Chris Ingram on why the customer experience requires more work

There is a lot of talk in marketing circles about the customer experience. This is long overdue, but I fear we are already over-complicating it.

f3_120x120There is a lot of talk in marketing circles about “the customer experience”. This is long overdue, but I fear we are already over-complicating it.

I’m currently working from serviced offices. The big in-built rental premium is justified by all those admin services that take the hassle out of your life so you can concentrate on the job. Perfect, just what I was looking for. Except that I soon noticed my PA was constantly ringing reception about cracked and dirty cups, no paper towels in the loo for a week, a broken toilet seat…

When reporting these problems, the staff were always polite and apparently helpful, but nothing happened. The penny dropped when she rang down asking if they could book a car for me and the cheery response was, “No, but we do have a Yellow Pages.”

This was a serviced office without a service culture. The staff weren’t unwilling, but they didn’t have a clue. How much training were they getting? Does the parent company, Avanta, care or is it only concerned with the financials?
Training is hugely important, but why can’t we accept that some people are wired wrongly? South West Railways often runs trains in mid-winter with no heating. Not only are no apologies made during the journey, but when I wrote in to complain, pointing out that people were paying £2,500 a year for this “service”, the letter in response went into a long argument about why they couldn’t compensate me, rather than apologising and saying what they were doing about their freezing trains.

And at my local station, the machine outside is much nicer to deal with than the guy in the ticket office. Maybe that’s seen as a bit of a result if they’re looking to close more ticket offices.

Part of the problem can be low expectations. When the extra security at Heathrow caused such problems last summer, Jim Fitzpatrick, the Aviation Minister, said, “Generally the passenger experience overall is not that horrendous.” What sort of standards does this man set for his team?

Then there is The School of Wishes whose mantra is: “Say it, write it, wish it – and it will happen”. No real effort is made to get out of head office, or the marketing department, to discover the service that customers – real people – are getting. Or just as importantly, whether the customer-facing staff have the right tools to do the job. Many TV campaigns are produced this way: marketing departments and their agencies seem to use advertising as sticking plaster to cover up the gaping hole in the client’s service.

Thoughtlessness is another factor (I think that’s a gentler word than “stupidity”). Think of all the packaging that you have to battle with to get into, say, toys and toothbrushes. What on earth are the elderly and, for example, those with arthritis meant to do? Well, actually some of them end up crying with despair.

There can be a funny side to this too. I was having lunch with a friend in Michael’s in Manhattan recently – a restaurant that has retained its popularity among “media mavens” for years. The problem was my big, burly friend had forgotten his glasses and couldn’t read the menu. I offered to read the menu and he was rather offended. “No! Now don’t say anything, but I did buy a pair of glasses on the way here. Don’t say anything,” he warned and so saying he reached down and put on a pair of designer glasses. The trouble was this 200lb man, however hard he tried, hadn’t been able to pull the plastic labels off. One was still sticking up on his forehead. Trying to keep a straight face was impossible.

Then there’s The Con – where screwing the customer is more important than providing a good service. Don’t assume that this applies only to itinerant street traders, Nigerian conmen or internet scammers. Really big companies with monopolies or oligopolies can also be guilty – like our main clearing banks. You’ve head about all the hidden charges, but it can be more pernicious than that. Someone I know very well handles incoming calls from customers who have queries about their credit card accounts. Until recently, the calls were deliberately handled from India with the telephone staff in the UK listening in. Because of language difficulties, the queries almost always took longer to sort out – at premium line rates. The bank was making more money by being deliberately inefficient. Only if the customer’s frustrations boiled over did the UK staff intercept and take over the call.

Finally, there is the situation where “The Accountants Have Won”. In his autobiography, Marco Pierre White described how, when he was at Forte, he was initially charmed by Gerry Robinson when Granada took over. However, he describes long meetings about the price of coffee and them not wanting his “spectacular coffee” at only 12p a cup. Why couldn’t it be 5p?

“I’d emerge from the meeting brain-dead. It was all about percentages rather than working out what’s going to make the customer happy”.

These are just some of the reasons why customer service is so often below acceptable standards. Don’t let’s get over-sophisticated about the “customer experience” when even the basics aren’t right. Push aside all those layers that are put between you and real people and get out there and experience it yourself. Be your own mystery shopper.

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