Chris Ingram: On the importance of customer service

f3_120At the beginning of this year, I wrote about the need to get the basics of customer service right. There seemed to be a lot of talk by senior management and marketing folk, but little delivery.

Well, the economy has been declining ever since then and if ever there was a time to be close to your customers, it’s now.

And yet… I notice that if I go to the nearest Barclays to withdraw money, I can go inside and get my money immediately from the ATM, while there are large queues outside to use the hole in the wall.

“Thank God we don’t get our nice bank cluttered up with customers,” is ­probably the staff’s response, when it should be: “Hmm, our customers don’t seem to like us.”

Sometimes it’s a question of the staff being disengaged. I dined at Nobu a couple of months ago and was very impressed with the beautiful, statuesque women who were there to meet and greet me. However, if their noses had been slightly less in the air, they would have seen all the bits on the floor in front of them.

Similarly, I often walk past “ulberry” in the morning and marvel at how elegant the staff look as they do nothing while waiting for a customer. Clearly the fact that the “M” had fallen off the name outside the store ten days ago had nothing to do with them.

Sometimes the staff are totally miscast for the job. We were in an empty luggage department at Debenhams in Guildford the other day. There were two staff available – except that they weren’t. The manager was on an interminable phone call, which clearly wasn’t urgent, while we stood there. The assistant also stood there rigidly, completely dumb and avoiding all eye contact. The tailor’s dummies next door would have given better service.

Sometimes the staff are dedicated, but obsessed with their craft skills. This is a very common failing with small com­panies, but it is surprising when you see it with a marque such as Mercedes.

This is not one of those car rants. I started off as a very satisfied customer and was pleased to see the ticket hanging in my car after its service. Impressively, it was signed off personally by people in the panel­shop and paintshop, as well as the manager, with a strapline at the bottom saying: “A service that is second to none.”

But it wasn’t. I know they had done a great job of servicing the car, but the dealer had forgotten to pick it up and I had to chase them for it. When they returned it they were late, leaving us hanging around unnecessarily, and gave no apology.

The craft skills were great but the customer service emphatically wasn’t, resulting in a bad experience.

However, if you are really, really good at what you do, customers can be surprisingly forgiving.

The truth is that because of my love of German automotive engineering, it will take more than one annoying slip-up to make me switch from Mercedes.

In a totally different field, I remember that a few years ago, Nike received very bad publicity when some of the factories it used were accused of employing sweated labour. But the brand share hardly missed a beat despite the public assaults from the activists.

Whether you approve or not, many years of heavy, clever and aggressive marketing had given Nike some Teflon qualities.
But the best example of forgiveness must be Apple’s. Last month, the media gleefully described the new 3G iPhone launch as “iPocalypse now” when, apparently, the registration software operated by O2 failed.

Videos were available of “the high street farce”, but at the Regent Street store, in spite of hours of delay for the people who had been queuing overnight, when each new iPhone left the store it was to applause and whoops of delight.
If you specialise in leading edge technology and are cool and beautiful, you can be forgiven for almost anything. If not, get the basics right.

Sainsbury’s is a good, strong brand, but is it strong enough to be out of stock of bread, while proudly showing its new range of garden furniture, as it did at its Cobham branch recently? Not often: Sainsbury’s is not Apple.
While too many of the wizards of marketing are ignoring customer service, there are some successes in surprising places.

It really hurts to admit it, but I became a pensioner in June (it happened to Charles Saatchi on the same day, which made me feel a tad better – but not much). So this was my first experience with The Pension Service. Gosh! What a pleasant surprise.

The brochure was beautifully and clearly written – on a subject that can easily be boring and technical. The telephone service was fast and clear where it was automated, and connected me to a real, helpful person. And the back-up confirmation was equally fast and clear.

Who’d have thought it? The Pensions Service could give customer service advice to Mercedes and Sainsbury’s.

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