Mary Portas: Secret Shopper


I caught this great programme last night on Channel 4. Mary Portas: Secret Shopper. For those not in the know Mary Portas is doing the equivalent on the high-street to what Gordon Ramsay was doing a couple of years ago in restaurants though thankfully without a trace of bad language.

Both Gordon and Mary teach that success comes with a simple  mantra. In Gordon’s case it was ‘fresh local ingredients no messing around’ whilst Mary teaches the golden way of offering nothing less than good customer service.

The wonder really is that despite the simplicity of these rules so many places still manage to get it horribly wrong. So much so that finding a good restaurant is something of a revelation and on the high-street decent customer service is even more elusive. Last nights programme provided some good answers about just why customer service in some areas is so poor.

The salesmen (and they were all men) in the sofa store were on appallingly low basic wages so were reliant on commission  to top this up. Whilst this meant that the short-term cash generating interests of the business and the salesmen aligned it meant that customers were routinely guided towards the most expensive items in the store, dazzled with an array of discounts less generous than they appeared and subjected to the hard-sell. As Mary rightly pointed out despite protestations to the contrary this was not good customer service.

What the programme highlights is the discrepancy between customer service as rhetoric and customer service as reality. Nearly every business will talk about how great and important their customer service is yet everything they do has the opposite effect.

Take my position. My job title is actually ‘customer services’, yet sometimes I am actively discouraged from giving good customer service. Why is this? Well simply because of the economics of it all. My first role is not to assist the customer, but to make money for my company. As my company is paid a fee per call it is in their interest to get through as many calls as quickly as possible. additionally the more calls we handle individually, the less staff are needed to ensure as few calls as possible are ‘dropped’; that is when people hang-up before getting through (and presumably the company has a penalty for these).

This system creates an environment where good customer service is penalised. For instance a couple of days ago I had a customer with a fairly complex query. They had also been upset about the way they had been treated the last time they had called. Summoning up the training from my old job I listened patiently to their grievances. I then set about investigating the issue piecing together what had been happening from the scant notes on the system. I finally figured the issue and offered the resolution to the customer. The customer was happy with this, I was happy as I had successfully managed a difficult situation and the company could be happy that a very dissatisfied customer had been transformed into one at least slightly happier customer.

One thing…… I looked down at my phone display. The call had taken me 15 minutes. 12 minutes higher than what we’re continually told is our ‘acceptable’ overall average call time of 3 minutes. This would boost my average for the day and actually make me look bad. Had I fobbed the customer off, or failed to deal with the issue properly the call would probably have been concluded much quicker and I would have looked good!

No wonder customer service no longer exists.

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3 thoughts on “Mary Portas: Secret Shopper

  1. Great insights in customer non-sevice! Thanks. It must be such an unrewarding job when you have to fob customers off. I’m glad you decided to help this one customer through their problems.

    But I wonder, in the end, isn’t it better for your company to have 1 happy customer rather than 5 unhappy ones? Maybe it doesn’t matter to them.

  2. Thanks for your comment Leeswammes.

    I would agree wholehartedly with that logic as well. Maybe some companies do as well, but personally I believe that many companies are quite lazy when it comes to customer service. As long as enough of their customers are relatively happy and the tills are ringing then they’re not too fussed about what happens with the ones who aren’t happy.

    I think there are two things which can stop this happening, the first is if the company uses customer service as a unique selling point; of course they must really mean it not just say it! Second is if customers organise themselves, use forums and websites to detail their issues with a company and alert others. In fact I might well make that one of my next posts.

    • Companies seem to be quite wary of bad press, so customers uniting would probably help. In the newspaper I subscribe to there is a feature every Saturday where someone helps sorting out customer problems. Where customers may have been hassled with wrong bills and no solution to their problems, when this journalist calls the particular company… hey, things are solved right away! With apologies. 🙂

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