this new version from the company that bears his name seeks to explore how the age of Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin have changed the nature of successful business and other social relationships.

It’s fair to say that, so far, the critics don’t like it.  The New York Times described it as “radically hapless”, suggests it has been composed using “refrigerator magnets stamped with corporate lingo” and expresses relief that we can all pretend the book has never been published, since the original version is thankfully still available in all good bookshops. 

As you would expect from a good literary critic, there is much emphasis on use of language and its failure to engage.  However, there is also passing mention of something much more pertinent to customer service professionals and customers – whether this book tells us something new about our relationships in our vastly different world of digital communication and social media.

What is fascinating is that the answer is no.  But not because it fails to get to grips with what is important or doesn’t offer ways in which we can navigate ourselves to happy and productive relationships using all the new technology we now have. The answer is no simply because Dale Carnegie’s advice of 75 years ago is still as valid and fresh as it was when a letter or a personal call were really the only ways to communicate.  Continue reading

September 30, 2011

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.  Continue reading

August 26, 2011

Too Much Too Young: Why Companies Shouldn’t Expect Schools to Do Their Work

Hundreds of thousands of UK 16 year olds got their GCSE results yesterday with record grades reported yet again.  The vast majority of these will be welcomed by further education establishments in September as they begin working towards higher level academic or vocational qualifications.

But for those who choose not to progress in education the welcome from employers is less warm.  The most recent quarterly survey of the labour market by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development released on Tuesday this week suggests that employers are choosing to recruit from the wider European Union, claiming that they are better skilled to take on the roles available than young people from the UK.  In fact, only 12% of employers are interested in recruiting 16 year olds – a drop of 25% since last year.

The CIPD reports that employers believe that school leavers lack the necessary levels of literacy and numeracy required, and also that they do not have sufficient customer service or communication skills. Continue reading

August 25, 2011

A Cautionary Tale: Always Assume Your Next Customer is Famous

Let’s face it – anyone can have an off day.

But it’s a pretty spectacular off-day when a customer you tetchily call a “busybody” turns out to be an internationally known comedian with a show to develop for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 

That’s precisely what happened to one hapless Virgin Atlantic employee and now her insult has become the title of comedian Shazia Mirza’s 2011 Edinburgh show, “Busybody”.

To be fair, the show, which has just received a 4-star review from the Scotsman, concerns not just this one incident but a myriad of tales about getting involved in other people’s business.  However, choosing the Virgin Atlantic incident as inspiration for the title of the show means that in the process of promoting her show across the media, Shazia has been asked to explain the origin of the title again and again.  So now, not only the hundreds or thousands of people who have seen her Edinburgh show know that a Virgin Atlantic employee threw an off-hand insult her way, but also the hundreds of thousands who have heard her on recent arts programmes or who have read her reviews. 

Is it fair to judge a company on one super-publicised incident?  Probably not.  But unfortunately for Virgin Atlantic, it’s human nature to form opinions in a less than rational manner. People are likely to “over-weight” this information when evaluating Virgin Atlantic’s care for customers.  Here are just some of the reasons why. Continue reading

July 29, 2011

I Don’t Want It, Need It or Like It, But Now You’ve Put it Like That, I’ll Buy One

Or to be more specific, I don’t want it, need it or like it but because:

  1. I like you;
  2. you have already given me something;    
  3. lots of people I know have already bought it; and,
  4. I have already said that I think something about it is good….

 …I am going to buy it.

But why?  Why would I decide to buy something on the basis of these reasons since they don’t seem connected to the value or use I might get from the product?  

The answer seems to be, unfortunately, because I am human.

Of course, we all like to think of ourselves as rational decision makers.  If asked about how we come to our decisions to buy a specific thing, the reasons we will offer are most likely to be about an understanding of our needs and how the specific features of the product or service will meet those needs. 

 We largely believe that when we make a decision to buy, we base our choice on a rational and informed evaluation of the product, often in considered comparison to the alternatives we could have chosen.  Happily, that tends to mean that we come away from purchases pleased with our selection. 

However, evidence suggests that in reality there are other reasons, less rational and less acknowledged, which explain our purchasing decisions and whilst they are not always obvious to us, large organisations are selling us things in full knowledge of what they are. 

The 4 reasons listed at the beginning of this article are included in the 6 “weapons of influence” described by psychology Professor Robert Cialdini in his best-selling book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”.  But they are almost certainly not those we would list if asked, for example, why we signed up on the doorstep to be a regular donor to a worthy international charity (more about this later).  Continue reading

July 5, 2011

Are We Being Short-Changed by the Idea of Emotional Labour?

Is the way that we think about the “emotional labour” involved in customer service jobs, helping to keep the real value of it hidden and do we as customers end up getting worse service as a result?  And are businesses struggling to keep our customer and our loyalty at least partly because they don’t fully understand the concept of, or properly appreciate the value of, emotional labour?

Arguably, yes. Continue reading

June 24, 2011

We KNOW You Will Like This: How Businesses Will Be Using Your Personality to Sell You More

Personality tests litter the internet. 

A rare few are legitimate, well-researched and appropriately worded tests that can give a pretty accurate indication of an individual’s tendencies and preferences in theoretically sound areas.  

Most are simply not worth the megabytes they take up – but, hey, if they are a fun diversion, or maybe start the process of informed self-discovery, then what’s not to like?

One online personality test however, based around respected and established research, is available free of charge to the largest social networking site in the world and is currently being used to collect information from any of its 687 million users who complete it and sign the disclaimer allowing it to be used. 

“myPersonality” is in fact a number of personality questionnaires developed for Facebook by graduate psychology researchers David Stillwell and Michal Kosinski.  At their last count, there are currently over a million monthly users of the questionnaire and a significant proportion allow the researchers access to their anonymised data.

In academic terms this is a goldmine – albeit one of a self-selected sample of Facebook users who choose to complete the questionnaire – and Stillwell and Kosinski go to great lengths to make both the data and the platform available to other researchers.  We can expect some fascinating research findings to emerge very soon.

However, Facebook users are customers.  They are targeted by advertisers constantly and they already give away much invaluable personal information that help advertisers target their audiences and send selective messages to those people most likely to buy.  Will big business be able to use the data on someone’s personality to sell to them better? Continue reading