Keep the customer satisfied...
22 November 2012
The world of customer service has changed rapidly in recent years with increasing reliance on social media and new technology. Phil Edmeades reports from Public Service Events' Excellence in Customer Services conference
With 74 per cent of the UK's gross domestic product generated through service-related activity, a strategic approach to customer service has never been more vital.
Jo Causon, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service (ICS), urged delegates to understand the changing relationship between organisations and their customers.
"There has been a major shift in how we engage with the customer and with each other," she told the conference at London's Barbican.
"Sixty-one per cent of us have stopped using a business because of poor customer service in the past 12 months. We have all become more demanding and we are more likely to complain than ever before. Seventy-five per cent of us are prepared to complain but we are also more disposed to tell more people. In the past I might have complained to my mum or my husband. Now, largely due to the growth of social media, I will tell the world if I have had a bad customer service experience."
Causon said research by the ICS had shown that within both private and public sector organisations there was a clear link between driving greater efficiency, and investment in the bottom line by a real focus on customer service.
"A step change is probably required in driving a real focus right from the boardroom all the way down to the frontline," she said.
"We need to support our people to enable them to make the right judgement decisions every single time. We need to raise our game; customer services has become an increasingly strategic role."
Successful delivery of good customer service could only happen if organisations understood who their customers were and what they wanted from them, Local Government Association productivity programme manager Siobhan Coughlan told the conference.
Stressing the need to collect and analyse information – customer insight – she said a whole range of tools and techniques were available to help local authorities improve their knowledge of the people they serve.
"We can use demographic data, customer journey mapping, ethnographic research, customer feedback, consultation and focus groups. It is about using this information in a strategic way so we end up with a much better understanding of who our customers are so we can target them better.
"It used to be that councils provided services largely through operations run in silos. But over the past 10 years they have taken a much more rounded and coordinated view of how they deliver services. By looking at customers much more in the round they are able to deliver services that are joined up, better for customers and more cost-effective to deliver."
Marty Beard, chief executive of conference sponsors LiveOps, said over the past few years there had been a massive expansion of social and mobile technology which had had a significant impact on customer service.
"Government and local government need to catch up to the social networking world," he said. "There are already more than one billion people around the world using FaceBook and Twitter. Customers are used to operating in that world and they want to get their services the same way.
"They want multi-channel access and if you have an organisation that only does customer service through voice then you are probably missing a whole part of your constituency that is looking for channels to come in.
"You cannot ignore social networks because they have a powerful influence which can either be positive or negative. You have got to deal with it."
Conference chairman Dominic Campbell, director of Future Gov, supported Beard's view that the public sector needed to speed up the growth of digital customer services.
"A lot of local authorities position digital as the preserve of the few rather than the many," he said. "They see things in terms of if you pay attention to digital then you are actually excluding people. We should position it that if you don't pay attention to digital then you are excluding about 80 per cent of everybody.
"Social media is no longer punk. It isn't cool, new or different. It is kind of mainstream and local government hasn't caught on to that yet."
Neil Wholey, head of research and customer insight at Westminster City Council, suggested that while many organisations claimed to understand their customers they often failed to act upon the knowledge they held.
"There is a lot of talk about customer insight but often organisations cannot use it because they are not able to see that the natural conclusion is that we do have to do different things for different groups of people," he said.
Wholey said that when Westminster Council decided to close its one-stop-shops and offer more services online it first spent time talking to people who still wanted to come into council premises to pay their council tax and access other services.
"By talking to this residual group we found that many were drawing cash from their Post Office accounts and then travelling quite long distances to pay the money to us. The solution was to ensure that those transactions could be done within the Post Offices.
"We also put payment kiosks and extra computers in libraries and trained library staff to help people use them. Our customer satisfaction levels took a short-term hit when we closed the one-stop shops but they are now exactly where they were before.
"In Westminster we know we have 87 per cent of residents who access the internet. We have to adapt to this. You cannot just ignore it and say 'well, not everyone uses the internet', we have to recognise how people are changing their behaviour in terms of interacting with our services."