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AM Breakfast Club: Serving up right service to bring in new business

A challenge of the motor retail industry is that customers might not expect to get fantastic service. However, for those dealers that do get it right, there is an immense opportunity for building loyal relationships and creating customer advocates who will drive new prospects to their business.

Andrew McMillan spent eight years as head of customer service at high street retailer John Lewis Partnership, which is held up by many industry observers and consumers as a leading proponent of excellent interaction with shoppers.

It was a role he took on after identifying that the reality was not as good as its reputation.

Now a consultant with Charteris, McMillan outlined some of the strategic highlights of his former role to members of the AM Executive Breakfast Club at its meeting this month.

Product, process, engagement

McMillan identified three elements of the customer experience:

  • the product/service - what you do and why you’re in business.
  • the process - how easy you are to do business with.
  • the engagement – what does it feel like doing business with you.

McMillan said too many businesses spend the majority of their time focused on product or services and then the processes that support them.

However, the key differentiator is engagement.

Customer engagement is where the experience delivered by the staff is so consistently good that the staff become the organisation or brand in the eyes of its customers.

The biggest challenge to that is delivering it 100% consistently.

Vital to consistency is a well motivated, happy workforce.

Have that, and dealers will benefit from increased productivity, lower costs through staff churn, revenue-increasing customer loyalty, better sales conversion and reduced complaints.


Training is not the answer to consistency.

While staff development can improve service by setting standards and teaching a tangible process, such as query handling or system usage, it cannot fundamentally change an organisation’s culture or the attitude of its employees towards customers and service.


Behavioural change

Changing the culture can take many months or years.

John Lewis has developed a purpose statement of being a great place to work, and a great place to shop, and McMillan identified six steps towards change (see panel: Andrew McMillan’s six steps to behavioural change).

Each is vital so that both the company and employees know and support the vision.

Emphasis has to be on recruiting people with the right attitude through assessment days and getting rid of those already on the payroll that don’t.

Product knowledge and sales processes can be learned, the inherent desire to serve people well cannot.

Staff should also receive recognition and praise for their behaviour, not just performance, and managers must also have a service bias and be people focused.

Their role, he said, is to lead their people, but manage things.

“Spend every possible minute catching your staff doing something right, and not just the big things,” he said.

John Lewis store managers are motivated to report ‘random acts of kindness’ done by their employees to the partnership’s internal comm-unications, which make ‘legendary’ service stories that reinforce the service ethos.

Measurement is used, naturally, with mystery shops done locally and centrally.

The results of these form part of the KPIs of every partner in the business.

Customer feedback, through comment cards and exit surveys, can be valuable way of regularly monitoring performance, but the questions should be carefully crafted to measure the perception of the experience and not just the practical reality of what has been delivered. 

A simple question such as ‘what was your impression of our business today?’ can be very revealing.

Complaints are compared with appreciations, with the benchmark of 10 good for every one bad.

To see his presentation, visit

Crowning glory for John Lewis

Andrew McMillan recounted two unusual instances that reflect John Lewis’s reputation for excellence:

  • Christmas Day 2008 special of TV sit-com The Royle Family, the second most watched TV programme that day. In a sketch about a neighbour losing bladder control while shopping in John Lewis, mum Barbara insists she was fortunate: “If you’re going to wet yourself, you’d wet yourself in John Lewis”.
  • A pregnant woman shopping in its Brent Cross branch in London went into labour. Staff came to her aid, took her to a private area and waited with her while an ambulance was summoned. She subsequently gave birth to a boy, which she and her husband named John Lewis in honour of the store.


Andrew McMillan's six steps to behavourial change

Define - What the organisation wants to be in terms of personality and behaviour for both service users and staff – a definition created by the staff that have to deliver it
Measure - Measure the outcomes of the desired behaviours to track progress and deliver improvement
Communicate - Internal communications delivered by the organisation’s managers to engage support for the change
Lead - Leadership focus to ensure progress and sustainability
Reward, recognition and appraisal - Recognition and appraisal to recognise behaviour not just performance
Recruitment and induction - Hire for attitude and fire for attitude, assessment half days, competency interviews.

Defining brands

Virgin Atlantic

Airlines compete very closely, with price the main differentiator.

Virgin launched in 1984 with an understanding that it needed to do something different, and put its focus on the service customers receive.

It set a clearly defined experience, and has created a defined, somewhat glamorous and brash personality that is its principal differentiator.

It strives to get it right first time, every time, and its customer charter gives clear guidance on exactly what to expect before, during and after a flight.

Harley Davidson

The motorcycle brand transformed its business by recognising it was no longer about selling motorcycles but about selling the Harley experience.

The company took focus off talking about the products, in favour of finding out what the buyer wants to get out of their purchase and ownership experience.

The company admits: “What we sell is the ability for a 43-year-old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and to have people be afraid of him.”


It entered the UK some 30 years ago with an incredible proposition that impressed hungry customers – the ability to pick up a burger within 30 seconds, rather than wait while it cooked.

No-one visiting would expect fine dining, but it is difficult to fault the convenience and customers know what they will get at any location in the country.

Join the AM Executive Breakfast Club

The AM Executive Breakfast Club is exclusively for senior dealer group executives. If you would like to know more or are interested in attending our next meeting contact Luke Clements at









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