Most people reading this article will agree that one of the cornerstones of long-term success is satisfied customers. Despite this, there are still many businesses which deal with customer service as a secondary service, with sales processing or complaint handling, measured by simple ‘how fast’ and ‘how many’ metrics and perceived as a cost.
In this two-part series, we are asking ‘what are the benefits of having a customer service representative on the Board?’ To find out we have interviewed two Director level customer service business leads, from progressive forward-thinking organisations, to find out their views.
In our first article, we find out the opinions of Ben Lappin, Director of Retention and Customer Experience at The Guardian and Chair of the DMA’s Contact Centre Council. He tells us about The Guardian’s refreshing prioritisation of the customer and gives insight into how they engage with customers.
We began by asking Ben how he felt his Board valued customer experience. His response was “I was pleased when our CEO called out customer experience as our third strategic priority, as to me that was genuine . And we got the funding and support to make things better. Many companies claim to put customers first but that’s rarely delivered in practise.”
“By really representing the customer in our business, we’ve been able to attack the issues that really affect customers rather than just responding well to failure. Our approach is much more holistic now, compared to the traditional model of working hard to improve things like response times and numbers of calls handled.”
We then asked Ben whether customer service channels for The Guardian News & Media Group had evolved in recent times, as social apps and instant communications have become more prolific. “We take a simpler approach to this issue. Everyone has access to email and the channel works for dealing with queries. Are other apps necessary? We feel that there’s a dash to apps and other channels driven by Corporate FOMO: the ‘fear of missing out’ combined with the need to make something look like a success because a team has invested in it. Why do you need a new app if you have an effective web chat on your website which also works on mobile?
“Unless you have a compelling case to use a channel, it’s better to retreat from channels where you cannot perform well. There is sometimes a case to switch from Twitter to live chat simply because the customer experience via Twitter isn’t as good, or as personal.”
We questioned Ben about his experience of customer experience being represented at the company’s Board: “I’ve been at The Guardian for three years now. Customer experience is discussed at Board level. We appointed Anna Bateson as Chief Customer Officer, who is responsible for all of reader revenues, but with a clear brief to be focused on customers. At first, the customer statistics used didn’t reflect the real issues. I was able to lobby and place issues where they really belonged and where they could be addressed. For example, newspaper delivery issues were placed with delivery providers to solve, rather than being reported as a customer service statistic. Our teams were recognising the problems through the customer service process and we’re able to improve things by driving real solutions, not by working hard to answer the problems more quickly!”
Ben continues “Company Boards are busy. To prioritise real issues, you have to be concise and punchy. The stats can help by pointing to problems. We have to propose ways to solve those problems. Without that voice on the Board, customer service would probably be a regular set of reports, watched for simple trends and costs but not as a way to really make things better.”
We asked Ben if he thought that the KPIs used in most customer service operations could result in unrealistic expectations?
“Yes. Without meaningful interpretation, customer experience is seen as a cost centre rather than a chance to add value. Traditional KPIs push towards cost management, whether that’s for an in-house department or an outsourced operation.”
He stated “Don’t have contact volumes as a KPI. Measure problems and how you solve them, not volumes. Responding brilliantly to failure should not be seen as success.”
Finally, we asked Ben if he thought other businesses were missing out on not having customer experience representation within their Board meetings?
“Almost certainly. Even if it’s not a permanent Board member, there should be representation at the level where there is regular interaction with the Board. Customer acquisition can almost always be improved by spending more money on it, but customer experience and retention require a more long-term view.”
Ben continues “We can measure our successes, because we’ve made an effort to recognise the value of what we do. We’ve self-funded some initiatives which generate real value for the business, making our customer-facing teams a value-adding department, not perceived as a cost centre. Being able to articulate this allows us to request what we need from a position of authority, and to ask from a position of moral authority, representing the customer properly. Expressing a request by explaining how it’s going to reduce customer time wasted and improve retention makes the problem human, which makes the decision-makers much more likely to react favourably.”
Ben’s experiences made it clear to us that having the customer experience discussed in Board meetings is an important chance to not just represent customers, but to highlight real business issues and initiate improvements which drive better bottom-line results. Helping the Board to understand the value added by improving customer interactions can encourage a problem-solving culture, rather than a cost-management one. This is a way to gain and maintain genuine competitive advantage.
In our next article, we’ll be talking to Liam Smith of Rank Group to find out what advantages his company has found from letting the customers’ voice be heard at the top table.