Why delivering great customer service should now be a given

February 2012

I had an interesting meeting with someone a few weeks back, who’s both a client of mine and I’m a client of his. I won’t bore you with just how such a relationship came about, but I will say that it’s worked pretty well for both of us. That isn’t to say that we see eye-to-eye on all marketing issues, and indeed some aspects of digital – most notably SEO – would be included in a list of those we don’t. However, one thing we do very much agree on is that great customer service should now be a given, and whether you’re in B2C, B2B and regardless of sector or market. As he put it to me in the meeting and having discussed a range of marketing activities for one of his successful businesses: “Whatever we do going forward, we’ll have to deliver the very best customer service.” How right he was.

I’ve read and been told about a number of factors which have influenced UK consumers’ demand for better customer service in the last decade or so, and these factors have included a general expectation simply fuelled by a consumer society, to more specific elements such as experiencing family holidays in Florida. I imagine there are a host of more sophisticated reasons, too. Of course many people will tell you that customer service is going down the pan, but, I think, what they actually mean is that customer service is improving but not at the same rate as their expectations.

I’m not the first to say this, but for me the crux of the problem is how, culturally, a business sees itself and what it’s actually there to deliver. Let me give you an example: Last week my wife’s car had a problem. In fact quite a big problem in my mind, because we found a very large piece of brake pad lying right by one of the wheels. (Even I knew it was a piece of brake pad.) So my wife contacted our local garage, explained what had happened, plus some fairly important additional detail such as the fact that I was going away on business and therefore she couldn’t be without a car (where we live being without a car wouldn’t be a smart idea). Expecting the owner of the garage to say something along the lines of “bring it down now and I’ll take a look at it”, we were somewhat disappointed when the response was “the earliest I can fit it in is the week after next”. Which, if it were just for a routine service then fine, but clearly that wasn’t the case – the car couldn’t be driven safely because one of the brakes had fallen apart.

This little incident also followed one last year, when turning up at the garage at 7.50 on a frosty winter’s morning and with one headlamp out and a journey to Caithness in front of me, the owner’s son told me he couldn’t change my bulb because “we’re not actually open yet”. I kid you not.

Also worth saying that this is the same garage where we have our MOTs done, have all our servicing done, plus buy our petrol from and despite the fact that it’s 7p a litre more expensive than the Tesco filling station 20 miles away (though that isn’t the garage’s fault). And why do we do that? Because we think it’s important to support local businesses. But all of those statements about the custom we give can now be re-written in the past tense, because our local garage has finally burnt their customer service bridges with us.

Of course we found another garage (only about 10 miles away) that was very keen to have our business, so that’s job done. So what is the real problem with our local garage? Their problem is that they see their role as repairing and servicing cars. That’s fundamentally wrong. What their role is about, or should be about, is to look after customers and in particular those that are local (because that’s where most of their business will come from…). The repairing and servicing of cars is an output of what they do, but it isn’t their primary role.

And for me that mind-set is typically at the heart of poor customer service and almost regardless of sector.

I won’t be going onto Facebook to talk about my bad experience, though I just might have done if that bad experience had been with a larger business – e.g. BT who I have slaged off before and very publicly (and few big brands no more about lousy customer service than BT). But what I will do, because it’s just going to come out anyway, is mention it to people locally.

Word of mouth marketing – or ‘advocacy’ as the purists like to call it – is now, and largely because of social media, one of the most powerful marketing tools there is. But, of course, it isn’t something you can just go and buy or get consultants like me to foster, you get it because people like what you do and therefore go on to tell their mates and family about their great experience or purchase (or, ideally, both). What you can do is set up channels that make it easier for them to say those nice things about you, but when you’ve done that you do of course have to accept that someone might just post a comment on there which is more grumpy than it is complimentary. But if you’re delivering overall, you’ll obviously end up with a hell of a lot more complimentary comments than you will grumpy.

Last year Channel 4 ran a documentary about Trip Advisor and just last month the BBC did something similar. In both cases the thrust of the programme was about owners of businesses such as hotels, guest houses and restaurants, and all suffering because of poor reviews written about them. In all cases, it seemed bloody obvious to me just why this was: Those that had a major gripe with Trip Advisor were the same ones who thought their jobs were about running hotels, guest houses and restaurants, and not about giving customers a great experience. Trip Advisor isn’t full of bad reviews, it must have, I imagine, just as many good reviews as it does bad – perhaps more. If the owners of those businesses can’t see the obvious, then better to move on and get a job which doesn’t involve keeping people happy – e.g. milking cows.

However you look at it, there’s now nowhere to hide if you deliver lousy customer service. It isn’t just about social media, it’s simply the fact that consumers expect good customer service and will tell all of those around them when they don’t get it. And too right they should.

My local garage is treading a dangerous path, and being a small business in this context makes absolutely no difference because it’s all relative to the size of your target market. There might not (yet) be ‘garage advisor’ for them to worry about, but there is something worse: disgruntled local people spreading the word.

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