ETN: Simple Answer? No-one is “Always Right”

Simplicity is great. If humanity has one over-riding achievement, it’s the ability to take the previously unknown, simplify it into a concept, give it a name and make it forever understandable.

Intangibles like democracy, supersonic flight and reality TV are not in any sense naturally-occurring yet appear as concrete a fixture of our times as the Classical elements of earth, water, air and fire. The difference is that, as artificial constructs, there must have been a form of process to produce them and define them. Consider the case of ‘Customer Service’.

From the Middle Ages, sellers eagerly cited the Common Law edict of Caveat emptor (literally, “buyer beware”) as protection against costly, unwanted liability. The seller was seen always to be in the right and the buyer merely a challenge to the status quo. It’s not a particularly fair rule but it’s simple to establish and enforce

Basically, the seller’s honesty was assumed and if everybody agreed the buyer had almost no legal rights, no-one should ever be disappointed by any outcome, no matter how disadvantageous. Exhorting sellers to accept any moral imperative to ‘do the right thing’ was like expecting night not to follow day. Rightly or wrongly, simplicity won the argument.

IMG_3779.jpg
Some customers are more right than others

As often seems to be the case where regulation fears to tread, commercial pressures show the true willingness of business to adapt. A shrug and a “you know the rules” may protect sellers in the short term but in a competitive environment, it doesn’t take long for buyers to decide they’d rather not deal with those who simply hide behind convention when things go slightly awry. The issue becomes thornier still for the seller when one considers that people have a habit of telling each other about their experiences – and bad news tends to travel faster than good.

The winds of change were about to bear down on Caveat emptor, spectacularly so, in the late 19th century, with the rise of the American retail magnates, specifically Marshall Field, to whom that most quoted of business quotes is most often attributed: “The customer is always right”. His radical principle took hold elsewhere – most notably at the new hotels of César Ritz in Paris and London. The ethos of the new consumerism could not have been more opposite to Caveat emptor. Revolutionary as the words were, it was however just another simple rule, with all the efficient inaccuracy of the last one.

The deification of the customer assumes their honesty and integrity – hardly a practical concern when selling haberdashery to well-heeled ‘Gilded Age’ citizens of Chicago or afternoon tea to aristocrats in Piccadilly. Transfer the principle of infallibility to a wider audience (including a less-than-scrupulous element) and it doesn’t take long for sellers to retreat to the safety of a legally-upheld disinterest in satisfaction.

Essentially, selling guidance became: ‘legally, don’t give in; commercially, don’t hold firm’. It couldn’t be more bi-polar or contradictory. Only in the years since the Sale of Goods Act (1979), was the matter necessarily complicated, encouraging greater professionalism. For buyer and seller alike, simplicity may have been the best way to achieve clarity throughout the last millennium but it finally seemed to meet its match in the information age.

Simplicity saves troublesome fact-checking, awkward judgement-calling and irksome justification of unpopular decisions so the attraction of a “rules is rules” approach is understandable – yet we live in a world of limitless, ubiquitous competition, we eulogise our brand values and venerate “customer relationships”. Customers are promised not just ‘satisfaction’ but ‘delight’ and have their own social platform, a potential for well-worded complaints to ‘go viral’, however disingenuously they represent the facts of their experience.

The net result is that upholding consistent, mutually-fair customer service is more difficult today than it’s ever been. Some simplicity helps ensure consistency but clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach guarantees that sooner or later, the wrong outcome will be reached.

There will (and should) always be judgement calls. As in judicial process, consideration must be given to things like previous good character and mitigating factors. I recommend you ask yourself these three questions. They’re based on my B2C experience but they’re just as relevant in the B2B world – although perhaps with bigger values:

  • Who am I arguing with? If you’re at risk of making an enemy, know who it is. It’s up to you to decide how much more leniently you’ll look on your best customer than, say, someone you’ve only had one purchase from (that you know of). What’s their social following? More particularly, do you have evidence that this customer has a history of disputes? Picky people are one thing, serial fraudsters are another. Decide on that before deciding to what extent you are inclined to give them what they want.
  • What will it cost me to make this problem go away? Are you arguing over a small amount just because you can? Yes, it’s been 29 days since the purchase but is it worth having an argument over a five-pound item? Even if they’re in the wrong, or being unreasonable, how much money is at stake today, compared to what you’re likely to lose by not investing in a “gesture of good faith”? It’s better to lose the battle and win the war.
  • How often does this problem occur? Even a small monetary loss to resolve a particular complaint can prove unsustainable if it’s likely to recur frequently. You do have to worry about setting a precedent and today’s five-pound concession could easily become a thousand-pound problem if you’re not alert to the issue (begging the question of why your team or your supplier hasn’t addressed it previously). Conversely, a hundred-quid hit can seem like an outrageous amount to get you out of a situation but if your analysis shows a sequence of failures on your part that’s truly a once-in-twenty-years perfect storm of ineptitude, you should probably pay it gladly and trust your attempt to resolve the matter amicably is acknowledged and valued by the customer.

 

  • Look out for my next column, about the way that BETA seems to divide opinion, even among those who don’t appear to know enough about it, in the October issue of the ETN, out October 1st.

CSG: Brand Pillar 1 – Customer Service

Posted on www.csg.co.uk/blog on September 14th 2017

http://www.csg.co.uk/blog/brand-pillar-1-customer-service/

You may have read of our recent efforts to define the strongest parts of what makes CSG what it is. After much discussion, we arrived at four distinct elements, what we like to call our ‘brand pillars’ because, together, they hold up everything that CSG does.

With this in mind, we’ve decided to dedicate an entire blogpost to each of the four pillars and first up – arguably in order of importance – is ‘Customer Service’. You may think the way a company treats its customers and responds to them is quite an obvious contributor to their success but if it’s so obvious, why is it that so many of us experience poor service so frequently? What, then, makes it such an indelible part of what CSG does – and why are we so proud of it?

With CSG operating across such a broad range of customer types, the ways in which we’re able provide excellent service can also vary enormously. For example, in the case of our biggest accounts, with huge volumes involved and clarity of purpose vital, the levels of service we promise are often written into our contracts and tenders. Perhaps a more acid test of our ability to offer an unbeatable level of service is in the business-to-consumer (B2C) environment, where we’re usually asked to react quickly to very specific requests by a wide range of consumers, often with very different levels of expectation.

With that in mind, perhaps the best person to ask is Dean Hough, our Telesales Manager, responsible for providing a fast, professional response to all our domestic and small business sewage collection services. He’s the man who’s there to ensure a very specific flavour of ‘CS’ is present within CSG. A veteran of a number of call centres throughout his career, he’s now charged with the task of keeping our B2C customers happy, every time they contact us. How do his objectives here differ from other places he’s worked at?

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Dean Hough, Telesales Manager.  Photo: CSG

“You could say it’s essentially the same requirement: handling calls efficiently in order to make sales but in reality, it’s nothing like anything I’ve ever done before” he says, with disarming candidness. “We tend to have a very distinct type of customer with very specific requirements, which are a world away from those of most call centre-based businesses. For that reason, it would be totally wrong for us simply to copy the techniques of even the most successful call centres. Everything we do has to be right for CSG and the customers we’re here to serve.

It’s true that, due to the vagaries of demographics, our base of domestic sewage customers (owners of houses with septic tanks) tend to be, on average, much older than a standard cross-section of the community. Similarly, such properties tend to be rather more remote than usual and that can uniquely influence the conversation with the customer.

“We’ll generally take maybe five calls a day in which we’re just asked for advice about the customer’s system, its upkeep or when it was last emptied. There’s not always an obvious path to ‘convert’ the call into a sale so we don’t necessarily push the conversation in that direction. It’s important that we help when we’re asked but it’s enough that we’re happy to leave it at that and only ‘make the sale’ when the customer is ready. That sort of thinking would be inconceivable in other industries I’ve worked in, like software or insurance, but what they would feel is right for them isn’t necessarily right for CSG and our customers.”

That’s not to say we ignore the influences of so-called ‘best practice’ of the whole call centre sector. Unsurprisingly, there are areas of Dean’s experience that have been incorporated and tailored to the way CSG deliver service to customers.

“Like any professional organisation, we still have processes and targets but we always ensure they’re done in a completely different tone, with a much lighter touch than the more hardened, clinical style that most people would associate with telephone-based customer contact. We’re very aware that to some of our customers, a call to our sales team may be their only conversation that day.

“Our team come from a variety of backgrounds, not necessarily just sales.  We find a good grounding within the waste industry helps to foster an understanding of and therefore competence in a subject in which they’re being asked to provide assistance.  On top of that, before anyone ever takes a call, we provide a fair amount of training and even arrange for them to spend time out on the road, accompanying our tanker drivers on their rounds.  We’ve long known that if you’ve seen at first hand the day-to-day issues that can create problems, it’s much easier to give the right advice when, for example, access to a septic tank is difficult.  It’s pretty simple, really – you have a better appreciation of what can go wrong if you’ve already seen it in action.  The more appreciation my team has, the less assumption there is – and usually, assumptions lead to problems.”

It’s fair to say that even the briefest look at CSG’s history will show that customer service has always been a strong part of our culture and ethos.  As the person charged with upholding, even improving that long-standing commitment, does he find it a daunting prospect?

“I wouldn’t say so.  I don’t feel under any extra pressure just because CSG’s standards are already so high.  I’m a perfectionist so it’s more the case that my aims and CSG’s are exactly the same.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing to admit that we’re not perfect (yet) and there’s lots of things I’d like to do to keep improving.  I think the fact that CSG is still a family-owned business is a huge reason for its focus on customer service and I’d say that, while it might be easier for me to suggest lots of easier improvements to a less customer-focused business, the flip side is that I’d expect to find it harder to get the backing I’d need to make those improvements.  Here at CSG, that very strong existing focus means that there’s also a much greater willingness to support me in this role – and I find that very motivating.”

Customer service seems a simple enough concept but it’s one that frequently seems to find itself complicated and distorted to meet the eye of the beholder.  What’s the simplest way to define good service, in order to ensure that it can always be assured?

“I think, at its heart, customer service is really a question of empathy – the ability to know what the other person ultimately wants – in some cases, even before they do.  Of course, people are all different so it’s difficult to demonstrate empathy until you know enough about the person, their personality, what situation they’re in, what’s motivating them at that moment.  Even that’s pretty meaningless if there’s nothing you can do with that insight so it’s necessary not to be too governed by hard and fast rules.  Experienced people are always an asset, as is diversity within the team, increasing the ability to view a situation from more than one angle.”

What about internally?  Isn’t there a danger that very existence of a team specialising in customer service can have the adverse effect of implying to the rest of the company that it’s a consideration they can then more easily ignore?

“Whenever we need to take corrective action, we know we need to show empathy not just to the paying customer but also to our internal customers – all the colleagues who rely on each other in order to get the job done well.  Ultimately, we’re all on the same side, trying to achieve the same goal so if something has gone wrong and needs to be put right; failure is failure and we have to take ownership of that.  That sort of terrible side-effect doesn’t happen when there’s good communication and everyone is dealing with each other in the way they would expect to be dealt with.  We often say we’re ‘Working together for you’ and it’s not just a strapline – we really are.”

In the end, for all the well-intentioned ideas, the refusal to limit to ‘wrap-up’ time (the amount of time spent talking at the end of a call, after the sale) or the removal of counter-productive individual incentives, numbers will still prove the success of the strategy.  Customer retention rates, longevity, average life-time value are all longer-term measures of customer behaviour that almost define the very point of offering an unbeatable ability to meet and exceed expectations, consistently.   Customer service is not really about what it achieves today but what it continues to enable in future.  In an era where we’re used to demanding and delivering instant gratification, it’s worth remembering that its true value is one that arrives very steadily, over time.

CSG: A ‘Brand’ New Outlook

Posted on www.csg.co.uk/blog on August 22nd 2017

http://www.csg.co.uk/blog/a-brand-new-outlook/

Over the last year, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about CSG, what it means, what it stands for and what it is that sets us apart from our competitors.

Technically, you could call it a re-branding exercise but you might forgive us for being a little hesitant to use that phrase in public because the very term ‘rebranding’ has, ironically, something of a brand problem of its own.

There have been rather too many examples of companies being too keen to press the ‘re-brand’ button, without really seeming to understand why it was needed – or why change isn’t always better. Particularly horrific examples include the British Airways ‘ethnic’ tailfin liveries, which caused huge controversy in 1997 when they were announced – a decision that was promptly reversed just four years later. Equally cringe-worthy was the débacle that was the decision to re-name the Royal Mail ‘Consignia’ in 2001. It was only a year later that the new name was ‘consigned’ to history.

Why the history lesson? Principally to assure you that our exercise is nothing like those (in)famous branding mis-fires. We’re certainly not considering changing our name to some meaningless term or messing with our visual branding to the point where we become unrecognisable.

Our intention was to establish the things we’re strongest at and put them at the forefront of our identity – which is just an exercise in common sense, when you think about it. Land Rover never seem to miss a chance to tell you how good their vehicles are off-road and why shouldn’t they – it’s their very reason for being! We’re very aware that all our customers have a choice of waste partner and only by presenting ourselves in the best way possible can we hope to become – or remain – your first choice.

With all that in mind, we spent many hours discussing the most fundamental aspects of CSG, with a view to agreeing our absolute core values that are demonstrably part of our make-up. Here’s what we agreed on:

Customer Service

We pride ourselves in our commitment to our customers old and new. Maintaining a high quality service and working to provide solutions that are both sustainable and productive. We aim to offer a value for money service and are always willing to go the extra mile to develop customer relations and remain engaged with our customers’ needs.

People

Our people are what enable us to offer our high quality services. We help build people and teams to work together, take pride in their work and offer opportunities where we can help promote the best in each and every employee. In turn, we can pride ourselves on delivering a first class service; knowing we have aimed to achieve our very best.

Innovation

As our industry grows we are facing more challenges; looking at new ways to help protect the environment and ultimately ourselves. This in turn offers us opportunities to push the boundaries and grow. Finding new processes, investing in research and development and increasing our technological infrastructure relays a pioneering and competitive service.

Heritage

Building the very best from our valued past, to develop a continued successful future. Over 80 years of growth and development has allowed CSG to become one the UK’s largest privately-owned waste management companies and we will continue to use our past and deep rooted heritage to drive our progression.

Together, we refer to these values as our four ‘pillars’, as they uphold everything we do and all that we seek to achieve. Having identified them, the next challenge is to prove that this is more than mere “marketing fluff” and that we consistently represent each of these pillars in all that we do.

With that in mind, we’ll be blogging in greater depth about Customer Service, People, Innovation and Heritage in the coming months. You’ll also recognise their influence in our new website and our new video, both due for launch later this year. As any cattle-brander already knows, the exercise only works properly when you have a lot of irons in the fire.

CSG: Customer Service? Ask The Experts!

Posted on www.csg.co.uk/blog on April 21st 2017

http://www.csg.co.uk/blog/customer-service-ask-the-experts/

The data is in and we’re pleased to see our customer service targets (for our domestic customers) being met and in some cases, exceeded!

Being a customer-focused organisation, we’re keen to see what we do well and where we can improve so we make a point of asking the best experts we can find – customers! A short survey after every septic tank clean gives us the opportunity to see how well we’re really doing at keeping them happy. It’s also proven to be a great way to get ideas to improve what we do.

In February, we saw that 96.3% of our domestic customers surveyed marked us with a 7 or above (out of 10) to the question “How likely would you be to recommend CSG to others?”, a fantastic achievement, we’re sure you’ll agree. In March that same measure actually went up to 96.8%!

It was the same story for higher scores, with February’s level of 10-out-of-10s (68.8%) being eclipsed by the level in March (77.4%). It all points to greater satisfaction – which is the key here because nobody is likely to recommend a service with which they are anything less than satisfied!

We believe that recommendation is the highest accolade we can aim to achieve from our customers so to see such a huge proportion of those we surveyed stating they’re highly likely to recommend us is a wonderful endorsement of our services.

Of course, having set such a high benchmark, the challenge now is to ensure such standards are at least maintained and, if possible, improved further. We can also drill into the data for each of our depots to see how and if the story changes from one to the other.

Waste management is an industry not particularly known for embracing such ‘soft’ ideas as customer service and feedback and we feel especially keen to ensure that CSG remains committed to listening to all our customers and doing all we can to continue to improve our image and appeal to everyone we serve.

Archive: The Importance of Being Honest…

First published on 17th October 2012 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

…or ‘Who on Earth are Feefo and Why are they Emailing Me?’

If you’ve placed an order from Robinsons this year, it’s likely you’ll have received an email from a company called Feefo in the days and weeks that followed to ask you to rate the items and the service you received. Of course, I expect many of those who received this email chose not to respond.

Let’s be real for a moment, there’s no way we should expect otherwise – we’ve all done that, haven’t we?  With that in mind, I extend my sincere thanks to anyone who did take the time to complete the short survey, however you chose to rate us and whatever you said about us, good or bad.  Without your honesty, we wouldn’t have the same ability to grade the quality of our service – and we wouldn’t have the chance to put things right if they’ve gone wrong here and there.

In the past, I’ve blogged about improving our commitment to transparent behaviour and since then, I’m pleased to say that we’ve been far better able to react to occasional problems and we now have much more confidence in our ability to consistently provide the level of service we expect of ourselves.  We’ve also (touch wood) not encountered any instances of severe chat room criticism since the one in June last year that made us change the way we think about this subject.  Please let me know if you know different, though! I don’t want you to think that all this makes us complacent, that we can consider the job is done and just concentrate on something else now.

Transparency is an all-or-nothing commitment and it’s now something we look at every day, to measure not just the usual performance stuff, like how many orders we sent out but how well we’ve done impressing the people who received them. And so, before I finish this post, I must ensure you know how we are now more honest with you, as a result of our kind Feefo respondents.  To quote Jack Byrnes (Robert de Niro’s character) in ‘Meet The Parents’, I need to complete the “circle of trust”.

The performance data from the Feefo emails is freely available at any time on the Robinsons Review page on the Feefo website for anyone to view.  It’s also used to add details to our Google listing, to indicate that our service levels might make us a better choice for anyone searching for the things we offer.

In the old days, Marketing Managers tended to be cautious of such measures because the rating might go down.  Today, we accept that we have to ensure that it remains as high as we can be because we’re aware (and we’re also very happy) that everyone can see it. As I type, the proportion of people who rated us as ‘Good’ or ‘Very Good’ is 93% – which is about the same level as M&M Direct, Joe Brown’s and other large mail order companies that most people have heard of.  It’s reassuring to know that our customers rate us so highly but of course, we shouldn’t be really happy until it’s trending at 100%. I honestly hope you feel this is as important as we do.

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Paul

Archived: Fancy an early night? ;-)

First published on 15th December 2008 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

If you’ve received your Sale Catalogue and you’ve found something you like, I invite you to go to bed early tonight, just like I’ll be doing. As you’ll no doubt already know, our Winter Sale starts online tomorrow morning at the less-than-Godly hour of 3am and we all need to be up and fresh in time for it. Why on earth do we put ourselves (and you) through this inconvenience?

The simple answer is that we’ve found over the years that it’s the safest – and fairest – time of day for us to start a sale. Here’s a little of what we’ve learned over the years: I’m afraid to say that starting an online Sale in working hours has proved to be a complete ‘no-no’. We tried it one Christmas Eve and it instantly killed all our systems. It meant that I had slightly depressed Christmas that year and I’m sure lots of customers were disappointed.

Unfortunately, the fact that it was so easy for everyone to access the Sale was precisely the reason it was so difficult for us to handle. We had to find a way of ‘frightening off’ some of the initial surge in demand. The obvious solution is, I’m afraid, unsociable hours – which is why we’ve started our Sales overnight for the last few years. In fact, midnight used to be our preferred time but even this could lead to problems. If the site still ran slowly over the first hour or so, customers who had planned to stay up until midnight to spend half an hour shopping online were still up at 2am and starting to complain that they hadn’t been to bed yet.

We felt that not only was 3am even more inconvenient (and therefore even safer), it also meant users are more likely to have had some sleep and therefore any delays (perish the thought) should be less troublesome – we hope… There’s also an inherent fairness in making things really awkward for everybody. It means that those who inconvenience themselves the most are most entitled to the deals which are least commonly available, so morally, it seems to work well. It’s the same ‘law of the jungle’ that governs other areas where demand hugely exceeds supply, like tickets for Cup Finals or Glastonbury.

It sounds like Customer Service heresy to say so, but it’s the simple fact that few retailers will admit – even though everybody knows it: If you want something enough, you’ll do what it takes to get it. There, I’ve said it. Please don’t think less of me. I’m just trying to be honest with you!

All Sales are naturally very busy times and to an extent, we as customers do with in reason accept that fact – don’t forget, we’re all somebody’s customer, so I feel I can say that. When Next (for example) hold their retail Sales (ususally from 5am), there are almost always long queues at every store. The thing about Sales at retail is that it’s obvious to all how many people are there – because you can see them all. While each person has made the effort to travel there, I’m sure that if the event was ridiculously over-subscribed, the fact that such a crowd would be obvious to others often serves to make some of them think again and drive straight back home. Retail Sales are therefore self-limiting to some extent.

On the web, it’s not that straightforward – for anyone. We have a good idea of the number of people who visited the site on the first day of each of our previous sales, so it would be inaccurate to say we don’t know what to expect, but that doesn’t mean to say our estimates will be right this time. It’s also a lot easier to join in as a customer, because you don’t even need to leave your bed, so even our best estimates could be way out. Of course, this has a bearing on the amount we invest in our systems to accommodate this expected demand.

From the customer’s viewpoint the unpredictability will be even more frustrating. Over-subscribed websites work slower (or fall over completely) and items sell out sooner, all things likely to frustrate people and understandably so. At least the company holding the online Sale will know why things are slow – or worse – because they can see the visitor stats. The poor customer may appreciate it’s busy but they won’t know the just how many people are also online’, so there’s a chance they’ll get even more frustrated. Unlike with retail, this self-limiting factor just isn’t there. I should pause here to point out that I appear to be painting a very negative picture about the process. That’s because we try wherever possible to bear in mind a ‘busiest day imaginable’ scenario – so we can prepare to handle it. I refer you to my earlier blog about store openings The Perils of Success, in which a similar theme is explored: being too busy can be worse than not being busy enough.

Yes we’ve had our moments over the years where our online Sales have sailed close to the wind of disappointment in some quarters and I’m also sure it’s impossible to impress all of the people all of the time – although we’ll never stop trying to do that. Over the last two years, I feel we have got a lot closer to the kind of infrastructure that allows us to deal with such a vastly inflated demand.

This year, I believe we’ve been able to improve our capability even more, so I’m optimistic (make that cautiously optimistic) that this Sale will be our best ever – for all of us! In recent years, we’ve been let down firstly by hardware (the boxes of physical kit we have) and then by bandwidth (the ‘speed’ of our web connection). Consequently, it’s required us to add more web servers and a load balancer to ensure that more people can interact with the site at the same time. We’ve also freed up our systems by removing functions like ‘WebChat’ and ‘Others also bought’ for the busiest times.

The other big difference this year is that we’ve been able to increase our bandwidth by a factor of 12. Does this mean we can handle 12 times the demand? In theory, yes but in practice, we’ll have to wait and see… Eventually, if our IT team have done all they can do and we’re still busier than expected, we will at some point run out of things to sell. In effect, our stock levels will have become the ‘weak link’ in the system. We buy and make available ever more stock for our Winter Sale each year and we’ve done that again this year but obviously no seller expects to hold significantly more than they believe they can sell.

Again, to the frustrated customer, a problem here may look like we don’t know what we’re doing – but that’s because they can’t possibly know how many other people are online – or what they are buying. To give you an idea of our online Sale stock this year, it’s more than we currently have at our Ashton and Cannock stores combined. Will that be enough, just right or too much? My answer today, the day before the Sale is that I think it will be about right – although I’m sure that some of the lines will sell out very quickly. I will however know a lot more by this time tomorrow – if I’m still awake!!

If you’re planning to go online tomorrow at 3am, good luck and email me with your comments either way.

Paul.