And the Voice Said: It’s the Service Culture, Silly!   -   Or, The Customer-Centric Organization
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And the Voice Said: It’s the Service Culture, Silly!   -   Or, The Customer-Centric Organization

  Fadi R. Chahrouri | Partner

  4th April, 2017

Morning with a message

There are days like that, when from the moment you wake up everything seems to point to a single direction; to one grand unifying message. That was one of those days. My morning ritual involves reading the newspaper (yes, a real paper, not the e-type), and that morning, the business section had several pieces on customer service: an article about call centers and why they fail to win customers over, an editorial from a business guru touting the importance of serving customers beyond their expectations and, (drum roll please!), a full page of articles and reports about a prestigious event held the previous day in Dubai, to recognize organizations which demonstrated innovation excellence in enhancing their customers’ experience.

Of minimarts, cappuccinos, little Johnny and Mr. Volcano

Driving to the office, I made my regular stop at the local mini-market and was surprised to witness a scene I could use as a roleplay in one of my customer service courses. A suited man who looked like he was going to explode was being attended to by the young clerk manning the espresso/cappuccino counter. I knew this clerk because he often served me on my morning routines. His name was Johnny and I liked him because he was always upbeat and very helpful. The customer’s face was a shiny maroon and I could almost visualize steam coming out of his nose and ears. The contrite clerk, soft spoken as he was, had cheeks that matched the bright red of his uniform shirt and cap. This was obviously the last act of the play; the customer stormed out of the store thunderously pledging that this was the last time he would step into this store.

I am not the nosy type, however in this case my professional curiosity got the better of me and I asked the poor clerk what had happened. Johnny explained that the customer was a regular who stopped by, like me, almost every day, ordered his coffee ‘to-go’ and made a couple of small purchases. Unlike me, his brew of choice was cappuccino (mine was a double espresso, no milk, straight up) and, for the third time in the last couple of weeks there was no milk for this customer’s holy morning brew; a source of much aggravation. This sad case of affair forced him to go find his caffeine shot somewhere else and reach work late. Thus, his dramatic impersonation of an erupting volcano.

Johnny also informed me that, probably due to some belt tightening measures, head office had terminated the contract with the old milk and sundries supplier and hired a new, cheaper one. The new supplier was less professional and less reliable which had caused troubles with other customers as well. The good intentioned clerk did his best to appease disappointed customers but, to his count, he had lost at least 3 regulars since the switch. Johnny had told his boss, the manager of the minimart, about the situation but Mr. Boss believed there was no point in talking to head office because they never listen and, “what were a couple of cappuccinos in the grand scale of things anyway”.

Talk about irony

After reaching my office I sifted through my emails, among which was a startling request from a large company requesting a training course for their customer contact staff. More specifically, they wanted to teach their front liners to handle complaints and soothe upset customers. The request was quite detailed, even mentioning the Dubai service awards and the company’s ambition to be recognized in next year’s event. But, the startling thing was: this request came from the very same company that owned the minimart I was just coming from. Talk about a coincidence! Talk about irony!

As a professional, when I prepare a proposal for a customer, I make sure what I propose is really going to help. I stared at the request for a minute; scratched my head, then sighed. My mind reviewed the events at the minimart, and I tried to find the magic words, behavior and attitude little Johnny could have displayed to avoid the outburst I had witnessed. Of course it is possible to achieve such a feat with the right tone of voice, a little smile here, a little empathy there, promising the customer that things will change, offering with apologies something free of charge, and other tips of the sort. Yes, we could surely increase our chances of mollifying even hardened complainers. But there is no guarantee that any skills I could impart would work all the time. Emotional intelligence, communication skills, experience, training, and a little psychology will help, but, what if after all our cajoling efforts the next time he comes to our shop, our dear customer still cannot find milk for his beloved cappuccino?

The voice within

I was deep in meditation. Slowly, I felt a trembling sensation coming from deep within my guts, or was it from my subconscious? The trembling melted, turned, twisted and transformed itself into a sound that said in a deep, deep voice: “Hear me, Fadi, and heed! In this environment of disjointed strategies and disconnected communication lines, it is not the employees’ fault. It’s the culture; the organizational culture!”

Which brings me to the point of this article.

Building a customer centric organization

The premise here is to expose the futility of placing the burden of customer satisfaction squarely on the shoulders of customer facing employees. This is not to say that training your frontline staff in the finer skills of customer care is not important; far from it. But to bear fruit, this commendable initiative should be part of an organization-wide effort, driven by top management and aiming at creating a customer centric culture, where every individual, department, strategy, task, nook and cranny in the organization are aligned with that overarching effort.

Let’s look at the main elements to address when creating a customer-centric organization:

  • Leadership – Without enlightened leadership every initiative is bound to fail. And I am not only talking about the middle manager who would be assigned the responsibility of the customer care initiative, but about the top executives of the organization. I am talking about those who have the last say in crafting the mission and vision and giving direction to everything that happens in the organization. Top executives have to live-up to their responsibility as the ultimate role models; what they do becomes ingrained as policy. If the top executives do not have a deep seated belief in the value of customer service, rock solid knowledge of how to proceed, and if they do not demonstrate the corresponding behavior day in and day out, every midlevel initiative will come to naught.
  • Processes and procedures – How easy, better yet, how pleasurable is it for customers to do business with us? Do we understand that any activity conducted internally has to, at the end of the road, have a positive impact on the external customer, or that there is simply no point in conducting it? Have we dissected all our processes and procedures to ensure they are both needed and efficient?
  • Internal customers – Employees will only give superior service if they are qualified and motivated to do so. A customer initiative may be triggered by management, developed by marketing, analyzed by finance, coordinated by logistics and delivered by sales or other customer facing employees. If any step is handled by an unqualified or demotivated employee, the ripples will be felt all the way to the customer and will impact the success of that initiative. Superior customer service cannot happen if any of the links in the service profit chain is weak or broken.
    Another danger that lurks when considering internal customers is what is commonly called the silo mentality: groups of employees who build fences and look at their own internal needs as their only motivation. The outcome of this very widespread and toxic practice is dissatisfied customers, both internal and external. One of the most crucial roles of top management is to destroy these silos.
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  • Intelligent budgeting – We all know that a satisfied customer will buy more, will buy more often and will stay with us longer. We also know that earning customer satisfaction might involve extra expenditures, maybe in new software, better products, more efficient procedures, qualified and motivated employees, and even in the convenience and comfort of our set-up. These expenditures should be considered an investment. Therefore we should keep an eye on the returns on this investment. To do so we must have a real understanding of the value of a customer. We should know which customer segments to target with extra investments and which segments we should not. The customer lifetime value (LTV), by segment, is a key measurement to track if we want to put our efforts behind the right customers; this is a prime element of success.
  • The voice of the customer – Every effort should be exerted to know what our customers want, need, and even think. This search must be conducted at the individual customer level as well as at the level of customer segments. How will we know where and how to improve or which products and services to keep or to dump? Companies interested in customer service have deployed a battery of tools to hear, and make sense of, the voice of the customer. From a formal customer complaint system to regular customer surveys, to formal and informal meetings with customers, the voice of the customer must be heard, understood, analyzed and handled with appropriate KPIs and follow-up to make sure we are on the right track.

For an organization to achieve respectable levels of customer satisfaction, implementing the points mentioned above is a must. Little Johnny will never be able to appease Mr. Volcano without support from management and without internal lines of open communication. Of course it may be decided that the investment involved in reverting back to the previous supplier is not justified by the extra odd cappuccino the company would sell. But have we calculated the LTV of Mr. Volcano? If the minimart loses this customer the lost opportunity may add up to several hundreds if not thousands of dirhams a year. In addition little Johnny said that several other customers had also vanished. When one remembers that this is only one outlet in the chain, one can easily see how lost income can add up. And we haven’t talked yet about the damage to the outlet’s reputation which customers like Mr. Volcano could happily inflict.

Everything comes together

Little by little the visions dissipated and I was back in my office, staring at the request for proposal. Everything came together from my morning paper to the minimart adventure to the spooky voice I heard. Now I knew what I should do: I will propose that before putting their staff through any training program, and before tormenting those poor employees with unrealistic expectations, it is they, the management of the company, who should first get trained on how to create a customer-centric culture. Only then, can management take a serious look at the organization they have created, correct basic but strategic weaknesses, and benefit fully from training their staff on the finer skills of customer service, with any hope of winning the coveted Service award they are after!