Call centres really could be the jewel in the crown of any business, but...

Don’t call me, I will call you

I’m sure that the clever marketing person who first came up with the idea of a call centre had the very best of customer service intentions at heart. Unfortunately things have changed over the years and, while there are a small number of call centres that really do add value to the customer experience, there are many more that simply don’t.

The problem, it seems, lies in the fact that most call centres seem to have lost their way and customers are finding it hard to discern any tangible benefit from dialling an 0800 number. It’s sad, because call centres really could be the jewel in the crown of any business’ customer service value proposition, but many have gone from being convenient and accessible centres of service excellence to little more than a source of frustration and endless loops of canned music.

I believe there are three main reasons why so many call centres fail to deliver on their full customer service potential:

  1. For many, the focus is not on service anymore. There are few large companies that customers can call directly anymore. Instead, all branch listings in the local directory show one call centre number and unless there are well trained and empowered consultants on the end of that line, customers are left feeling unappreciated and worse off than before they phoned.
  2. The balance is tipping from service to sales. Establishing (or outsourcing to) a call centre is an expensive business. So it’s understandable the companies want to find ways to generate a good return on that expense. However, many make the mistake of trying to generate that return by putting the consultants to work doing outbound sales calls. The result is long waiting times for customers who call in and, potentially, a greater focus on commission than care.
  3. Employee empowerment is no longer a prerequisite. This is almost certainly the biggest problem of the three. When, as has recently happened to me, you get a call to tell you that three of your company cellphones are due for upgrade, but it can’t be processed because you, quite coincidentally, owe exactly 68 cents on each of them, you have to wonder just how much of a priority the company places on encouraging their call centre staff to think for themselves and empowering them to question their daily client lists before picking up the phone.

Fortunately, however, all is not lost. There are some companies that have grasped the potential value that exists in offering call centres staffed by empowered agents who can add real value to their customers. And if they can do it, surely everyone else can too.

All it takes is a sincere commitment to putting the customer first, a willingness to invest in a 100% undiluted service centre, and an investment in training and empowering staff to think before they dial or respond, and act in the best interests of the customer. None of which are overly difficult to achieve. Oh, and if they could also have the guts to throw away those horrendous scripts and allow their consultants to engage customers in real conversation, that would be a real bonus too!

2 principles that are essential to running a profitable nlighten

Value Up + Costs Down = Customer Service Success

As a business owner – there are 2 principles that are essential to running a profitable organisation.

  1. The first is to keep things simple, because that is invariably the most effective way to get results. Over complicating anything in business is the quickest way to limit its effectiveness– and that goes for everything from strategy and marketing to pricing and sales. It’s an approach that has always worked for nlighten, so much so that we now also apply it to the customer service improvement efforts we implement for our clients – with consistently positive results. But it’s also the subject of another blog, sometime in the future.
  2. For this blog, I’d like to focus on the second principle that I believe is essential for success in any business – to ‘drive value up and costs down.’

For some reason, the universe has seen fit to test me on this particular principle in recent months, and maintaining the appropriate balance between value and costs has been a challenge. But this has only served to reinforce my belief in the importance of this simple philosophy as a business success imperative.

One of the important keys to driving value up and costs down is the ability of a business to get things right first time, on time, every time. To me, it seems obvious that focusing on doing this would result in happy customers and lower business costs. So why does it still seem like very few businesses have grasped the importance of this simple approach?

On an almost daily basis, I hear complaints from customers about having to go back to a store or service provider – often many times – because the item they bought is faulty or the service they received is sub-standard. The obvious consequence of this is frustrated customers, some of who may never return. The less obvious consequence is markedly higher business expenses due to lost focus, lower productivity or replacement costs.

By not putting in the effort to make sure they get it right first time, businesses are effectively doing the opposite of what they know they should be – and actually driving value down and costs up. This is clearly an unsustainable model – and one that, I believe, has been at the root of many businesses closing their doors .

Much as consumers love to hate call centres, they are the one industry that appears to have grasped the importance of the ‘value up, costs down’ concept. For most call centre managers, first time resolution is a key performance indicator. The ability of a call centre agent to resolve a complaint or answer a question in one call is often the measure of their effectiveness (and can even be a factor in their remuneration).

Imagine if other businesses followed this example and assessed the performance of their staff and suppliers primarily on their ability to get it right first time. By making sure there are few (or no) returns, comebacks, complaints or repairs, those businesses could significantly cut their costs. At the same time, the value that their customers experience when doing business with them would almost certainly make them very loyal – and keep them coming back for more.

If ever there was a win-win situation in business, this has to be it. Best of all, it doesn’t require complicated strategies or huge budgets to accomplish. Often, all that’s needed is a change in attitude. And that’s a really small investment when you consider the potential returns.

By: Nathalie Schooling

Business growth & customer service

Monopoly can be a dangerous game

Business growth is a natural by-product of success. It’s obviously a good thing because it generates profits for owners, returns for shareholders, and jobs for the unemployed. But growth can also have one profoundly negative consequence for a business when it results in a lack of customer service and a failure to keep on viewing customers as the most important aspect of continued success.

This is especially true of businesses that have grown to the point where they now monopolise their industry or market. Two examples spring immediately to mind – cellular service providers and banks.

While it’s true that there is no clear monopoly of either of these industries by a single business, each is dominated by three or four mammoth organisations. They spend millions of rand a year on glitzy advertising campaigns aimed at winning bigger share of the market by promising consumers the world,but then invest very little on ensuring those promises are met.

While it’s certainly not alone, FNB is a good example. Their current ‘switching to FNB’ advertising campaign is excellent. There can be no doubt that it is working to win them a steadily growing share of the banking customer market. But I’ll be interested to see if they really do put their money where their advertising mouth is in terms of servicing their new clients.

If FNB is really serious about delivering what it is promising, I wonder if they will run a customer survey amongst their new banking clients in six months time and ask them how happy they still are that they made the switch. Or will all these expectant new FNB clients simply have been relegated to account numbers and annual report figures while a new, clever ad campaign targets the next batch of hopeful banking customers.

Cell C is another good example. Their ‘Ask Trevor’ campaign of last year made it seem like they were really serious about delivering excellent customer service as a way of differentiating themselves from the other cellular monoliths. Since the campaign budget dried up, however, nobody has heard anything more from “Trevor”. Last I heard he was doing comedy acts in America. I wonder who has taken his place as Customer Experience Officer at Cell C. Or did they simply close that door and remove the sign?

And these are just two examples. Empty service promises are a dime a dozen from SA’s many monopolies. Just have a look at any consumer watchdog site and the names you’ll see listed most often under the complaints section are the big names in business. They could argue that this is because they have the most customers; but the reality is that they also have the most money and resources to make sure those customers are extremely happy. They’re just not spending it on that.

As you may have gathered, I am more than a little sceptical of the service promises of massive, monopolistic organisations. In my experience, most of them merely pay lip service to customer service. Few, if any of them really do anything to truly differentiate their service delivery from that of their competition. The experiences they offer their customers are severely lacking in WOW factor of any shape or form.

All of which makes me wonder how long it is going to be before they are actually losing customers to smaller businesses that may not have millions to produce clever ad campaigns that promise the world, so instead they are quietly getting on with the job of actually delivering it to their growing numbers of happy customers.

By: Nathalie Schooling

What really happened to Kodak

Not such a great ‘Kodak Moment’!

Millions of people around the world were shocked to learn that Kodak has filed for bankruptcy. The question on everybody’s lips was ‘how is it possible that an organisation the size of Kodak, with a name that is truly iconic in the world of photography, could possibly have allowed itself to reach this dismal situation?’

The official reason, given by Kodak’s chief financial officer, Antoinette P. McCorvey, was: “…despite Kodak’s best efforts, restructuring costs and recessionary forces have continued to negatively impact the company’s liquidity position.”

Allow me, if I may, to paraphrase. “We stopped listening to our customers about the products and experiences they wanted and, as a result, our competitors leapfrogged us and took our market share.”

Sure the recessionary environment has put many global businesses under pressure, but those pressures are the same no matter which business you own. So how is it possible that just a week or two after Kodak goes bust, Apple – another iconic global electronics brand – declares quarterly profits of well over 100%?

The truth of Kodak’s demise lies in a simple comparison of these two companies. Apple is in touch with its customers. It knows what they want, how they want it packaged, and how much they are wiling to pay for it. And it delivers on these customer desires. Kodak doesn’t. Pure and simple.

Fortunately for us other business owners, Kodak’s demise is not a total loss. It offers some very valuable reminders of just how important it is to keep listening to your customers. And while we’re all in business to make money, the day we become so focused on that money that we forget who it is that ultimately hands it over to us, we effectively lose a grip on our business.

The irony is that Kodak has received a financial ‘bailout’ package that will allow it to keep trading through its bankruptcy proceedings in the hope of fixing its problems. And the solution they are proposing is to sell off as many of their patents as they can. Which only goes to show that the company still hasn’t learnt its lesson. Sure, selling patents may cover their debts for now, but unless they start having real conversations with the people who should be buying their products, they are destined to fail again.

Modern business success is built on client centricity. Simple as it sounds, Kodak (and any other business) could flourish simply by making sure they have opened all possible channels of customer communication, every single one of their employees – including their CEO, Chairman and corner shop salesman – understands the importance of listening to and serving the customer. And doing the occasional customer survey to determine whether they are getting it right won’t go amiss either!

Put simply, the ability to invite, listen to, and act on, customer feedback is a cornerstone of sustainable business. This is a universal truth, whether you’re a multi-national organisation the size of Kodak, or a small start-up with big aspirations of one day competing with global companies. And you ignore it at your peril; because doing so is sure to results in unhappy, unsmiling customers, who could be gone in a moment.

Just ask Kodak.

A brand ‘tag line’ - false promises or successful slogans?


Companies often spend many hours and many thousands of rand on developing their brand slogan or ‘tag line’. And so they should. This catch phrase has the potential to become the one thing that places them top of mind amongst their customers and prospects by describing the kind of customer experience they can expect when dealing with the organisation.

Over time, the correct brand slogan can often become as powerful as the brand name it supports. Take Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ for instance. There are few people in the world who would even need to see the Nike name to know which brand this hugely successful slogan belongs to. Other excellent examples include Snap, Crackle, Pop; Everywhere you go; and I’m lovin’ it.

What makes these such successful slogans for their respective brands is the fact that the organisations to which they apply have understood, from the outset, that their slogan is not just a cute string of words; it’s a promise made by their brand to their customers. Kelloggs, for instance, knows that if their Rice Krispies are not absolutely fresh, Snap, Crackle, Pop is likely to be reduced to Wheeze, Splutter, Sink. So they have put in place every possible quality standard and control in place to make sure their product lives up to its promise.

Unfortunately that’s not always the case. Many companies still fall into the trap of developing brand slogans that actually end up being brand destroyers rather than builders. That’s because these slogans raise the customer’s expectation of an excellent experience, but the delivery of such an experience by a company never quite delivers on the brand promise it makes.

Take Standard Bank’s ‘Simpler. Better. Faster.’ slogan of a few years back. While it’s a fantastic customer experience promise, it’s virtually impossible to deliver 100% of the time – even if your company is filled with passionate customer service champions. And every time you fail to live up to the promise, your brand dies a little in the mind of your customers. Small wonder this particular tag line quickly gave way to the more realistic (and less specific) promise of ‘Moving Forward’.

A further example of a particularly challenging South African brand promise comes from another of our banks. This time it’s FNB’s promise of service excellence implied in its ‘How can we help you?’ slogan. On the face of it, this is an excellent tag line. It promises a bank that’s ready, willing and able to be there for its customers and deliver whatever service they need to realise their personal objectives. Unfortunately, it’s also a promise that any company would be very hard pressed to keep. And I know I’m not alone when I say that every time I encounter internet banking problems, am kept waiting in a branch, or have to deal with a disempowered employee that actually can’t help me, the ‘How can we help you?’ brand slogan rings loudly in my ears as a very false promise.

Ask any parent and they’ll tell you that the cardinal sin of parenting is breaking your promises to your kids. It leaves them disappointed, disillusioned and a little less trusting of what you promise in the future. And customers are no different. Which is why, if you are serious about creating brilliant customer experiences, you need to understand that it starts with your company slogan and the expectations it creates. So, if your business has a slogan, make sure it’s a promise you can always keep.

By: Nathalie Schooling

A sad story of lost potential, money and jobs

To stay in business go back to the (customer service) basics

According to Statistics SA, in September 2011 alone, 330 South African businesses closed their doors. Of these 65 were in the wholesale, retail trade, catering or accommodation categories. That’s shops, restaurants and hotels or B&Bs that are now out of business.

Some were voluntary closures; others were forced liquidations; all tell a sad story of lost potential, money and jobs. Clearly South Africa still finds itself in very challenging economic times. And while you can’t presume that all the business closures in September or, indeed, the whole of 2011 were only due to the economic environment, it’s safe to assume that many of these businesses simply couldn’t survive the recent decline in business and customers.

Looking further back, since the beginning of the year, a staggering 2 475 South African businesses have closed. 619 of these were in the wholesale, retail trade, catering and accommodation categories. On the positive side – if you can find a positive side to business closures – this figure is actually down from the same period in 2010, which saw 2 930 companies shut down.

But despite this decline in closures year-on-year, the truth is that almost 2 500 businesses have stopped trading in the past nine months – and that’s a lot no matter how you look at it!

As a customer service professional, I have to ask the question: “How many of these businesses might still have been trading, if they had paid more attention to keeping their customers happy?” While I’m not implying that customer service is a ‘silver bullet’ solution to challenging economic conditions, there can be no doubt that businesses that place little priority on creating great customer experiences are bound to suffer the ill effects of a recession more than those that have always kept their customers happy.

Nowhere is this more obvious, particularly during the festive season, than the restaurant industry.

While it’s natural for restaurant owners to want to capitalize on higher patron numbers to shore up their finances for what promises to be an equally challenging 2012, doing so at the expense of good customer experiences is tantamount to business suicide. In other words, if your restaurant is enjoying an increase in reservations, but you don’t want to incur higher overheads by employing some extra staff to meet the growing demand, there’s a good chance this may be your last good season. In fact, it may end up being your last season. Period.

While people expect to wait longer for service during the busy times, they don’t expect to be neglected, subjected to poor quality, or have a terrible experience. And that applies whether they are visiting a restaurant or visiting the mall.

So, if your business desires a merry Christmas and prosperous New Year, stay focused on offering great customer experiences, rather than fixating on short-term turnover. Rather than being a cost consideration, see it as an opportunity to stand out from the poor service crowd. In the process, you’ll not only boost their bottom line, you’ll also potentially win some long-term, loyal customers. Which is the best way to ensure your business doesn’t find itself on the next Statistics SA “closures” list.