I actually come from a long line of shopkeepers. For three generations the men of the family have been their own boss, but despite this pedigree no one is really surprised that none of my generation have chosen this path. For over a decade its been apparent that small businesses are in rapid decline. The signs are everywhere; once every main road in the city was lined with shops, record shops, barbers, butchers, bakers, newsagents, shoe repairers, all sorts of shops, but look now and you’ll find many of these shops have long been converted into flats the only signs of their former use a frontage looking oddly out of place with its surroundings. Then there’s the empty precincts designed as community hubs, but more often than not menacingly silent. Some independent shops remain, clustered together as if they are huddled-up trying to draw strength from each other in the face of what seems like an inevitable fate, but overall the prospects for many small businesses are not good.

You can argue that this is just market forces giving people what they want, and to an extent this is true, but there are many things which have been lost perhaps that people didn’t even realise would be lost until it was too late. The most significant of these is undoubtably the change in the relationship between a business and its customers. At the heart of this relationship was a personal bond between the proprietors of a business and its customers. With a small business the two would often be on first name terms and for the proprietor a quality product and good service was a matter of personal reputation. For my great-grandad when affected by wartime shortages this impulse was so strong that he preferred to close his doors and take early retirement than to supply what he felt would be a substandard product and in thus doing lose the reputation he had strived to build over many years.

Contemporary customer services aims to mimic this relationship, but whilst the very best may bear some resemblance on the surface deep down it can never come close. It’s almost clichéd to say, but most businesses over a certain size cease to see their customers as individuals viewing them instead as if they were some kind of indistinguishable specks viewed from the top floor of the corporate skyscraper.

Sometimes it’s almost heartbreaking to see how much a customer invests in a business emotionally demonstrating this sometimes by taking the time to write a letter of thanks, or to make considered suggestions for improvements to products as they want the company to succeed only for the letters to be fed into a shredder lucky if they receive the briefest of standardised letters in return.  Recently one of the companies I take calls for decided to offer its most loyal customers a ‘loyalty bonus’ of 13p on an average spend of approaching £20. The fact that they thought this would help retain customers shows just how out of touch they can be as quite rightly most customers felt insulted.

Most common of all it’s when someone who is clearly a loyal customer has a genuine grievance and rather than it being dealt with gets messed about by a series of call-centre operators they’ve never spoken to before and to whom their years of custom mean nothing. I don’t blame the call-centre operators here, at least not all of them, it’s the call-centre system which is wrong. Operators are never encouraged to take charge of issues and see them through to completion, rather it’s an assembly line system where one person bolts in the steering wheel and another fixes the windscreen; then in the blink of an eye they’re onto the next one. Ok if it is well-coordinated and everyone does their job, but in the call centre it is rarely like that and in my view the customer really suffers from lack of continuity and consistency.

Yep, call-centre land is very different, relationships between the customers and the company are, transient, ad-hoc and anonymous. As an operator the hardest part of this all is not being able to offer the customer certainty. They want to know what will happen, when it will happen and where. In short they want re-assurance. Unfortunately we can’t ever give this as we have little power to make anything happen, all we can do is pass them along the line and hope that at the end of it something which vaguely looks like customer services drops off the end of the conveyor.


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.

Hooray for Nando’s

Those of you who are regular readers of my blog (yes all one of you!) may well remember me reflecting on the time I was rebuked by a customer for not offering a cheery enough  greeting when I answered my phone. My defence was that it was probably my nth 100th call of the day where I’d be no doubt called upon to go through the same conversation yet again, once again offering carefully measured empathy and reassurance, while again trying to avoid the verbal beating the customer may wish to dispense in retribution for their unhappy dealings with the firm I’m representing at that moment in time.

Whilst all this is going on I’m wondering if I’ll get a pay-rise this year, if my call time is going to be too high, can I hold out going to the toilet until the next break, will that angry customer from earlier be calling back to complain about me? I’m also acutely aware that with my employers my opinions count for very little and that my influence over things is accordingly somewhere slightly below zero.  In employment terms I feel like a rower in the bowels of a vast Roman ship. Whilst I may not be physically chained to the oars, metaphorically and mentally I am. Sorry if I’m not overjoyed about this.

So it’s nice to see somewhere that’s at least recognising that it can and should be different and whats more that this is ultimately beneficial for companies.

I’m talking here about Nando’s the high-street chicken chain. Recently voted the best big company to work for. As a newspaper article pointed out:

Another very important part of the formula is that staff are treated well – in 2010, Nando’s topped the Sunday Times’ list of best big companies for whom to work. Employees seem fairly jolly, which increasingly stands out in the deskilled, demotivated, underpaid and undertrained British high street.

This is precisely my argument. Often we experience poor customer service from staff who are disinterested. Our first reaction however, is to blame the staff some of us going as far to lodge a complaint. We ignore the system which causes the problem in the first place; namely companies poor treatment and disinterest in the staff themselves. To expect staff, often facing challenging situations, to maintain a front of jollyness and empathy whilst themselves being subject to untold pressures and offered little in the way of support is quite clearly unreasonable.