We all know the oft-used catchphrases about how important customers are and how expensive it is, relatively, to find new ones.

By Guy Whitcroft

We also know how bad local economic conditions have been, with many businesses closing and people losing their jobs.

And yet it seems that customer service is getting worse.

Why is it that despite a 35% unemployment rate (46% if you include those who’ve given up looking, and the highest in the world according to World Bank & ILO data) finding good people giving great service is so hard?

Are the companies themselves to blame, perhaps?

Just a couple of everyday examples:

  • My local “upmarket” supermarket comes to mind (and does so fairly frequently with an epithet or two). It used to be worth paying a bit extra for the quality – fresh stuff would last longer, be consistently good and stock levels meant things were always available. Nowadays, however, the picture’s a bit different. Quality is down, stock levels are haphazard and the floor managers beat a hasty retreat into the back if a customer starts to approach them. I’m steadily moving my purchasing to rivals.
  • Banks, whose opening hours are designed to suit the bank rather than their customers (and whose staff, it appears, are not adequately trained when you do need to visit a branch).
  • Companies who seem to have let your data be misused (a credit card number logged somewhere via an app that was almost certainly accessed by a company insider, for example) and who will not listen to you, simply pushing out trite email responses about how they take your data seriously.
  • Others which, as you hold on for ages waiting to speak with a real person about a problem, play a recorded message about how important you are to them and how busy they are.

Frankly, I blame company leadership for the above problems, and this is down to two things:

  • The leadership has no idea how bad their service really is. Why? It’s not difficult to find out. Talk to customers yourself and don’t just rely on your team to give you the real picture.
  • The leadership either has no real training programmes in place or decided to cut this area of expenditure during the pandemic. Ongoing staff training is essential and should never be cut. In fact, when things are slow, you have a great opportunity to do more training.

Speaking with a couple of companies recently, I found they have no procedures manuals internally – and no real induction programme for new hires. Why not? Surely you want new people to be productive quickly, so spend a few days getting them fully up to speed on the business. What its vision, mission and values are about, its systems, and how it does things.

It’s all a case of focusing on the wrong things and being “penny wise, pound foolish.”

Make sure your OKR system is focused on the right things. A great example of how not to do it is the UK’s NHS which has seen health expenditure per capita rising by more than a third in the past decade, while life expectancy remains unchanged, making it one of the least effective in Europe. It’s down to measurement: for example, a focus on the number of patients a doctor sees in a day, not on outcomes; emergency facilities in hospitals measured on time patients are in them meaning they leave patients in ambulances outside until they are ready, and so on.

Delegate authority to the lowest levels practical and allow front-line staff to make decisions when interacting with customers, especially unhappy ones.

Recognise your star customer-focused performers internally and have people at all levels, from CEO down, engage meaningfully every week with customers. This cannot be replaced by an SMS-based NPS system.

If you focus your business on great, responsive service and providing what the customer wants and needs (not always the same thing), you’ll stand out. Customers will buy more, more often, and more profitably for you. And it’s not a size thing – even the smallest business can be customer-centric – and they usually are, only losing their way as they grow without the right leadership tools in place.

Maintaining great service will keep your business growing strongly and profitably.

So, if your company value system isn’t built around being focused on your customers … then change it.

Your staff, customers, and bank manager will thank you for it.