Now for a report that tells us what we have long suspected. Most chief executives and boards have no understanding at all of what customers want, claims Leading by Example, a new study from the Institute of Customer Service (ICS). The same CEOs and boards also ignore the advice of experienced frontline staff.
In addition, many of them fail to lead by example by exhibiting and demonstrating the very skills that frontline employees judge as vital to the delivery of quality customer service.
Only 51% of 650 UK workers and line managers surveyed thought that their CEO and board were at all interested in customer insight. Fewer than half of those polled also feel that their senior executives do in actual fact understand the key needs of their customers. And just 36% of managers think that their senior executives actively listen to customers in an attempt to lift service. Only 44% of frontline staff feel that their ideas are taken on board.
The findings go on. Only 28% of the organizations involved in the study had a board member with responsibility for customer service (perhaps they will hastily appoint someone now).
And just over half of employees surveyed believe that boardrooms put profits before delivering a truly great customer experience.“If employees suggest that customer needs are not understood in the boardroom, what must customers be feeling,” states ICS chief executive Jo Causon. “Unless the UK’s C-suite takes the time to analyse customer preferences, behavior and levels of satisfaction, they should not be surprised if the bottom line is hit as customers go elsewhere.” The findings may not be particularly surprising but they actually are at odds with a line that the ICS has been pushing recently.
In May, it sent out a missive declaring that a new trend was emerging in corporate Britain – the UK’s biggest companies were looking for a new kind of chief executive; one dedicated to improving customer service as a way of bettering the long-term financial results of their companies.It cited David Potts, the new chief executive of embattled UK supermarkets group Morrisons, who has unveiled a new staff bonus scheme that links pay and bonuses to levels of customer satisfaction at their stores.Jill McDonald, who has recently left her former position as the (well-named) UK chief executive of her US fast food namesake to take on the top job at motoring and cycling retailer Halfords, is apparently another example of this new trend. Her new chairman Dennis Millard said the company had been looking for someone who had “nurtured a culture of customer service.”
And Simon Roberts, the UK managing director of chemists’s group Boots, has gone on the record saying that customer service is the first thing on the agenda at every company board meeting.Asked which other companies were also exhibiting this trend, Causon cited UK mutual, the John Lewis Partnership.
Tesco, the British supermarket chain that was continually praised for understanding customers’ needs during the “glory years” of former chief executive Sir Terry Leahy and has since fallen from grace with profit warnings and an investigation into overstating earnings, is conspicuously absent from the most recent customer service praise.
But how can the latest report’s findings be so different from the trend that the ICS identified only two months ago? Causon’s explanation is that the organization’s research does indeed show that many leaders adopt a customer-centric approach to business strategy. However, they are let down by boards who do not contain representatives with direct experience of customer service roles.If such a role does not exist within an organization, then she says that board members need to develop the relevant skills, insight and vision to ensure that the customer is a “constant reference point.”
In addition, she points out that 56% of employees quizzed in the recent poll agreed that the way that they are given incentive to provide good customer service is correct.
Two-thirds of them agreed with the statement: “At the very least, my boardroom recognizes me for the contribution I make to customer service.”
The ICS report recommends that boards create “a language around customer service” to reflect business performance, risk and reputational issues.
It also wants them to develop reporting metrics centered on customer service and to improve their collaborative and listening skills “so that the C-suite is better informed about what customer-facing staff learn and deal with on a daily basis.”
It is easy to be skeptical of such research. How many times, for example, have you found yourself asking a call center operative to pass on a constructive suggestion to their line manager whilst knowing that you will have exactly the same issue the next time you are unfortunate enough to need to contact the company?
Many companies still make their switchboard telephone numbers almost impossible to find on their websites or do not put them online at all, preferring the lengthier process of telling customers to contact them via email or an internet form.
And how many times have you been “mistakenly” cut off when telephoning a so-called customer service center and asking a question that nobody there wants to answer? Telecom companies who are among the main culprits of this practice do not even see the irony.
Recently, I conducted a straw poll of senior corporate communications executives and asked them whether consistently exemplary customer service was ever possible, let alone common at their companies. The answer from them all was the same: it is possible but only at a price.
Despite the protestations of the ICS, consumer watchdog groups and other voices, I suspect that this will remain the case at many companies.
Otherwise, the solution is obvious and reasonably simple. Link the pay and bonuses of all frontline staff to their customer service performance and make sure that this link carries on all the way up the chain to the board and the chief executive.
How many companies really do this? Therein lies the answer to the question of whether there are any publicly-owned businesses out there that really do believe in fantastic customer service.