I know I shouldn’t because within minutes I’m soapboxing and wagging fingers at my audience. At some point, I usually ask how many brands in the room actually have one. The audience and I then share the guilty secret together. Hardly any. And you know? The number of raised hands has never been greater than 10% over the last five years of asking!
The point is not lost on them either. In a world in which oceans of digital ink is spilled talking up service based differentiation, world-class customer service, the economic value of customer engagement and the like, it looks pretty lame if you don’t even have a shared notion of how all this is going to happen!
Mainly people just look rather sheepish as they confess. They know that they really should have a customer service strategy in place. And yet they don’t. I still don’t really understand why this is so often the case. Although I’ve got plenty of theories, I’ve decided not dwell on reasons.
Instead of more soapboxing, I’m intending to make a contribution to this shortfall and do something about it. So this series of sessions (this being session one) is devoted to helping you with your first customer service strategy. Or, if you are one of the ten percenters, help you take your current version up a notch.
How To Spot When You Think You Have A Customer Service Strategy But Don’t!
If my straw polls are representative, it follows that very few in UK Customer Service leadership teams have a living experience of what difference a strategy can actually make. So thinking through the argument for spending time developing one seems a great place to start.
By the way, as part of this orientation, let me be clear what I mean when I said few organisations have a strategy. There is no disputing that more than the 10% I quoted have an idea of what they are up to in terms of improving Customer Service. In fact virtually every Customer Service organisation is on some form of ‘onwards and upwards’ path. But that’s not the same as having a strategy.
I also know that while strands of what could turn into a strategy are often discussed amongst Customer Service management, it’s not in a format that can easily be scaled or shared with the wider group of stakeholders whose behaviours and priorities impact how well Customer Service works .
Does this matter?
Yes. Because it diminishes the chances of those groups becoming aligned and ‘on message’. Given the prevalence of silo and narrow functional behaviour that still characterises much of UK Customer Service experience, it pretty easy to conclude that the benefits of shared strategy are rarely experienced.
My last example of ‘false evidence’ for a Customer Service strategy are those Powerpoint presentations. Particularly any titled ‘What’s Next For Customer Service?’. And yes quite a few managers can also point to annual targets they pick up as a result of these presentations. So are we talking strategy in all but name?
Lists of things to do in the next twelve months is not strategy even when the first slide says ‘our strategy is to improve customer experience scores by 10% and reduce operating costs by 15%’. No! That’s still ‘nose pressed up against a window stuff’. Important, but still not strategy.
How To Get Into The Zone For Painting Strategy
OK, that’s enough of what it is not. So what is it?
The single most important idea to understand about strategy is this. It’s a way of organising the sum total of what you are dealing with. Part of its value is to quickly make sense of how everything relates and links together resulting in the ‘cunning plan’ that Baldrick of Black Adder fame used to speak of so fondly. It’s cunning because of the way it plots your route to success.
In this context, strategy is about consciously figuring out the role Customer Service plays as part of your impact on customers and the overall markets you operate in as an organisation. For instance, is it just a cost centre, or a reason to be different?
Secondly it’s about the route (cunning plan) you then take to achieve that impact. Plans, resources, budgets, reviews, and everything else come afterwards as a consequence.
Doing strategy helps define why you exist instead simply accepting the need for Customer Service. It justifies the value being delivered. As such a strategy helps everyone become self aware. It becomes the context through which everything becomes viewed and judged. As a result, it generates a new way of seeing things.
That’s why I scrubbed ‘Building A Customer Service Strategy’ as my initial title for this series in favour of ‘Painting A Customer Service Strategy’. As a painter, it’s all about getting the perspective right. If you get that wrong, everything within the picture look out of place. It’s the same challenge for you as a Customer Service leader, seeing the wood for the trees. Or if you prefer, tuning into the bigger picture.
Think of it like this. All those powerpoint presentations and ongoing discussions we mentioned earlier is the stuff that needs organising, which is what your Customer Service strategy does. So if stuff is your content, strategy is your context. And once something has been put into context, it becomes understandable to others because they can now see how everything fits together.
This means a strategy is judged on its ability to point out how everything inter-relates as opposed to a plan which concentrates on organising what needs to be done. The strategy becomes shorthand for reminding everyone what’s important. And by important I mean what your organisation is fundamentally all about and Customer Service’s role in that. That does not mean you have to be making waves like Zappos to justify having a strategy. It just means you are plugged in and on beat.
The Pay Off For Enduring This Level Of Brain Ache
If all this talk about context sounds far removed from the real world, you might be surprised how often we need context in our day to day work lives to make the right choices. Here are a few examples to mull over.
Let’s imagine the impact of a shared strategy on some of your important stakeholders. How would things improve?
For a start it would put the need for change into context in a convincing way. For instance many projects that seek internal budget approval are piecemeal and reactive in their approach. The knock on effect is that benefits are incremental and seldom transformative.
A strategic context that is shared changes how the content (your project) is viewed. Without that strategic point of reference, most business cases are fundamentally weak. They get built around an isolated issue which is then squeezed into a point solution to get business case approval.
But we all know the core challenge in Customer Service is creating joined up experiences. So one-off solutions become just more of the same, dressed up in the latest fashion. In contrast, a shared strategy provides common language to keep the bigger picture in mind when the business of spending money comes up.
Moving on. Think about the Call Centre, Online, Retail, Marketing, Sales, Field Support, Finance. We know the alignment between these customer facing teams is not what it needs to be as evidenced whenever customer service failures are analysed.
We also know it is not usually the different teams of people who are at fault. It’s that their overall priorities are not matched up and aligned to a common strategic aim: satisfying the customer. It may be an obvious truth there should be synergy between these teams. But traditional business planning has not so far encouraged a collaborative approach to customer management. Maybe this is something you could tackle in your own organisation as part of your tactics for embedding the customer service strategy.
Take the simple example of call centres and online. Both provide customer service. But when was the last time these teams were encouraged to sit down and compare notes in your organisation? Which channel is causing extra customer traffic? Can customer journeys between these channels be tracked and integrated into a commonly shared reporting system? We all know the answer at this point in time. An inclusive customer service strategy would be providing guidance to this type of issue.
Here is a killer statistic to cement the point. ContactBabel points out that of the 700m complaints due to flow into UK call centres over the course of a year, 90% of these are about faults elsewhere in the business. Sorting these out demands deep, ongoing collaboration. Preventing them recurring demands a strategy.
The last point worth making is that it takes a lot to be good at anything in life. In fact the bar for customer experience appears to be higher than just being good. It demands time, commitment, investment, continuity and concentration whenever your game plan needs raising to a whole new level. Surely that level of challenge demands a bit of thinking through?
In summary. A strategy about servicing customers needs to exist. Not just as a once a year reference but as a regular process of discussion, understanding, reflection and compromise held amongst the teams that make up the customer service experience. A strategic context helps them to move beyond the silo behaviours that generate inefficiencies and poor customer experiences towards a common view.
But enough said. That should be all the input you need to source your own reasons for building your first Customer Service strategy.
When you are ready session two kicks off with some advice on how to avoid going nuts drafting your first version.