Earlier this week I was introduced to The Stupid Company. On first hearing, The Stupid Company sounds like an attempt at post-modern humour by a brand naming agency allowed too much freedom by its client. But no one has a monopoly on this name. The title is, as it turns out, a label that any company can earn by failing to put right the things that annoy and, ultimately, drive away customers.
There are – according to the National Consumer Council, which published a report on the phenomenon last year – many stupid companies in the UK. Although small companies are not immune to stupidity, large companies are the most stupid.
The practices that consumers single out for strongest criticism offer clues as to why big business figures so prominently in the ranks of the stupid. “Robotic” call centres, automated voice systems that imprison customers in endless loops, and overly-persistent sales pitches are among the gaffes that make customers tear their hair out. Underlying the disparate list is a theme of frustration with the facelessness of modern service culture, adding up to what the report’s authors describe as a sense that: “Many companies have no idea what it feels like to be a customer and simply lack common sense, let alone a personal touch.”
The implication of The Stupid Company – and a 2007 report, Service in Britain, conducted by Andrew Smith Research and Research Now in collaboration with the NCC – that large companies are out of touch with their customers is worrying, not only for large organisations but also for the market research industry. Big companies are voracious consumers of research; small companies get by on intuition. Yet despite the millions of pounds that large corporations spend, it seems many end up getting things wrong.
Crudely speaking, customer service research falls into two categories – compliance-based and impressionistic. The first makes sure that the standards of service the company has identified as important, such as greeting customers and answering calls in a specified time, are acted on.
The impressionistic customer service research explores how customers feel, irrespective of whether, in a literal sense, the service ticked all the boxes. Both forms of research are needed, but when it comes to funding, compliance-based research is easier to justify to budget holders than research that probes customers’ subjective experience.
At the heart of the issue is the old truism that companies measure © what is measurable. The problem, however, is that once a customer’s basic requirements have been met, it is those hard-to-nail feelings, such as whether the sales assistant was not only competent but nice to deal with, that fuel profits.
“Companies tend to look at whether customers thought the brand did what they expected it to do,” says Sue Stoneman, managing director of employee engagement consultancy NKD.
Drawing on research by Gallup, she adds the difficulty is that humans are emotional first and rational second. “If a customer is rationally satisfied with your brand their buying behaviour is the same as if they were disengaged. But when customers are both rationally and emotionally engaged their propensity to repeat purchase increases significantly and their spend per purchase increases by more than 60% over 12 months.”
Traditional research practices, such as long lead times, only compound the challenge of capturing the human side of customer service.
Nigel Cover, director of measurement services at Grass Roots, makes the point that surveys often take place days after the event, by which time customers have forgotten the vivid detail of how they were treated. To overcome this barrier, his company solicits feedback in a matter of hours. At the end of the survey, the customer is asked to record a free-form verbal comment designed to flush out issues that a pre-coded survey, concerned solely with performance ranking, would fail to capture.
“Hearing the enthusiasm or the disappointment in a customer’s voice is much more powerful than a typed comment because you can read a comment in a dozen different intonations. Voice is much more personal,” says Cover.
By exposing the raw reality that lies behind anonymous statistics, Grass Roots goads its clients into action. This chimes with its wider philosophy, which parts company with conventional research. The classic approach views a researcher as someone who stands between the firm and its customers, objectively gathering data but never meddling. Grass Roots argues for an “active” research model in which the research firm not only analyses the data in aggregate, but personally identifies unhappy customers to its client via a fast-track system.
“When you ask customers how they feel about the service that they are receiving it sets up an expectation [that you are prepared to take remedial action],” says Cover. “In the event that they are not satisfied, you need to be able to act really quickly.”
Exploring the human side of how companies treat customers in no way lessens the value of setting service targets. But metrics are only useful if they are grounded in the real life trade-offs that customers juggle when they decide which tour operator to holiday with, or where to shop. This underlines the importance of ensuring that customers, not operational managers, shape performance targets. So what insight methods are best suited to teasing out the ingredients of unforgettable service?
One possibility is to ask lots of consumers what matters to them. The catch is that people often paint themselves as rational decision makers even when, more often than not, it is the little human touches that sway their choice.
More likely to turn up nuggets of insight, in Stoneman’s opinion, are qualitative groups where customers, ideally the hard to please ones who complain most, are invited to bat around ideas for making service more satisfying. Better still, says James Bance, qualitative director at GfK Financial, are discussions that draw on customers’ recent experiences.
To make insight gathering more realistic, GfK favours a hybrid approach combining reflective research with elements of ethnography. In a recent project, GfK asked the customers of a high-street bank to keep a diary for two weeks, noting both the detail of their dealings with the bank and any particularly good service that they experienced in other sectors.
At the end of the fortnight, after interviewing the bank’s frontline staff for their take on customer service, GfK talked to the diary keepers at length. Finally, all the insights were fed into a workshop from which GfK distilled a “customer service blueprint”, summarising not just the “attributes of service” that the bank should focus on but the “signifiers of service” that would best demonstrate its ability to excel in priority areas.
“What the client was really interested in was knowing not just that speed was important but how it could give a tangible demonstration that it was a speedy organisation,” according to Bance.
GfK’s adoption of hybrid techniques is symptomatic of a growing appreciation that customer service research has to move with the times. But updating the once sleepy discipline doesn’t necessarily mean culling veteran approaches. Properly invested in, ageing research tools might yet, like ageing brands, enjoy a renaissance.
Mystery shopping, often seen as a useful but limited tool in the research armoury, may be a case in point. “Historically mystery shopping has told clients whether something did or didn’t happen,” says Clive Nicolaou, head of mystery shopping at TNS. “What it hasn’t done is get at the manner in which service is delivered.”
To make mystery shopping less binary in its approach, TNS has dropped the traditional “yes or no” format of surveys and adopted a scaling system that, it says, is sensitive enough to differentiate between assistants who do what is technically required of them, for example delivering a scripted response, and someone to whom customers genuinely warm.
Although this may sound a modest step forward, Tim Ogle, marketing director at Retail Eyes, says that with adequate investment, mystery shopping can go further still and generate ideas for service innovation.
To move beyond a box-ticking mentality, according to Ogle, research agencies need to match their mystery shoppers to the characteristics of their client’s customer base.
This means noting not only the clientele’s overall profile, but how that profile varies from day to day and at different times of the day, he says. “Taking the Slug and Lettuce pub in Wardour Street, Soho, as an example, each weekday lunchtime it is filled with office workers out for a pint and a quick sandwich. That’s completely different to the social crowd that you would find on a Friday evening.”
But does such attention to detail repay the effort? Not surprisingly, Ogle claims it does, arguing that the accuracy of the match determines the quality of the feedback that flows through to the customer.
As a tangible example, Ogle points to a project that prompted Subway to change from a McDonald’s-style fast and furious service to a more relaxed approach that gives people time to peruse the menu board before making their selection. “The research told us that people didn’t like feeling hurried or rushed.”
Companies that aim to raise their game often start by focusing on the most tangible manifestations of service quality, such as speed, efficiency and basic politeness. With any luck this will be enough to escape being labelled stupid. But to develop a rapport with the public that transcends mere efficiency requires companies to see customers as human beings.