A Customer Service Story (Part I)

I, like many consultants, attend talks and conferences in the hope of being inspired. Over the years though I have mostly been disappointed and have found the talks at conferences to generally be ‘bog standard’: a slide presentation, facts, figures – quite safe and often like a presentation for The City or investors.  It is only really since TED, One Young World, Intelligence Squared, Founders Forum etc. that talks have become more inspirational. There are now conferences around the world that are well worth attending or live streaming, which are extraordinary.

About 20 years ago, I attended a Retail Week Conference where the then-CEO of Asda, Allan Leighton, gave a talk that I have never forgotten – and probably never will.  Allan’s name was announced, the lights went down and booming out of the sound system was the Rolling Stones’ (I can’t get no) Satisfaction. Allan jumped onto the stage and spoke about customer service and what happens when companies fail to deliver on this crucial part of the customer journey.

To illustrate his point, Allan launched into the story of why Asda changed its company car policy. Allan’s new company car arrived, and he was excited to be getting a brand new, top of the range sedan. When he looked inside, the ashtray was missing. He phoned the dealership who said that they would get back to him once the part had arrived from Germany (which would take a few weeks). Obsessed with customer service, Allan was perplexed and called a sales person at the local Lexus dealership in Leeds and asked him what he would have done in such a situation. The sales person said to him that he would get back to him in 30 minutes. Exactly 30 minutes later, there was a knock on his office door and the sales person was standing outside with an ashtray from the brand-new sedan that he had ordered. Allan was so impressed, he changed the company car policy almost on the spot.

Indeed, the evidence backs up Allan’s intuition. Lexus is consistently ranked as one of the most trusted and responsive car brands in the world. In 2017’s ACSI Customer Satisfaction Survey it was ranked joint-first, and it’s been in the top 5 since 2011. Parent company Toyota is the only car business with more than 10% market share which ranked in the top 10.

That story has stayed with me over the years, always percolating at the back of my mind. It highlights an important point about customer service that’s easy to miss. It’s not about hitting your KPIs, but the customer’s. For that dealership and that business, cutting shipping time from six weeks to three might have already been an immense achievement. But to the customer, none of that matters; why was there shipping time in the first place? Allan wasn’t asking the first dealership about the challenges of operating a continental supply chain – he wanted an ashtray. The best customer experience businesses start by thinking about what the consumer wants and expects – not what their organisational structures are already set up to deliver.

Allan’s example also demonstrates that customer service starts well before the phones at the call centre start ringing. It runs through everything – make a product too complex to be easily serviceable, and you’ve already designed potentially catastrophic customer service challenges into what you’re selling from the development process on. It makes me wonder why customer service teams are so often siloed off from the rest of companies.

It’s why Glossier is so well-known for the quality of its customer care. Their CS team is tightly woven into the fabric of the organisation, allowing customer expectation gleaned from customer feedback to be employed throughout every stage of a product’s lifespan. I understand the economic incentive to outsource much of the legwork, but there’s a strong commercial argument as to why consideration of customer service should be baked into every process. Recent research found that companies that optimise customer experience on average report revenue growth of between 5% and 15% and see cost reductions of between 15% and 25%.

It matters because consumers aren’t becoming less demanding. Everyone knows deep in their bones that ‘the customer is always right’, but what that actually means is that fall down on any stage of the journey and you might have just lost a customer for life.

Customer service can sometimes be a thankless task, but it’s also one that time after time proves to be all-important. As McKinsey wrote in a report on customer experience, “how a company delivers for its customers is beginning to be as important as what it delivers.” I’ve written a lot recently about how crucial it is to connect with your customer, to form authentic emotional bonds with your consumer. But before you can do any of that, you need to make sure that you can deliver on their expectations.

Moira@thembsgroup.co.uk | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup