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Create a culture of excellent customer service

Providing excellent customer service is a goal that many organisations, especially in the private sector, think they have been trying to achieve for quite some time. But how many are actually succeeding? Paul Cooper, ex-director of the Institute of Customer Service, explains why good customer service must start at the top

In survey after survey the British public, and even staff in these organisations, tell us too often that service in this country is still poor, attitudes are wrong, complaints are not handled well and the service provided is not keeping up with increasing customer demands.

At the same time, many in the public sector and the utilities are realising that giving good, even excellent, customer service can pay dividends in reputation, efficiency, customer satisfaction and word-of-mouth recommendation. To whom should the public sector, SMEs, or anyone else who is looking for good role models look to compare themselves, and what tools should they use?

Without the right internal culture and approach, and without accepting that a key element in good customer service is employee satisfaction, it's an uphill struggle. The 'secret' of service excellence is that it requires a complete approach - clear and consistent leadership from the top, the right culture, great people, and customer-focused systems, processes and tools.

Giving great customer service really is the key to differentiation in the future for all organisations. The latest research clearly shows that organisations who have gained a great reputation for customer service excellence have significantly better financial results than those without that reputation.

Key market factors of today

1. Customer requirements won't go away. Customers are becoming increasingly demanding, complaining more, expecting more, and telling more people when things go wrong. A key message for organisations is that it is their ability to resolve complaints/queries which is the number one factor in what their customers think of them. Putting right the failures in an organisation must be the first priority before raising customer aspirations about higher service levels. Above all, the organisation must be 'easy to deal with'. At the same time, appreciating, welcoming, and acting upon the complaints received can be the number one way that an organisation can make continuous improvements to its processes.

2. Customers are nowadays less inclined to accept service differentiation by sector. For example, in the public sector a local authority is not measured against another local authority or the public sector as a whole - the customer has little or no experience of that. The standard measure now is how one performs against everyone else the customer deals with - supermarkets, high street stores, websites, etc. Therefore it makes a lot of sense for both public and private organisations to share best practice, develop benchmarking opportunities, and network much more.

3. Pricing must not be not allowed to create a difference in service levels below acceptable standards. Of course there is a case to provide even better service for top customers, but in contrast, eg a low cost airline that believes that as a result of its lower price they don't have to give good service is just plain wrong! There is enough evidence about that giving good service costs less than giving bad, so there is no excuse.

4. Staff are much more receptive to being given the opportunity to gain a professional qualification. For example, in customer service there are now four levels of N/SVQ available, plus modern apprenticeships, and there are also a comprehensive range of qualifications provided by many organisations. The issue of lifetime learning is becoming key for the development of staff, and it is through membership of a professional body that support can be given to this. You only have to parallel this with the clear benefits derived from membership to see where this leads. Organisations too are also realising that some form of recognised accreditation programme can be very beneficial in developing and maintaining standards of performance, and in helping to measure progress.

So should there really be a difference in approach from industry to industry, or between the private and public sectors to customer service? Let's ask it the other way around - why should there be?

In several key areas all sectors now have even more of an opportunity to demonstrate to their customers how great they can be at customer service. In both the private and public sector I see dustmen and dinner ladies, drivers and secretaries, call centre operators and shop assistants, consultants and managers all gaining qualifications in customer service. Chief executives of very large local authorities apply for membership, along with directors of our largest UK companies. There are elected members of councils doing awards programmes, as are company managers and directors. What I am really seeing is enthusiasm; enthusiasm for the customer, for colleagues, for the organisation they work for, and for themselves.

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