Customer service: from drones to brand heroes

The role of customer services staff is undergoing a dramatic transformation. Instead of treating them as script-following automatons, many firms are training them to be essential brand ambassadors.

Almost any brand will claim to have great customer service, but how many really keep that promise? Two-thirds of customers find companies to be ‘aloof’, according to research carried out in December 2011 by Henley Business School, while three-quarters agree with the statement that service levels in the UK are at an all-time low. This, says the report, is destroying brands.


Dissatisfaction with customer service could stem from a change in the way consumers are now using call centres. Nicola Millard, a customer experience futurologist with BT Global Services, says this means businesses need to adapt their training. “Traditionally, we’d call a brand if we had a problem or wanted more information about a service or product – now we just Google it.”

“The only reasons we pick up the phone nowadays are if we want complex advice or if we have a complaint that hasn’t been resolved. Today’s call centre is therefore a very different model, with very different advisers and training.”


The world of call centres and customer service departments has quite literally been turned upside down in the case of some brands. Some are investing heavily in training for staff on the frontline so they are social media savvy, others are giving them more responsibility to nip customer complaints in the bud, and many are moving away from the quick-response, scripted call centre ethos of the past.

Natalie Cowen, head of brand at First Direct, agrees that training needs to be adapted to reflect developments in social media. The online bank is a good example of how quickly the world of call centres is changing, having recently introduced ‘Twitter customer service representatives’. “We plan to reduce call volumes by pro-actively using Twitter to seek out and help customers in distress,” Cowen explains.

“Given that the call centre is the most expensive part of our organisation, this will save us money. If the reps aren’t trained properly, they could cause more trouble than they solve and in turn increase call volumes, while simultaneously creating poor PR for the brand.”

Cowen admits it has been a “leap of faith”, but says the team is not letting her down.

Others have been similarly bold. ING Direct arrived in the UK nine years ago to attempt to challenge the way the existing high street banks operated. Carol Roberts, head of customer services, says it realised very quickly that to survive in the long term, it would have to differentiate its service and invest “lots” in making the bank a great place to work.

ING Direct recently changed its approach to call centres. “We went back to basics, making the calls more personal and giving the staff more control over them [while complying fully with current regulations],” says Roberts.

“The more control you give the staff in your call centres, the more it becomes a career, rather than a job. For us, it has been a breeding ground for talent.”


So the old, scripted response models are disappearing fast. Successful brands are rediscovering their personal touch. Bill Kalyan, head of customer contact centres at Autoglass, says staff have to be trained to deal with a range of emotions from customers: “People don’t phone us because they want to – they call us because they have to. That means we need to think of the emotions the customer is going through,” he says.

“It’s critical that they know they’re through to a reputable company that will take care of the technical side of any problems. But our staff training doesn’t just focus on how a windscreen is put in place. It’s about communication, asking the right questions and anticipating the emotions of the caller. A crack on a windscreen at 70mph can be a daunting experience and we need to anticipate how someone might be feeling after that,” he adds.

Other brands are also training staff to pick up on customer emotions and recruiting new staff based on behaviour and attitudes. Shopping channel QVC, for example, has been running a scheme to “dig deeper into people’s beliefs” so it can better understand how its staff will interact with customers. “It’s all part of giving staff more freedom to express themselves,” says director of customer services James Keegan. “If that happens, and the staff are the right fit for the brand and believe in our values, they can be great marketers for us.”

Keegan says the recruitment strategy has also changed. “Four or five years ago, our recruitment would be based on competency and experience. Now I’m looking at behaviour and attitudes. It’s difficult to train people on values, beliefs and what they think great customer service is.”

The approach is paying off, says QVC. Its contact centre, which dealt with 15.4 million calls in 2010 – of which 2.2 million were customer service related – made more than £80,000 worth of savings on call volume, thanks to improved call resolution and call avoidance.

Resolving customer queries quickly has become even more pertinent with the rise of social media. As Sir Richard Branson once wrote for business site “Thanks to the internet, the fallout from a badly handled complaint in London can reach the other side of the globe within seconds.”


Customer service is not a cost centre,he wrote, but “a means of keeping your customers coming back for more, and also bringing in new business”. He concluded: “In the long run, sustained attention to service can transform how both staff and customers see your business.”

Branson recently received the keys to the Northern Rock bank and is rebranding it as Virgin Money. His views on customer service will be key to the new high street bank, according to a spokesperson.

“There have been too many bad practices going on for too long. We’re in a position to change that.

“To get back to good habits, to offer better banking, you need to recruit good people and develop and train them on an ongoing basis to ensure fantastic customer delivery that’s consistent with the Virgin brand promise.”

Virgin’s customers “won’t be treated like account numbers, shuffled from queue to queue, call centre to call centre”. With Branson at the helm, convincing the board of the need to invest in frontline staff may not be difficult.

Other brands that have been founded on customer experience and loyalty have a similarly open door to the boardroom when it comes to training staff, according to Keith Scovell, UK customer service manager at fashion website BrandAlley. “The majority of our training is in-house but, when it’s needed, external training has always been granted very quickly.”

Given the fast pace of change in the fashion industry, Scovell has also instilled an ethos for staff to train one another in their specialist disciplines.


“It’s not just me, as the manager, imparting knowledge; everyone feels involved and it creates a 360-degree process where the team is always learning and training one another,” he says.
Scovell is acutely aware of the risks of not ensuring his staff are up to speed, especially as consumer expectations of customer service are continually on the rise. His team sits 100 feet from the buyers and they can walk over and ask any questions at any time. This has been “crucial” to the success of the team, he says.

“Constant communication throughout the business keeps us involved and up-to-date with all activity, which allows us to answer any queries effectively. We also have great access to the products we sell and make a conscious effort to touch, feel and learn about new brands and the sizing that goes along with them – that way, we can always be one step ahead of any queries when it comes to product knowledge.”

Such inter-team communication has been forgotten by some brands, even though call centres can be a rich source of information for sales and marketing teams, claims BT’s Millard.
“Call centres can sometimes seem like a separate part of the business but the very smart companies are realising that they can be the source of juicy data, including rich information that’s useful for marketing strategies.”

Staff can, of course, be marketers too. Call centres are often the first and last point of contact so the importance of understanding what the brand is all about cannot be underestimated. Once again, it is the personal touch that brands are trying to instil in call centre staff. Many are convinced of the benefits of this and are beginning to assess outcomes, rather than transactions.

“Our performance is now based on interaction with the customer, rather than numeric values,” explains Phil Stewart, Virgin Media customer service director (see box, above). “It’s great to pick up the phone quickly, but what if it’s the tenth time that person has called? What’s more, our customers don’t want to talk to a bureaucrat. That’s why we’ve allowed our staff to express themselves and, when necessary, to break the rules to make the customer happy.”
That certainly wouldn’t have been in any training manuals five years ago.



Carol Roberts
Head of customer services
ING Direct

The banking industry is very highly regulated. That means our calls have to be fully compliant, but we felt we’d lost sight of the customer. That’s why we’ve given our employees more control over the calls.
We wanted to personalise the calls to the individual – so a big part of our training is [focused on] listening skills.
We have actually gone further and given our staff a budget [to compensate customers].
We don’t get many complaints, but the budgets give our staff the responsibility to deal with any issues straight away.
It was a brave decision but it has paid off/ our staff treat the budgets as if it’s their own money. The amount we pay in compensation has gone down and when we looked at the savings balances of some of the customers who had had a problem solved in this way, they had actually gone up.

Natalie Cowen
Head of brand
First Direct

The only contact customers have with us is via the phone or internet, so it’s essential that all our people understand and deliver our values. For me, training staff to understand the brand and impart this to consumers usefully is all about the recruitment process. It’s much easier to bring on board people with the right values and then teach them how to make a bill payment.
The brand and brand message is clear and consistent from the off, starting with the new joiners’ pack.
Because our people never see our customers, it’s essential that they project empathy, charisma and confidence, and these skills are very hard to teach. We also empower our people to make their own decisions on how best to serve the customer – we’ve even had reps going to a railway station with their own money to help out stranded customers who have had their wallet stolen.

Q&A Virgin Media

Phil Stewart
Customer service director
Virgin Media Business


Marketing Week (MW): Tell us about your training for call centre staff.
Phil Stewart (PS): The programme is called Simply Brilliant. These are dedicated sessions for frontline service teams involving role plays with professional actors based on real-life customer scenarios.
The objective is to develop increased empathy for our customers and develop techniques that will allow us to deliver the best possible customer experience in all situations.

MW: How did the idea for your style of training come about?
PS: We regularly review our customer feedback so that we can think of new ways to build on the customer experience – after all, the more you know about your customers, the better you are able to train the staff who deal with them.
We wanted to move away from conversations that were just focused on policy and jargon, and towards those that were about what ‘I’, the adviser, can do for ‘you’, the customer.
In one of our meetings to discuss customer feedback, the idea of role play-based training came up.
These role plays are based on genuine customer experiences that our teams have come up against in the past.
The scenarios that are played out cover everything from managing challenging questions or conflict to capturing vital information.
MW: How did you incorporate the core brand values into the training?
PS: The Virgin Media Business brand stands for great service, value, innovation and showing the human side of the business.
The training scenarios are developed so that all members of staff have the opportunity to display each of these brand values.

MW: What are the key learnings for staff?
PS: The main thing we want staff to take away is that they are Virgin Media Business ambassadors and so are expected to deliver the brand experience that our customers expect from a Virgin company – whether that’s giving jargon-free, no-nonsense advice, or going the extra mile to deliver an outstanding customer experience by cutting through standard approaches.



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