Customer Services Centres provide the best possible insight into the customer proposition and views of customers. Go there and get involved – writes Alex Warner

 
Pick up the phone and talk to your customers. You might learn something

 
It never ceases to amaze me the number of transport senior managers who purport to being focused on customers. You see it in the piffle they post on LinkedIn or on the ‘Personal Summary’ bit at the top of their CVs. You know the bit, where they write in the third person, with adjectives to describe themselves as the second coming. I always treat that bit with cynicism – “well you would say that wouldn’t you?” being the phrase that comes to mind when I read such nonsense.

Ask these self-congratulatory leaders the following questions:

  1. When did they last visit their company’s Customer Services Centre?
  2. When did they last ask the staff there what customers have been saying?
  3. When did they last listen to calls, and – for a bonus point – answer a few?

Yeah, right – cue stony silence. Result: tear up CV and into the recycling bin it goes.

Feedback from customers is described, by better customer experience strategists than I, as “golden nuggets of insight” but to be honest most transport top dogs discard it like the cardboard tasting Chicken Nugget you chew on as a very last resort before chucking them out for the resident garden fox to devour. Indeed, it tends to be only the sly, clever managers who go out of their way to walk into their Customer Services Centre and look remotely interested.

What incredible fun they are missing. I’ve spent quite a bit of time this last year touring call centres, plugging in headphones, listening to calls and listening to customers’ rising disquiet as they learn that the well-intentioned customer service agent is hamstrung in recovering their goodwill, because the business hasn’t shared with them information about what it is doing to deal with recurrent problems.

Because there is some arcane process that prevents them from doing anything, or a situation arises from some daft decision by the Department for Transport or industry partner or other body.

I’ve seen ‘Live Chat’ in action, watched it used – again with the best of intentions though without the polish in other sectors – but to good effect on customer.  I’ve also spoken to staff who are itching to be given a day or two off to break free from their call centre and actually experience what is happening on their network so they can empathise with customers more genuinely.

What fills me with incredulity, however, is the lack of communication flows to and from call centres – the information void whereby the business just forgets to tell the staff who talk to customers the great projects and improvement plans they are working on. These are the kind of things that might end a call to a customer on a redeeming positive note, or at least give the customer service agent some solace that they are more than just a sponge soaking up customer feedback, with nothing being done to genuinely act on customer feedback or make the service better.

The problem is that sponges are just what customer service agents are in most instances because in many organisations there isn’t a proper process for the customer services centre to report back to the executive on key trends or to share a selection of customer feedback. There are in most, if not all, instances KPIs – number of complaints, turnaround times – but seldom anything qualitative showing the raw emotion and detail, the stuff that makes it real. There’s also rarely a first point resolution metric, which would seem to be the definitive barometer as to whether the centre is doing a good job or not.

Folk always nod in agreement when I suggest that every new employee in a business should as part of their induction progamme spend a day in the Customer Services Centre. The nod always feels sincere … but nothing ever happens

Folk always nod in agreement when I suggest that every new employee in a business should as part of their induction progamme spend a day in the Customer Services Centre. The nod always feels sincere – “Yes, wouldn’t it be good?” they say or think, but nothing ever happens, because no one has got the conviction to actually organise it.

Could you imagine what a wide-ranging insight any new starter would get on Day 1 into the issues affecting customers? Just being there would send a statement to them and others about how important customer service is. That the Customer Services Centre provides the most real and broadest possible insight into the customer proposition and views of customers is why it is also the best place for folk to start their career, giving them the best grounding before they rise up the ladder.

It’s a shame that most companies do nothing to encourage or develop those who work within its confines. They’d rather promote some introverted, compliant nerd with a fetish for spreadsheets or train diagrams than someone who talks to customers on the end of the blower.

The problem is that it is no longer sexy to be interested in the Customer Services Centre. This is part of the problem caused by the rise of social media but also, to an extent, the failings of many Customer Services Centres.

In some of the big owning groups, MDs are itching to take responsibility for their own customer feedback locally in their subsidiary because they believe it is the best way to provide a quality response to customers. It’s hard not to agree. Sometimes, they rebel and somehow make sure they get their paws on all correspondence and answer it directly. That is laudable, though it can lead to them not having much time to do the other stuff in their plans to improve customer service. Ideally, they should answer a few but there will be such a knowledgeable, high class team at the centre dealing with customer feedback on their behalf – and briefing them on the issues – that they won’t need to do it all.

However, it is social media that has redefined the boundaries. Some transport industry leaders kid themselves that because they mess around on Twitter, answer a few tweets or show their Auntie Mabel how they love customers on their personal Facebook page, they are interacting with their customers – man or woman of the people and all that tosh. If they do a ‘Meet the Manager’ session, then ‘hey presto’, they think they’ve got the credentials to write a book about customer service! They don’t.

It’s really quite simple. Every member of the executive team should spend half a day a month at least inside the Customer Services Centre talking to staff and learning what customers are saying

This obsession with social media sets folk up to fail unless it is backed up by substance and a genuine interest in doing what they say, rather than cosmetics. It’s really quite simple. Every member of the executive team should spend half a day a month at least inside the Customer Services Centre talking to staff and learning what customers are saying. Then they could answer some calls, maybe even pro-actively make a few. But the visit must not be “stage-managed” like those God-awful, token, diarised trips out that mob-handed executive teams do on “the patch” – with the obligatory photos to prove they did it posted on social media.

The trip to the Customer Services Centre should be done individually, it should not be cancelled because something better came up and it should be carried out over several hours, maybe even out of core office time, late in the evening when the team is feeling unloved and customers least expect to hear from a manager. Imagine how impressed you’d be for the phone to ring and have the MD out the blue calling to thank you for travelling? There should also be a proper mechanism for customer feedback to be devoured at executive level meetings, not just a one-pager list of metrics, or a cursory five-minute slot, but a proper discussion.

I know I’m not the sharpest tool in the box, but I must be missing something here. It really isn’t rocket science what I’m saying. Maybe it’s just me but this doesn’t seem too difficult? In essence, it comes down to doing what we say – you can’t write that you care about customers and then patently do the opposite.

VERDICT

Unless there’s genuine evidence that a senior leader spends quality time in the Customer Services Centre, then their CV has absolutely no right to describe themselves as customer-focused. Anyone can post the odd tweet to look good, but this customer service game is all about style and more importantly, substance.

 
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!