Customer Service

My first “job” was working as a shelf filler/cashier in a supermarket in Mayfair, London. We were just around the corner from the Saudi Arabian Embassy, across from the famous (at that time) Shepherd’s Market, 200m away from the (then still open) Playboy Club on Park Lane, and as far again from the world renowned Berkeley Square. Getting the bus to work or, on those days when we didn’t have enough money, walking along Park Lane, we developed a level of imperviousness to the wealth, prosperity, grandeur and opulence of our environment. It was just “where we worked”.

But looking back on that time, I have come to realise that we were actually quite privileged to have developed that immunity to perceptions of social standing through location, and we were able to see people of all social levels for what they basically were; people.

On a Saturday, you could just as easily be selecting the finest Tiptree jams for a local Lord or Lady from the Square, then scouring the stockroom for products for the “Female Entrepreneurs” from the Market. As shy young teenagers, it was always embarrassing when the Ladies spent a moment too long smiling at us. We knew what they did for a living; they knew what we did for a living. They were clearly earning more for their Customer Services than we were!

A bigger differentiator for us then was in how Customer Service was perceived and received. Admittedly, it wasn’t called Customer Service back then. It was “do your bloody job and the Customer is always right!”

The van drivers, other workers in the area, the Ladies, all treated us with the basic respect you would expect. “Please” and “Thank you” preceded and followed requests for assistance; a smile showed it was sincere and, occasionally, when we went that extra mile (usually carrying shopping out to the car or, even, delivering to a local home), might even be rewarded with a small tip. On the other hand, the more affluent clientele generally treated sales assistants as an extension of their own staff – with requirements barked as directions; payment made as if at gunpoint; and any additional services seen as part of our role rather than as help.

But we learned very quickly that there are two sides to Customer Service. There is the Customer side and there is the Service side. For a successful transaction to take place, these are equal. Without customers, who needs service and vice versa?

Without dissecting the transactional process into its (now) multitudinous parts (Requirements, Sourcing, User Interface, Customer Experience, Transaction, Customer Loyalty, etc), what did we learn?

Well, we learned very quickly and very simply that, in order to make a sale you need to understand what the customer wants, ensure that they too understand what they really want, and then provide them with that in a manner which will encourage them to come back (to you) the next time they have that need. I learned that at the age of 15, but you can now pay a major blue chip consultancy >£1,000 per day to tell you the same thing (granted, you will get supporting slides and references).

We also learned that making it easy for your customers to get to and at what they want (personally or via competent assistants’ assistance) generally has the benefit of making them want to repeat the experience with you. People are generally lazy and if you can reduce the effort AND satisfy the need, you are onto a winning formula.

We learned that people are prepared to pay a price premium, whether that is for convenience (we were the only supermarket in that part of Mayfair at that time open 7 days a week); for quality (Tiptree jams were and still cost a fortune but they are “worth it” – if you are into conserves); for service (staff HAD to be friendly to the customers and smart sales assistants learn how to make a customer understand when they are wrong without making them feel they are wrong). We lived by “the customer is right” motto, even when they were clearly wrong.

Sadly, without the benefit of formal higher education, we were unable to translate the experience of translating the interaction between people and service to generate revenue into academic papers. We missed the opportunity to “fill the educational gap” that would have granted us MBAs or Doctorates (well, PhDs) and, no-one suggested writing our experiences down. Until now.

So, why am I writing this now?

The last few years, and especially last 12 months, have emphasised the need for companies to engage their customers in a manner which they had hitherto not foreseen. The growth of research into factors such as CEX, UI, CU, CL and more has created industries and consultancies which aim to teach companies to better target, engage with and retain customers to generate profit. We have cross-selling, related selling, upselling, downselling and a host of other tools designed to do what we were taught to do as teenagers, i.e. find out what the customer wants and provide them with it. But has it got “better”?

My personal view is that it has not. Customers have lost the “always right” pedestal and become commodities who can be targetted, leveraged, monetised and then discarded when their perceived or potential value is no longer sufficiently profitable for the effort required. Their value is measured by potential – how many of us can a company credibly say it has; value – how much we can realistically be expected to spend; and longevity – how long can we be expected to be retained? We are no longer “right” and have become “right now”.

Some companies are utilising the Tribal Concept. That is, “buy our product and you become like one of us”. Look no further than Air Jordans, Converse, Gucci and Cartier as examples of how the brand is designed to make the customer feel part of a team amongst others, so that their desire is driven, rather than by need but now by aspiration to be and remain “in the Tribe”.

The emergence of Sustainability, Environmental Friendliness, Renewable Natural Resources as both industries and tribal affiliations, show how the customer’s role has changed in the sales environment. As we become more educated – in the broadest sense of the word – companies can now refine and sub-define these Tribes even further. But does it enhance the overall Customer Experience? Again, I do not think it has.

So, is there a fix?

We could go back to basics. We could encourage the expansion of human interactions at the point of sale and, while not stifling the growth of Artificial Intelligence (ANI and/or AGI) and the power of Machine Learning, look to develop human skills which are more collaborative and less for-profit driven. With the introduction (or is that replacement by?) robotics into the business process, humans are being replaced in the drive for greater profits. Where will it end?

In his 1909 work, “When the Machine Stops”, E.M. Forster describes a scenario where the human race becomes a commodity that is merely used for the generation of ideas to further the progress of the Machine. As we allow, indeed encourage, the greater integration of Machines into our everyday lives, how far are we on the journey and, more worryingly, is it already too late for humanity to take back control?

In James Barrat’s book “Our Final Invention – The Last Complication”, he finalises by suggesting that the drive towards greater integration of AGI into society may lead to: 

“The failure to explore and monitor the threat is almost society-wide. But that failure does not in the least impact the ineluctable growth of machine intelligence. Nor does it alter the fact that we will have just one chance to establish a positive coexistence with beings whose intelligence is greater than our own.”

So the next time you check-in online for your flight or book that hotel room or order your Prime package, remember that, in times gone by there was a person who you could talk to, a person with a job, whose purpose was to provide you with that satisfaction. The Machines do not care who you are; they are only interested in delivering your requirement for the profit of their owners.

And if that is your definition of Customer Service, so be it. But remember, there may come a time when that Machine may replace YOU.

Positivity in Leadership – Managing Your Emotions

Growing up, an oft heard phrase in our household was “If you don’t know what to say, shut up!” Going on to “a good school”, I learned a different version “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing”. While too much consideration of the outcome of words has occasionally held me back, these two phrases have generally stood me in good stead. As has been often repeated “Words have consequences” and, given the recent disruption seen in the US, we have definitely seen that in effect. Perhaps a few more people could have benefitted from similar advice?

But, should we always bite our tongues and hold back on expressing our views and thoughts? Is it always deemed negative or aggressive to say what the general audience may not necessarily wish to hear? To complain when it takes very little effort to just grin and bear it? No one likes (to be labelled as) a complainer or a “Moaning Minnie” but if one does not voice discontent, how can others know that one, rightfully or otherwise, feels displeasure?

What are the Pros and Cons of that totally un-British trait: complaining? What is the potential impact of words of complaint and how can one know when they are spoken in observation or in anger?

So, let’s start by looking at the Negatives. 

The sun is shining, it’s a great new day, you feel full of energy and ready for any and every task ahead. You log in to your emails and connect to your first videoconference (it is Covid time – we are all working from home) and you are prepped to have a great day. And it starts. “I can’t get into the conference”, “my browser isn’t working”, “I didn’t get the pre-read”, “What’s on the Agenda – no-one told me”. One-by-one the complaints and negative comments begin and you feel your positivity ebbing away. In a video-connected world, each of these can be dealt with, indeed are expected, but when it is or appears to always be the same person as usual making the complaints, reeling off from their endless repertoire of negativity, your great day of optimism starts descending into yet another bad day.

Dealing with what my mother called “Les Miserables”, can put a downer on your day and on those around you. Failing to be seen to deal with it can affect you and your team in a number of ways:

It undermines authority and discipline: the constant complaining brings negatives to the forefront making those not otherwise aware of or affected by them conscious of your failure to deal with them.

It depresses morale: when there is constant complaining, it can remove the energy and dynamism from a team. People become worn down by constantly listening to negativity and a CSAT statistic for Coca Cola in the 80’s suggested ’When one person has a problem, they will tell 9-16 people; when things are going well, they will tell 1”. The downward spiral begins….

It inhibits growth and opportunity: how often do you hear them use the phrase “it’s not worth it”? Your Moaning Minnie has begun convincing colleagues, including you, that there is no point in not just in going that extra mile, but actually in doing what is the current expectation. The basic minimum becomes the new “Stretch Target”.

It creates isolation: no-one wants to be the team Grouch and likewise no-one wants to work with the Grouch. If you haven’t noticed that someone in the team is known for always complaining, maybe that person is you?

Having identified a few Negatives, what are the alternatives and what should we do?

Creating a Positive Mindset

Amanda Turner, Knowledge Specialist at Dubai’s DEWA, talks about creating one’s own positive outlook by focussing on “what brings joy”.  Whether that is a spiritual connection (religion, faith, belief) or corporeal, by truly focusing on positive things, it is possible to change and influence the energy around you. That emotion of positivity (although it equally applies to negativity) has even been given a title by Sigal Barsade, PhD of Wharton Business School – emotional contagion – and been covered in a number of videos from Wharton School.

By creating positive emotional energy, it is possible to address the negativity, turning it around to create and/or restore a balanced environment. This requires learning how to become aware of the environment; identify the source of the negativity; reject its downward pull; and focus on what positive actions can be instituted at that moment to make change. 

In discussion recently with Amanda and Susan Furness, Strategic Advisor and Edgewalker, the advice for those facing workplace and leadership negativity was simple: “Focus on positive things and positive things will happen. Focus on negative things and your growth becomes stunted. 2021 is a time and environment for change and creates an opportunity for transformation. Acknowledge, embrace, advance, enjoy!”

So what are the practical steps we can take:

Observe your emotions and feelings: bad things happen all the time. A positive attitude comes from recognizing that this is the case and that (1) it may not be your fault, (2) you may not be able to fix it (3) even if you can, can you help someone learn by helping them to fix it in a safe environment instead? It is not always about you and being able to understand that quickly can reduce taking on the negativity of others.

Understand the power of your words: remember that “what has been said cannot be unsaid”. There are those around you who listen to what you say and take guidance and direction from it. Be aware of what you say; be aware that what you mean may not be the same as what is heard. Ensure that you are communicating and not just talking.

Accept feedback: – you may not like it but try to understand where it comes from, why someone would think that way, accept and correct, learn and develop.

Be grateful: given the radical changes that we are facing globally at this time, the ability to be reading this is a cause for gratitude. It means you can read; it means you have (had) access to the internet in some way; it means you have free time. Billions of people have none if any of those abilities. Which would you rather be?

Appreciate those around you: often times, those around you and you, yourself, may only need some positive feedback in order to address the negativity and create a positive feeling. Empathy and appropriate praise are powerful tools in leadership.

Creating Success

As leaders, we strive to create an environment where we can deliver successful outcomes which provide us, and those we work with, the feeling that we are valued and are making a valuable impact. Avoiding focussing on the negative and, instead, creating an atmosphere and environment of positivity, in itself, builds that platform for growth, development, satisfaction and, ultimately, positivity.

Complaints and complaining therefore have their place. They provide us as leaders with an indication of where our efforts can be focussed and best utilised.

Finally, learning how to harness these skills helps us to recognise that all that is negative in the workplace is not always bad and, with the right mindset and courage, can be reversed to create a positive environment. And, ultimately, restore that morning feeling of joy.

Jan 2021

Well, what a year it has been already!! Every day has provided a new challenge and we are only 7 days in. My 2021 resolution of remaining positive is being tested but there is no point making resolutions if you don’t have the resolve to stick to them, right?

Two friends have lost their fathers in the last 4 days, the UK went into a further lockdown despite being one of the first countries in the world to start using the Covid-19 vaccine, while yesterday the USA lost any semblance of global democracy leadership. They say that the Lord gives and takes away and seems to be doing so with gay abandon – let’s hope this is not a taste of further things to come in 2021.

However, there is some good news: my fitness training regime is already showing signs of progress, thanks to my Personal Trainer – check out @vfitnessrunner on Instagram – and I am working with a friend to help with their fitness and that is showing results too.

This weekend is the 5th of 6 modules for my MBA, with just one more to go and then the dissertation. I am actually looking forward to that. Sadly, my MSc Graduation which was due for March has been pushed to July so, if all goes well, having avoided it for 20 years, I could be wearing the gown twice this year instead! Fingers crossed.

So, with 7 days gone, it’s already a rollercoaster of positive and negative activity. As Scarlett O’Hara said in Gone with the Wind “tomorrow is another day”. Let’s see what joys it brings…

How was 2020 for you?

If 12 months ago, I had been told that I would have been confined to my home in the forest for most of the year; would be restricted from travelling abroad, even back to visit my family in the UK; that I would have one brother in hospital, a sister-in-law in hospital and another brother pass away, even for a glass half-empty person like me, that would have sounded pretty bleak. Sadly, all came to pass and more.

That said, 2020 was not all bad and, indeed, had some of the greatest moments. So, let’s start at the beginning:

January: having discovered, 3 days before Xmas, that the pain in my right shoulder was caused by a part that had calcified and broken off, being referred to physiotherapy was a bliss. That increased as my physiotherapist, Andre – as hesitant an English speaker as I was with German – outlined a number of ideas he had for adventures into entrepreneurship. Having submitted the dissertation for my MSc in Marketing on Xmas Eve, I was happy to provide him with insights into developing his products and strategies, and our time became split between physiotherapy and business advisory sessions. He has since enrolled for an MBA and we are working on bringing some of those ideas to fruition in 2021. And, over the following six weeks, my shoulder improved and is now better than it has been for 30 years!