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The Customer Lifeguard - Blog

Sounds Good – Breaking the sound barrier & communicating with clarity

For those seeking solace from a soggy summer and a break from the baffling Brexit brouhaha there are few places that can compare with southern Ontario’s cottage country where I spent a very pleasant break this past summer. Stunningly hot, consistently sunny weather, golden sands and shimmering blue lakes bring millions of regular “cottagers” and visitors to Ontario’s lakes every summer. But the restorative powers of a real summer after the UK’s occasional one day “heat wave” of 25°C aren’t just dependent on visual beauty and physical stimulation. There is an auditory component – “the sounds of summer”- that contributes even more to the experience. Many are the natural sounds of wildlife, wind in the trees, waves lapping onto the shore, and they all seem to bring a sense of peace and a feeling of calm that is seriously lacking in our daily lives regardless of geographic location.  There are also those Simon & Garfunkel moments when time and motion stands still and we can retreat to those wonderfully quiet personal places that seem lost to us in a normal day. It was during one of my silent moments that I thought about the daily noise that assaults our senses and that we seem powerless to stop.

In tranquil surroundings all seems possible – mountains moved, if only metaphorically, novels written, at least page one, and where long lost loves are no longer unrequited. But why does tranquility only seem to be a fleeting and unreliable girlfriend or boyfriend that leaves us in a heartbeat when real life rears its ugly and noisy head. It’s true that there is only so much we can do to extinguish the sounds of the city and other modern attacks on one of our most valuable senses. Even when we go for what should be an enjoyable daily lunch interlude or special occasion at our favorite restaurant, an unwelcome menu item is the melange of sound that makes conversation a lost art and laryngitis a more likely outcome than a great culinary experience.

Turn off the noise – turn up the attention

So why is it that given the ever increasing cacophony of intrusive and unnecessary noise pollution, when we have an opportunity to reduce this we don’t take it? Specifically, I’m talking about a subject near and dear to my heart both personally and professionally, contacting and engaging companies by phone and the challenges and interruptions that unwelcome and unnecessary noise bring with it. Recently I spoke to a leading triple play communications provider and it went something like this.

“Was that Terry? No Gerry!” I yelled at the contact centre agent taking my order as he asked me for my email address for the 3rd time. He still managed to my email wrong, along with my mobile number, as I found out to my distress when no confirmation or installation information was received. I don’t know about you, but despite the focus and hype surrounding digital self-service, few business really understand or deliver the mostly mythical “seamless experience.” Consequently, I still find myself regularly needing to speak to people in contact centres to complete transactions. That experience is not getting any better from an auditory perspective, when businesses fail to see the importance of providing a relatively quiet, conversationally conducive office space.

Minimal design – Maximum interruptions

The problem has a number of elements. Firstly, contact centres generally feature open office design that is geared towards increasing teamwork, cooperation and productivity. Unfortunately the downside is that many organizations fail to create a physical environment that can absorb the sound of a multitude of people all speaking at a fairly high decibel level. Then, the headsets that many agents are equipped with, especially if worn incorrectly, are poor at reducing ambient sound. This results in hearing many different conversations from other agents that can almost drown out the one that you’re having. Finally the combination of potentially poor connections via mobile devices and inconsistent system voice quality conspire to make even the most sensorial efficient of us reach for the hearing aid.

This perfect storm of preventable interruptions and ineffective equipment means that calls take longer, increasing costs for the company and time wasted by the customer. Errors happen more frequently, as I found out, which also can have cost and time implications for both parties. And the frustration level for both customer and employee leads to distorted conversations and an overall poor experience on both sides that stays in the memory, especially if customer-effecting mistakes are made. Conversely, a positive first conversation experience will leave your customers with the impression they are important to you and set the stage for a far more engaging and positive conversation for both customer and employee.

There’s no doubt that having the ability to reduce unnecessary noise and improve the acoustic soundscape pays dividends. In a classic experiment by Glass and Singer in the 70’s, two groups of participants were exposed to an unpleasant noise and told to do some work that required high levels of concentration. One group was given a button and told that they could turn off the noise when they want, but were encouraged not to because it would ruin the experiment. The second group was not given a button. You can guess which group had lower stress levels.   If you said the one with the button, you are correct. Here’s the home run; this was true for those who didn’t even use the button. Give people the perception of control, even if it isn’t a real. It reduces stress, enhances performance, and can be a powerful contributor to positive employee experience.

The ears have it

The quality of your telephone headset is crucial in helping agents control their environment and achieve success in creating a natural balance in both hearing and business outcomes. Consequently, it is essential to look at your headsets not just as office equipment but rather as a vital business tool that can make or break a customer interaction.  One organization that has recognized the value in significantly improving acoustic standards in the office environment, and especially the contact centre, is Plantronics.  They consider breakthroughs in audio technology as their main raison d’etre. Plantronics pioneered the lightweight headset, the mobile headset, noise-cancelling technology, and the personal speakerphone, always driven by a single obsession to remove the barriers to simply smarter communications. Noise-cancelling can filter out background noise from the environment so the customer gets an improved audio experience, but the additional effect is that the general noise level in the office or contact centre environment will be lower. This also has a positive business effect on productivity as call centre agents consistently rate noise as having the biggest negative impact on their productivity.

Turning down the noise and turning up listening means that customer service advisers can engage in clear and unambiguous conversations where they can hear and be heard without resorting to megaphone level articulation. They are able to respond with clarity, perform naturally with more confidence and share the good feelings and spiritual uplift that friendly interactions can bring.

Now even in this world where virtual reality is, well virtual, I’m not saying that a great headset will magically transport you to that quiet and peaceful world of your holiday dreams. But breaking the sound barrier, providing a calm and quiet space where you can concentrate solely on the customer conversation can only enhance the customer and employee experience.

And that sounds good to me!


Publish Date: November 4, 2016 5:00 AM

Let’s Get Ready to Grumble- The Ends Justify the Moans

Over 200 years ago, a humorous book entitled The Miseries of Human Life was written by the Reverend James Beresford. It was a satirical and ironic tome that recorded and praised the causes of discomfort in early 19th century England, that we would now term as “first world problems.” It was subtitled the Groans of Samuel Sensitive and Timothy Testy, and catalogued “in excruciating detail” the “petty outrages, minor humiliations, and tiny discomforts that make up every day human existence”.

The Miseries were written as a series of discussions between Mr Samuel Sensitive and Mr Timothy Testy, in which they catalogue the daily “injuries, insults, disappointments and treacheries” of everyday life. Now known to most of us as Facebook

A Nation of Moaners

In 2016 the descendants of the (probably mythical) Messrs. Testy and Sensitive have turned groans into moans and made them an art form. The English are now known as a nation of moaners, according to recent research from the Ombudsman Service recently published in The Times. They calculated that there are now 52 million complaints a year made to social media, supplier complaint lines, ombudsman services and small claims court. However, the research also noted that another 66 million problems had not led to complaints with many put off by the effort involved. But if encouraging affirmative action had been the intention of the good reverend, would that have satiated the myriad moaning needs of the early nineteenth century population? Later reviews of The Miseries suggested that the book, rather than being an early example of a self-help guide, was the opposite. Partly because grumbling is to the grumbler so sweet a luxury and misery to the miserable so dear a happiness, actually finding relief was totally inconsequential and in fact ruined the sport.

And the end result?

Fast forward two centuries and Robert Crampton, writing in The Times a few days after the earlier research report, jumps on this historical bandwagon and opined that “Britain has become a nation of cowardly moaners.” And wondered what had become of the Blitz spirit and turned “mustn’t grumble” or “don’t want to make a fuss” into a tsunami of griping, groaning, whingeing and whining. But, as he notes, people may be complaining more but they’re not necessarily actually getting satisfaction. In his words “I’m not aware of mass defections from big banks or telecoms giants, or insurance providers over spurious charges, hidden extras or small-print caveats.” This is clearly due to a strong disconnect between their words and intentions and the appendages at the end of their legs that activate their opinion. This is probably because they’re not really complaining, nor would they even dream about it, as Mr Crampton acknowledges, but are “getting all stewed up then moaning to their wife.” Entirely the wrong target if satisfaction and compensation are the ultimate goals. It’s time to stand up, stop moaning to each other and say something to someone that actually might make a difference. The key here is to find the “right” someone.

Yes, complaints are great – but don’t bother us with them!

Many companies hope that all you ever do is moan. In fact they’re counting on it. Despite what many organizations say about the value of the complaints, they treat them and the customer with disdain and make you jump through real or imaginary hoops in order to make you lose the will to live. If you’re still breathing at the end of it, they’ll reluctantly and in a mean spirited way, offer you meagre and totally inconsequential compensation under the guise of the truly awful “goodwill gesture.” This applies especially to the companies that we all deal with every day and that Robert Crampton references; train companies, airlines, banks, telecoms, insurance companies and the worst offenders (according to Which?) utility companies.

Can’t complain, Won’t complain, Why bother!

UK train companies, who are high on most lists of the worst offenders in all aspects of customer service, make it particularly hard. As a result more than 80% of potential claims for compensation for late running go unclaimed due to confusing systems. In an ironic twist, the UK energy ombudsman Lewis Shand Smith recently received an obviously inflated and incorrect bill from his energy company which he tried to resolve through the regular channels. After an extended period of time in which the supplier didn’t respond, he informed them that they had failed in their regulatory customer obligations. They answered, being unaware of his day job, by telling him to complain to the Energy Ombudsman. He finally sorted out it out with a call to a senior executive who he happened to know, but noted that most customers don’t have a hotline to the boss. More about that later.

But what Mr Shand Smith found was that only 5% of complaints end up with an Ombudsman, which in itself is shocking and reflects the fact that most people put up with bad service. What was is even more shameful was that when customers did complain to the Energy Ombudsman an astonishing 97% were resolved in favour of the customer. Which, as he noted suggests, “there is clearly something wrong if almost all complaints are resolved in favour of the customer? In a normal functioning market you would expect that to be about half.” But as those of us in the UK know, the words normal and functional are rarely found in the same sentence as energy market.

We’d like to help but………

We have made some inroads by taking to social media, when all hope seems lost. But isn’t the best first step, and is the basis for Robert Crampton’s “cowardly” epithet. But neither is a customer service agent, though not through any fault of their own. Wanting to help others, especially those that clearly are in need of assistance and support, would seem to be a perfectly natural and worthy thing to do. Most of us, when confronted with this situation in a personal circumstance with relatives, friends and even strangers –think the Good Samaritan – don’t hesitate to step in. It’s an unfortunate reality that many businesses, especially those with customer service contact centres, actively discourage any personal feelings or emotions from creeping into their employees’ activities, primarily because their metrics are company focused and not customer focused. It’s as if when they sign in for their shift, they’re asked to put their positive and caring attitude in a drawer marked “not to be opened during business hours.”

Don’t abandon all hope. Help is here in this column and it’s deceptively simple. Here’s what most of us want:

• Acknowledge my complaint
• Accept responsibility for my distress
• Assure me that you’ll fix it
• Appease my inconvenience with meaningful compensation

Here are three easy steps to achieve it, that won’t take much time, won’t involve staying on hold on a ”help” line, and is almost guaranteed to succeed.

1. Start at the top – Copy all senior people, especially if HQ is in the US or Canada

When we have an issue most of us seek out resolution by calling or emailing customer service help desks, going on social media or writing to newspaper columnists. Forget it. They rarely work, although you may get some momentary relief via Twitter or Facebook. It’s not because people in customer service teams don’t care. Most do, they are after all just regular folk that are kind to their kids and don’t kick their dog. So while these people may want to help you, it’s highly unlikely that they have the tools or the authority to actually solve your problem to your satisfaction, and often can only offer the pathetically named, and wholly insufficient “goodwill gesture” After the 50th complaint of the day they just give up and take sanctuary in the inane, arcane and dumb rules that they have to enforce, that tip the odds in the favour of the house.

So start at the top. Finding company addresses and senior executive names is a piece of cake and will take far less time and trouble than navigating customer service lines or web-sites. It doesn’t have to be a letter, although those are held in high regard these days due to their scarcity. Email addresses are equally easy to find, or to figure out, and even if the big cheese doesn’t actually get to read the email, someone somewhere with the authority to fix it will get it. If the company has a US or Canadian parent company, then copy a senior executive there as well. These guys and gals really do care and will make sure that someone responds positively. Just in case you think my Canadian bias has taken over, I recently had a chance to prove this. I had a problem with a large, well-known UK supermarket and a US headquartered, carpet cleaning concession service in their stores. I sent an email to senior execs of both companies. The US CEO responded positively to me in less than an hour despite being in Texas, where, with the 7 hour time difference, it was 7:00 a.m.! His response was sincere and action oriented. He copied his UK counterpart at the supermarket, along with his senior colleagues at the UK branch, and the issue was sorted within 24 hours.

2. Deliver a strongly worded but polite and action oriented letter

While many of these issues can reduce us to tears or worse, stomach churning anger, this is where the Blitz spirit can come in very handy. Keep calm and start writing. Ensure that your tone is firm, but friendly and polite. Make sure that you liberally sprinkle the letter or email with phrases that include “I’m very disappointed”, “I would have expected more from a company such as yours”, “the friends and colleagues that I’ve told about my experience were shocked.”

Make sure that you have your facts right and don’t make it personal even if the complaint is about a colleague at the company. Be very clear that you expect compensation and not just a mealy-mouthed apology. Many people, even if they get to this stage, are quite often very vague with their expectations or say “I just wanted to let you know how I felt”. All very nice, but a total waste of time. While this shouldn’t just be about money, if you’ve been inconvenienced by a product or service, it’s time for them to pay up. If this is a service I usually go for a month’s subscription and a commitment to fix the problem. Clearly it’s hard to confirm the latter, but it demonstrates resolve on your part. A really valuable additional touch is if you also happen to be a shareholder in the company. As depressing as it sounds, for customers, many MD’s and CEO’s raison d’etre is “to increase shareholder value” and therefore generally care more about them than customers. Finish it off with a pleasant but expectant time stamped sign-off such as “I look forward to a speedy and mutually beneficial resolution by the end of the week” or something similar.

3. Send a “Thank you” note

Seems like such a little thing. But we all appreciate a “Thank you” regardless of the level of the activity that spawned the acknowledgment.  Despite my earlier comment s, the best companies do appreciate and act promptly, sincerely and authentically on complaints and this additional touch will validate their actions and allow them to share the good feelings with colleagues. Even though the exchange may be altruistic on both sides, following up on this kind of personal connection with customers will benefit the company and often lead to increased business and referrals. You’ll also benefit by getting better service in the future, if this episode is duly noted and visible for future interactions. And you’ll have a good news story to share down at the pub with your fellow moaners.

So stop moaning, start complaining and remember you don’t have to moan alone. You have friends out here to help you get ready to grumble.


Publish Date: March 29, 2016 5:00 AM

The Babe, Dixie and Billie – The importance of measuring what matters

In 1927 two men, separated by an ocean but united in desire, set records in their respective sports that have stood as enduring standards of true talent and immeasurable value to their team. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs for the New York Yankees, which was more than any other American League team had combined. A record that stood for 34 years until Roger Maris, also of the Yankees, hit 61. Later that year Dixie Dean began a season for Everton in the old First Division of English Football and ended up scoring 60 goals, a record that has never been beaten nor equalled. Goals, home runs and baskets tend to generate the most headlines, and they have generally been the currency to measure both individual and team success and to drive idolatry. But these are frequently overrated in terms of the overall impact on a team,especially if other issues such as a leaky defence, frequent injuries or underperforming supporting players are taken into consideration.

This has parallels in business where similarly spectacular headlines and over-hyped metrics, such as stock price, total sales, and numbers of customers, have historically been used as the key indicators to rate success. For many businesses and investors, these have been found to be less dependable, dangerously unstable and unpredictable over the longer term. We only have to look at the banking or utilities industries in the UK and more recently, on-line roller coasters such as ASOS and AO, for evidence of that. While the big numbers can still resonate, more attention is being focused on data that delivers the most relevant and timely insights – the combination of data sets that enable effective and intelligent investment – that go into achieving success, whether that’s on the field, in the standings, at the box-office or in the board room.

The Right Figure – Where Contribution and Value Meet

1930 when Babe Ruth earned $80,000 a reporter asked him why he had made more money than the President, Herbert Hoover. Ruth famously answered, “I had a better year”. In a statistics driven game this was an early example of having the right insight or data to back-up his claim and measure his success, however glibly it was stated. Back in England, where scoring was reputationally valued but less so financially, Dixie Dean’s weekly waged topped out at £8, (yes really!) and it was many years before footballers in England were paid a living wage. Dixie once remarked to George Best when discussing players’ salaries, “When I was playing, I couldn’t afford a pair of boots never mind boutiques.” Now it’s off the scale in the other direction and has no relationship to actual sporting talent, organizational intelligence or value to the team. Value is measured more in shirt sales and other spurious commercial links such as Newcastle United’s sponsorship by pay day loans company, Wonga. This led Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle city council, to say he was “appalled and sickened” that Newcastle would “sign a deal with a legal loan shark”.

But that’s no real surprise as football, as evidenced by FIFA’s recent troubles and the actions of many countries’ football executives, has never had more than a nodding acquaintance with ethics or good governance. And their ability to assess talent, measure performance and align value are equally strange bedfellows. Nowhere is that truer today than in the English Premier League (EPL) where the ratio between brains and money is at an all-time low. Clearly common sense, business acumen and basic financial intelligence don’t show up on the list of qualifications for football executives. Although thanks to the largesse of Sky and BT Sports, you really would have to be totally incompetent as a football executive not to make some money. But it’s the long suffering fans that are ultimately paying the high cost of freight and fiscal imprudence on that particular gravy train.

Stars in their eyes – Money in their pockets their only goals

Speaking of total incompetence, you only have to look at the recent transfer fiascos at Manchester United as an example of how modern football teams do business. They’ve just paid £36 million plus £22 million in “add-ons”, for Anthony Martial, an untried, unproven French teenager that the press in France called “delusional” and a “hallucination.” Just prior to that, Angel de Maria was sold at a loss of around £15 million, having been paid £175,000 per week, and Radamel Falcao was paid £25 million in salary and bonuses for an anonymous season. This wouldn’t have been bad if either had produced the goods for Man U, but, unfortunately like so many of today’s “stars”, they spent more time in the Bentley show room and the tattoo parlour than on the practice field. As de Maria and Falcao only scored four goals each at Man U., it’s unlikely that they will score 60 goals in their lifetime! And then to top off a really fabulous transfer window, there was the failed transfer of David De Gea which led to Real Madrid and Man U. spending the last week in an own goal scoring blame game.

Of course, as I’ve already noted, goals aren’t the only way to measure success in a player. But in the absence of any other obvious talent, or contribution, which deeper analysis may eventually uncover should teams decide to investigate; they appear to be the only real measures that we have. And de Maria and Falcao aren’t the only duds that Man U, or for that matter any of the Premier League teams, have hiding in their drawer marked “financial disasters.” The total haircut on these losers will run into hundreds of millions of pounds. But if we didn’t have this type of activity then the poor football agents would probably have to get by on just a few million a year rather than the obscene amounts that they now trouser, for doing almost nothing. But I digress. Let’s move on.

Computer says “yes” and “no”

Let’s return to North America where in the past few years there has been some game changing activity in the sporting financial landscape. Although there is still some silly money being thrown around, the concept of salary caps and greater financial prudence is beginning to gain currency and acceptance, although probably out of necessity rather than increased common sense or discovery of a social conscience. This has led to a slow, subtle, but seemingly irreversible change in how sports teams rate, evaluate, and ultimately sign and pay for players.

Major League Baseball is where this change has been most keenly felt and where statistics have generated legions of anoraks for many years. The catalyst for this change actually started in the late 70’s when Bill James, who had no experience as a writer, but had a huge obsession with baseball, started collecting his own brand of statistics and began publishing his Baseball Abstract. What made his approach radically different was that he took serious issue with many of the statistics that had been historically used to rate players and teams and to demonstrate and value success. It took some time before James’s statistics had a measurable effect on the game, and many people, both inside and outside baseball, thought of him as an eccentric and misguided journalist or just a bored number cruncher. That was until Billy Beane became the general manager of the Oakland A’s in 1997. Michael Lewis tells the story of Billy, the Oakland As, and his discovery of James’ statistical approach, in his excellent book Moneyball. He hits an early and resounding home run in the book when he states that Bill James found that “the statistics were not merely inadequate: they lied. And the lies they told led the people that ran baseball to misjudge their players and mismanage their games.”

An intelligent approach to the price of success

The book’s main theme is charting the success of the Oakland A’s new approach and Billy Beane’s role in it. The A’s, who, as a smaller market club, similar perhaps to Bournemouth or Watford, simply didn’t have the resources of the bigger teams such as the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox to attract the top stars and newly minted prospects. He tells how Billy Beane used a whole new range of metrics to help the A’s to sign players who not only didn’t show up on other teams’ radar and scouting systems but were thought to be significantly inferior to the highly paid stars and prospects that the other teams were courting. And this wasn’t just a one year phenomenon. Oakland has consistently out-performed the richer teams by staggering amounts. One stat that puts into perspective is the amount of money each Major League Baseball team has “paid” for a win. Based on a formula developed by Doug Pappas, a leading authority on baseball finance, over a three year period the A’s paid around $500 thousand per win. Compare this with the nearly $3 million that richer teams such as the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers spent, for far less success and far more player aggravation and mediocrity.

A new way of thinking – Powerful combinations lead to hidden valuation

In a nutshell Billy Beane started to rethink baseball and looked for new baseball knowledge. He used a systematic, scientific investigation of the sport to utilize data and drive insight that hadn’t traditionally been used to value players. In doing this he uncovered and mined hidden gems of players that might have otherwise been left to languish in lower leagues, or never make it all because of historic talent evaluation prejudices rooted in baseball traditions. He was able to start looking at players in very different ways and to use measures and evaluation, both physical and psychological, in powerful combinations that showed players true worth and made a lasting impact on baseball history. Perhaps if Man U. hadn’t lead with their wallet and utilized some of these ideas, they would have never signed Martial, de Maria or Falcao. Recently, that old Dutch master Louis van Gaal, the Man U. manager , no doubt in an attempt to deflect attention from that great deal maker Ed Woodward, stated that neither player fit the club’s culture, perhaps because climatically becoming Mancunians wasn’t ever on their bucket list. Unfortunately as Louis is a throwback to the old days, similar to a lot of baseball traditionalists, he has failed to grasp the fact that this is something that Man U needed to find out before they signed them. What was needed was a more detailed analysis of individual attitudes, behaviours, cultural backgrounds and other non-football specific traits. Had they done this and identified and recognized some early warning signs, then they would have also passed on a host of their other expensive failures and concentrated on real potential talent who were prepared to do the hard work, and live in Manchester, in order to succeed.

Customer experience lessons from the A’s

There are significant parallels between the A’s and business today; and how many companies use outdated and irrelevant statistics to delude themselves into thinking they are delivering great service, and that their customers love them. Realistic, forward thinking businesses are developing new approaches to customer experience by rethinking customer engagement and being smarter about what data they use to build and maintain their strategy, and how they use this insight to retain and “sign” new customers. In the early parts of the 21st century many businesses were as profligate as football teams and threw large sums of money at the technology companies that flashed their eyelashes at them. This resulted in businesses opening their kimonos and letting the technology “agents”in to install high priced CRM systems, flashy CTI solutions and other shiny new toys that, like footballers, blew the money but never delivered the goods.

Companies would have been better to have been a disciple of Bill James rather than worshipping at the altar of Hi-tech. His overriding message in his Abstracts was that people like Billy Beane were on the receiving end of a false idea of what makes a successful baseball player; and that if you challenge conventional wisdom you’ll find ways to do things much better than they are currently done. This is a seemingly obvious reverse play on the definition of insanity. Organizations that are redefining customer engagement are now implementing that advice without perhaps realizing its genesis and are starting to reduce the inefficiency caused by sloppy data or tired, outdated metrics such as NPS or CSAT. It’s not that I have anything particular against either of these, but they both represent a single number metric and, in terms of truly and fairly valuing the experience that each customer has, both are inadequate. Asking a customer whether they would recommend a company to their friends or colleagues (and surely never knowing if they have) and whether they are satisfied seems mildly interesting but far from conclusive in identifying both current company opinions and future decisive actions. And I’m not alone in this view. A recent poll conducted byMarketforce showed that 66% of respondents believed that a combination of metrics will be the most widely used method to value customer engagement and experience in the next 5 years.

Understanding the relationship between customer actions, attitudes, responses and value created will identify what actually makes a difference in customer terms and creates Positive Customer Outcomes (PCO). This is a measure based on a combination of values that I’ve developed and started to use with customers as an effective and enduring measure of success in individual interactions and over the longer term. As it is far more definitive in both name and value, it also reflects positively on the employee or business process as it’s difficult to have a high PCO score without an equally positive employee performance. That in turn can be translated into increased sales, customer retention, employee engagement and other more qualitative metrics that actually mean something and can be measured and analysed for their effect on the overall business. The early baseball statistics innovators realized that each event on the field had an expected run value and contributed to the overall performance of the team. This in turn showed how to account for a players performance by the number of runs scored. But how much each event on the field was worth was much harder to figure out. On drilling deeper, teams found that it contained rich seams of data that could provide the answers that had never previously been recorded or investigated fully and that made a real, lasting and consistent difference to individual and team performance.

Find the real value, and what counts most for customers

Similarly in business, every action has a PCO value and the statistics that you need to consider and combine will change depending on the type of business, the role of the contact centre and/or other interactions across various channels. But they’re worth digging for. As an example: rather than just figuring out success based on overall sales volume or individual purchases, we should look deeper. An organization I worked with recently started to take a more in-depth look and went beyond the basics to ask some much more creative and illuminating questions. What is the ratio between store visits, web sessions or phone calls per £ of sales? How many customers does each customer service agent speak to for every £ of revenue? What is the average call length of successful (sale) and unsuccessful (no sale) calls? Does a customer buy more when they call early in the day or later? Does this depend on hold time or how easy it was to get to the right place, or speak to the right person?

These may seem inconsequential, irrelevant or difficult to uncover, but in this world of excessive excitement caused by an unrealistic overdependence on big data, this data already exists, is available and at a low cost because you already own it or can quite easily get it. As Billy Beane discovered, just because nobody else was interested in a certain player didn’t mean they weren’t valuable. In fact for him, as time went on, and his quirky selections were vindicated, this made them even more potentially valuable

Bringing Data to Life – Turning Insight into Action

Maximizing the value of your insight may seem obvious but it’s clear from my own interactions as a customer that very little that I say or do, or how I use products or services, is ever used creatively to deliver a better experience or to achieve a strong PCO. For whatever reason many organizations continue to operate with beliefs and biases, many of which are long held, honestly formed but fatally flawed and operationally inaccurate when used to evaluate performance and determine customer needs and preferences. As the grandfather of customer experience Heraclitus once remarked “The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change.” Billy Beane showed that by continuing to expand his statistical view he found traits and player attributes that everyone else was overlooking. Even when it was clear that the A’s were on to something, many in baseball derided it as just luck and continued to believe that baseball statistics were the pure accomplishments of men against other men, or perhaps in business parlance, one company against another. But this was wrong and as Bill James noted “they are accomplishments of men in combination with their circumstances”. A subtle, but extremely critical difference.

But innovative journeys into data and insight don’t just benefit customers. This can also inform staffing decisions, technology investments, new product introductions and result in huge advances in organizational engagement. They have a waterfall effect and cascade over many parts of the business refreshing, cleansing and bringing fresh new life to help the business grow and prosper. But customers are changing fast and conventional wisdom may have had its place in the sun. Businesses must take a certain leap of faith and start looking in places and finding stats that don’t appear to interest others and to turn that data into insights that create rich and contextual customer experiences. Much as we hear about “intangibles” among top athletes, there are additional layers of creativity, innovation and personalization that go beyond just connecting with customers, as there are connecting bat to ball. So don’t slow down or stop swinging for the fences.

As Babe Ruth said “Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”


Publish Date: September 11, 2015 5:00 AM

The Price is Right – But at Costco so is the Service!

In the constantly evolving world of UK retail, one name that may not be as familiar as others is Costco. Perhaps the clue is found in their full corporate identity, Costco Wholesale Corporation. Their traditional customer base has been small and medium businesses (SMBs) and individual members from specific employment groups. Consequently they may not be as recognizable as the traditional “big four” UK supermarkets and other retailers, but that is likely to change, because they are also unrecognizable from the others for a very good reason. They actually care about their customers, are approachable and responsive and take immediate remedial action when a problem arises. More about that later.

I don’t think anybody would question that the retail world has been going through a seismic shift in buying habits for some time and, along with outdated ideas and business strategies, the resulting tsunami has washed away many of the companies that failed to react to the changing times (Comet, Blockbuster, Barratts, JJB Sports) . Clearly the emergence of on-line shopping has had perhaps the biggest impact.  But another trend, especially in the UK grocery world, appears to show that a quick flash of the discounter’s eyelashes via their low prices is enough lead us into temptation and away from our more traditional supermarket brands.

Despite that, loyalty still seems to have currency in the world of customer experience. At least if you are the recipient of as many webinars/seminar invites, articles and blogs as I am. And as a customer and a customer experience practitioner, I’d like to think that it still has aspirational, reputational and financial value. But as with any other desirable business trait, it must be continually and consistently earned, not just expected without some effort, which is where many companies are failing. In the UK, John Lewis and Waitrose still clearly understand that and continue to lead the way in both customer service and profitability. However, at the other end of the spectrum, we have also seen the inexorable rise in the fortunes of Aldi and Lidl. The biggest noise that you now hear in the market is the squeals from the “big four” supermarkets caught in the squeeze between these two solitudes, and trying to figure out if, and how, they can deliver low cost and decent, if not memorable, service.

But are these two objectives mutually exclusive? As a regular Aldi and Lidl shopper- I’ve even stopped hiding the shopping in M&S bags- it’s obvious that they haven’t really scrimped on service. OK, they may not have as many people roaming the stores and a more limited product selection, but their check-out people are generally friendly and personable, their managers available, helpful and responsible, and the shops generally well stocked – even at 6:00 pm (Tesco & Sainsbury’s please note). So there is hope.

Now let’s get back to Costco. As I also spend quite a bit of time in Canada, this is where I first encountered them. In Canada and the US, they not only support SMBs but also have a loyal (there’s that word again) following among individual consumers where Gold Star members can enjoy the same discounts as businesses and can shop both in store and on-line. Individual members are welcome in the UK and as this on-line service is now also available, I decided to sign up to take advantage of special on-line discounts and to get delivery of larger items. To cut to the chase, I encountered a few difficulties with the web-site and couldn’t complete the application process, effectively causing a check out failure and no little dissatisfaction.

Now some enlightened companies are using web analytics in real time to spot these problems and offer intervention and resolution via web-chat or other media. This not only solves the problem for the customer but can save the company time and money as well as keeping reputational damage to a minimum. Unfortunately this wasn’t in place and my only option was to call Costco customer service. To their credit, Costco offer a toll free 0800 number, unlike many UK based organizations that continue to rip off customers with expensive 084X and 087x numbers for customer service from which they benefit financially. However, this still meant a cost to me in time, and that’s still an investment where you can’t get any refunds.

As a result I decided to send an email to a senior person at Costco UK detailing my problem.  I’ve found this is mutually beneficial as a way to get resolution and to alert someone in the company that might actually care and address the issue promptly it. It took all of 5 minutes to get a telephone response from Costco. In another 5 minutes, my problem was solved, my on-line account set-up and all done with good humour, and a welcome blend of professionalism, candour and knowledge. There was also a sincere statement (I can tell the difference) of appreciation for raising the issue and a commitment to fixing the problem over the longer term.

So what can we learn from this?

  1. If you are driving more customers to your web-site, and/or expecting them to self-serve, you must monitor, measure and manage what’s going on in real time across all of your channels, but especially web transactions. This has cultural, operational and technology elements and all must have a seat at the transformation table as they are inextricably linked and interdependent. As noted, very few companies appear to do this, resulting in disgruntled customers who are forced to go elsewhere, or who must engage in a customer service call to explain the problem, which can be costly to both parties, and hope that the person responding can actually do something about it.
  1. But just knowing about it isn’t enough. You must have the right people, with the right attitude and who are equipped with the knowledge, the authority and the ability to provide intervention, resolution and if necessary, compensation. This is why you must never outsource customer service, as dealing with uninterested, unempowered, disengaged representatives whose typical response is a lame “I’ll make sure I pass it on to the relevant department”, simply doesn’t cut it (BA, BT and O2 please take note).
  1. You must then let your customer know that you appreciate that they took the time to raise the issue and the steps that you are taking to eliminate the issue in the future – tomorrow will be fine. Many people still don’t bother to complain as they believe that nobody will respond or do anything to fix the problem. And quite often they’re right. This is often where customer satisfaction surveys also fall down. How many times have you been contacted by the company doing the survey thanking you and letting you know that as a result of your comments, changes have been made? That’s what I thought!
  1. But don’t just depend on technology to get you out of a tight spot. Encourage, incentivize and reward employees for recognizing and acting autonomously and spontaneously when customers are having problems. Most of us naturally want to help others and come pre-wired with an attitude and a caring side that is ideally suited to achieving that objective. But often organizations want to actively discourage any personal feelings or emotions from creeping into their employees’ actions with the result that customer issues are ignored and/or swept under the rug entitled “not my job”.

The best companies support purposeful behaviour and enhance their customer engagement by encouraging employees to build on these natural feelings and attitudes and to let them loose on their customers and fellow employees. The benefits of this were amplified in a recent article by Steven Van Belleghem entitled Defining the ‘human touch’ in the customer relationship. He notes that “Creativity and innovation are uniquely human characteristics. It is smart for companies to allow human creativity to blossom in all phases of the customer relationship. You must allow all your staff to think creatively about improvements that can benefit the customer.”

Costco clearly understands the value of this approach and, similar to Zappos, have a public mission statement that states their core values and that actively encourages their employees to do the right thing – for the customer. As with any complaint handled well, they come out the better for it. Yes, price is important, but low cost and great service aren’t necessarily strange bedfellows as Costco have shown me by their actions in this matter and through my regular store visits. And it’s not just luck. Costco is a responsible and caring employer that has historically paid above average wages, provided generous employee benefits and is consistently ranked among the best places to work in the United States. As a result they have built a “can do” culture and enjoy a high degree of employee engagement, which in turn is reflected in the way they interact with customers.

At Costco, it’s not just the price that’s right.


In the interests of disclosure, I should add a small disclaimer to this tome. I am a Costco shareholder, so I obviously want them to do well. But as a reasonably altruistic investor, I want, and expect, them to do well for the right reasons.  And they are!


Publish Date: April 1, 2015 5:00 AM

Now it’s Personal – Just be you, the customers will love it

We’d only been in the restaurant about three minutes, but had already had some humorous and warm conversations with three of the staff who immediately made us feel both welcome and pleased that we’d chosen this restaurant in downtown Vancouver. What came through loud and clear was that these people were authentic in both their attitude and desire to make us feel at home, and although this was their “job”, they treated us like friends and part of the family. Maybe that isn’t that much of a stretch in a restaurant,( well at least not in Canada) but it doesn’t always happen as naturally as this. Often, especially when they’re reading their list of specials, it can sound robotic and more than a little scripted, especially when it’s that special favourite, “Hi, my name is Bruce and I’ll be your server today” (sorry if your name is Bruce!)

Proud to Serve – Happy to Help

As I’m quite often in Vancouver and have written about my customer experiences there in past blogs, I’ve come to expect this level of service. And as this visit coincided with Canada being named #2 for Customer Service in a recent Zendesk poll, I wanted to really see what the magic sauce was and who was cooking it. In an earlier blog entitled Across the Great Divide, I had responded to some positive reviews from some friends who had experienced great customer service in Canada and wondered if they were lucky, or if this was the norm.  I suggested that it was the latter and that Pride, Tolerance and Enthusiasm were the key elements that underpinned this. In general most Canadians are proud to serve others, and don’t see it as menial or a temporary job between acting gigs. As a result, many Canadian companies have created an environment where employee engagement is a living, breathing organism, participation in decisions is de rigueur and pride in their company shines through and is reflected in their interactions with guests.

Have a Nice Day – We really mean it!

Europeans often mock North Americans’ “have a nice day” attitude as disingenuous. But for the most part people in Canada really mean it. In Vancouver they keep it fresh and meaningful with genuine excitement and healthy dose of youthful creativity, open-mindedness and enthusiasm, and nowhere is that more apparent than it its ever-burgeoning food and drink scene. Certainly the hospitality industry in Canada is alive and well, and is the place where many visitors get up close and personal with authentic and memorable customer service experiences.

Be yourself – everyone else is taken

But my latest restaurant visit, the other positive experiences during my trip and the Zendesk survey made me realize that there was something else. Another equally critical element that continually freshens the offering, makes the moment come alive and keeps people coming back for more.  This was something that went deeper and wasn’t just in the DNA of the people that delivered this great service, it was the DNA!  It was the people being allowed to be themselves and consequently providing a more authentic, consistent and memorable customer experience. And this isn’t just true for restaurants. Any business that truly cares about customers, and I’m not yet convinced that is all businesses, must allow their front line employees to express their own personalities and act naturally and spontaneously.

Most of us naturally want to help others and come pre-wired with an attitude and a caring side that is ideally suited to achieving that objective. But often organizations want to actively discourage any personal feelings or emotions from creeping into their employees’ actions. The best companies enhance their customer engagement by encouraging employees to build on these natural feelings and attitudes and let them loose on their customers, fellow employees and anyone within hugging distance!

I was glad to see that I wasn’t alone in my feelings when I read a recent article by Steven Van Belleghem entitled Defining the ‘human touch’ in the customer relationship. While the article focuses primarily on the difference between human and computer based customer service interactions, Steven’s underlying theme looks at three areas in which humans excel. This is their ability to add empathy, creativity and passion to any interaction. He notes that “Creativity and innovation are uniquely human characteristics. It is smart for companies to allow human creativity to blossom in all phases of the customer relationship. You must allow all your staff to think creatively about improvements that can benefit the customer.”

I’m sure there will be people who will say there are risks associated with letting people unleash their personalities, creativity or rich and fruity vocabulary on poor unsuspecting customers.  The alternative may be to bore your customers with monotone agents who can’t deviate from a script, have the personality of a turnip, and force customers into seeking other places to do business. But I’m not talking about thoughtless, knee-jerk or unplanned communications. This is all about giving employees permission to engage with customers on an emotional and personal level.  It puts the responsibility for great customer experience back where it belongs; in the hands, or voice, of the people who deliver the service. Let them have the knowledge needed, the trust and freedom to use it wisely, and set them free to execute.

Ditch the scripts – Act Naturally

But this isn’t such a revolutionary idea. A recent survey from Software Advice, a website that provides information on customer support software, is a great illustration of the fact that most customers would prefer not to engage with agents who sounded as if they were reading from a script.  Their survey – What Customers Really Think About Your Call Center Script, had a lead-off question which really hit the nail on the head when it asked, “Does it improve your call experience when the customer service agent doesn’t sound like they’re reading from a script?” The response was a resounding 69% who said their customer service experience is improved when the agent doesn’t sound like they are reading from a script.

The survey was very enlightening and went on to focus on a number of other strategies. It discovered that using some very basic and very human, unscripted, natural responses such as “please” and “thank you” were vastly more effective in building empathy, consistency and understanding into the interactions. And the reasons for this seems equally simple.  When agents say “please” and “thank you,” they are not reading those words directly from a script. They’re saying them naturally. They fit into the dialog just like they do in normal, everyday conversation, and the inflection and tone of the words is exactly how it should be.

I realize that many organizations have legal and regulatory statements that need to be covered. But I’ve worked with many organizations who have found innovative and natural ways to introduce these into the conversation and meet their commitment without reducing the customer to tears.

Put the spotlight on talent and let the feelings shine through

Engaged and trusted employees naturally want to help and find it easy to draw on their reserves of empathy & understanding, tune in to their customer and turn up their performance. Forward thinking organizations put the spotlight on these talents and believe that if you can unleash imagination, encourage innovation and build trust based on simple human behaviour and principles, then people will come together in a common purpose – and customers, employees and companies all win.

For those companies that truly understand this and measure success by the daily performance of the people who are the company, the results are clear. Not only are they reputationally and financially more profitable, but their employees achieve greater success and satisfaction in work and life, and are typically less likely to leave and more inclined to establish a career for the longer term.

As Steven Van Belleghem notes “Companies need to realize that in future the human element will be one of their scarcest resources in the customer relationship – and therefore one of the most strategically important. People love other people.”

It’s only natural!


Publish Date: November 4, 2014 5:00 AM

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