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Andrew McMillan: Give staff the freedom to create a great experience

By Andrew McMillan, principal at Engaging Service and former John Lewis head of customer service

A distinctive and consistent customer experience – that’s what we all aspire to deliver, isn’t it? In my view there are two ways to achieve that: you can devise a scripted process that all customers are subjected to and use the managers to police adherence, or alternatively you can foster a culture where the members of your team actually want to give the very best service possible.

Readers of my previous pieces will already know which approach I favour, and it isn’t process.

When I have discussed this view with automotive professionals on both the manufacturing and retail sides of the sector I am often told some degree of chaos would ensue if staff didn’t have a rigid process to follow or, at the very least, sales would plummet.

This shows a huge distrust of those employed. When I challenge the opinion there is rarely any hard evidence to support it. I have met some excellent people at all levels in the business and believe that left to their own devices, with some guidance created by the culture of the business, they could deliver some amazing results.
This approach could be a game changer. And if you don’t believe your employees could surprise you, then you are recruiting the wrong people.

Process does have a part to play with complex or regulated activities such as finance and insurance. The regulators have forced the introduction of scripted processes, partly due to poor selling practices in the past, thereby reducing the market to the lowest common denominator, but that doesn’t have to be the case for all the transaction.

This isn’t about letting employees do exactly as they please. This is about creating a culture that is distinctive to your business and makes you stand out from your competitors for all the right reasons.

Now, I’ve used the culture word three times already and some of you might be uncomfortable with that – and that’s exactly the challenge. Culture is perceived as hard to manage whereas processes are easier to control. I don’t believe that has to be the case.

Very small businesses are often better at customer service than larger organisations and it’s often because they are owner managed and have only a handful of employees who they have personally recruited.

That owner will have, often unconsciously, determined the culture. The challenge is that by the time that business has grown to two or three sites the culture will be diluted as the owner may not be recruiting personally and often won’t be as close to customers as they initially were.

The solution is to write the culture down as a definition statement that drives a level of consistency into the cust-omer experience. I would warn against ‘exceeding cust-omers’ expectations’ or ‘treating customers as guests in our home’, both of which are too ambiguous to offer any level of consistency and too commonplace to offer any level of differentiation.

One of my favourites is from Ritz Carlton hotels in the US which defines its experience as:




-Cared For

There’s a degree of intentional ambiguity in that because they don’t want to be too prescriptive as that moves them towards a process again.

However, you can picture the sort of employee you will meet in their business from the statement and it provides some clear guidelines as to how customers should be treated. There’s another purpose too. The statement also defines how they look after each other, so this culture is inside out. In other words, the experience a customer has is a direct reflection of the internal culture of the business and that leads to a level of individual care and integrity that few large organisations achieve.

And what of the employees? Well, for the best performers this approach leads to a greater sense of self-esteem as it will publicly validate what they have always been doing.

For the middle ground it defines what is expected and, in my experience, with supportive leadership, they will quickly join their high-performing colleagues.

For the weaker members of staff, this definition forms the basis of a performance management framework which will way exceed anything a scripted process can ever achieve. Next time I will look at how to measure this and how the measures can often be integrated with existing measurement programmes.

For now, consider what words your customers would use to define their experience in your business and would your employees use the same or similar words?

If not you have a potentially significant customer service challenge on your hands.

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  • Tractor Boy - 07/12/2012 14:43

    This man speaks so much sense, senior management of PLCs please take note. If ever there was an industry that over complicated things it is the retail motor trade.

  • robin Luscombe - 07/12/2012 16:32

    Straight Talking Salesmen, Managers who come out of the Office! Salesmen who can sell a car, and are trusted to do it right as a result of advice, coaching and training, and yes it does work, and people do a much better job, been doing it since I openned 21/2 years ago, selling cars with very happy customers!

  • APC1953 - 07/12/2012 17:49

    Absolutely brilliant Andrew the industry needs an advocate that can show them how to win and retain the customer both in the short term and long term. Anthony Clark

  • Mike - 08/12/2012 09:18

    An interesting article from Tim Rose regarding the profitability of Vauxhall. Here is an interesting quote from Vauxhall Managing Director, Duncan Aldred “We have a lot of profit in the dealerships that are very good at process etc. Theirs is a very good business model. It’s clear in this environment that you can be a profitable dealer, look at those with rigid processes and you’ll see they are making a good return,” I disagree with Andrew McMillan, this industry is about process process process.

  • APC1953 - 08/12/2012 09:23

    Whilst your Vauxhall dealerships might be profitable what return on investment do they get and what is their net profit on turnover. The automotive retail industry yields one of the lowest returns in the retail industry why is that because it is processed out like peas at Christian Salvesen.

    • Mike - 08/12/2012 19:42

      @APC1953 - I disagree. I have no association with Vauxhall. I work in another brand. Your comment is short sighted. Yes, the automotive industry yields some of the lowest returns, this is because we have a retail price from £8000 upwards yet only start with a gross margin of anywhere between 8% and 13% depending on model and manufacturer. So, we start with one of the lowest margins yet have the highest RRPs and investment. Look at food retailers 50-60% GP. Jewellers 100% margin (yes 100%). Buy the ring at £500 sell it at £1000. Look at Beaverbrooks business model. When you start with low margins, you have to have a process to maximise the opprtunity. The most profitable dealers will have strong processes and I will put money on their "add-on" percentages being higher than those without.

    • APC1953 - 09/12/2012 09:01

      @Mike - I replied to Guys comment as for yours whilst I agree with you in some parts I think you are still trying to justify what happens now and it obviously works for you but you the return is poor.You forgot about all the bonuses that you get from various areas such new cars oil finance companies etc. Once upon a time your gross margins in new cars was 20% to 30% and more, why did that happen?

  • Guy Allman - 08/12/2012 18:25

    Frankly, Mr McMillan you are clearly demonstrating that you've never worked in a dealership and why retailing cars is the business of car retailers! There have been many attempts by such mighty firms as Tesco and Halford to sell motor cars without process and their failures were pretty spectacular. If you know anything about sales process (which you clearly don't) you'd understand its value and the need for people with personality and a great service culture to ensure it works!! I suggest you stick to your knitting and go back to stacking shelves (for which I'm sure ther's a process!!)

    • APC1953 - 09/12/2012 09:07

      @Guy Allman - No wonder the industry can't retain its staff if your response is anything to go by. You sound like a real task master.

  • VMS - 09/12/2012 13:29

    Working as a video mystery shopper on behalf of dealer groups and manufactures I visit in the region of 25 dealers per week and find a very wide range of processes and abilities , I find that the best dealers have some processes that allow the salesperson a degree of flexibility and opportunity to express themselves,those that have rigid scripted processes are off putting but there are far too many with no process who cant see a sales opportunity if it hit them in the face

    • Martin Blackaby - 09/12/2012 14:07

      @VMS - Spot on!

  • Martin - 09/12/2012 14:47

    I have a lot of respect for John Lewis, few retailers can hold a candle to their success however I do feel that with the industry as it is at the moment you must have process or too much will be missed. motor retail is more complicated than most for instance what other retailer buys in part exchanges? get this wrong and you stand to lose thousands, and the calibre of many sales people and their managers is pretty poor, the industry has itself to blame as for decades it has been run badly, poor managers , too many cars and not enough discipline. What Andrew may mean is that if we had a higher standard of intelligence perhaps some of the rigid process could be relaxed allowing for individual personality to shine rather than some of the "monkeys up sticks" that we see widely in many showrooms.

    • APC1953 - 09/12/2012 15:40

      @Martin - Well put sir. It's all about the right balance and some manufacturers insist on rigid process. Remember the 24% to 60% margins were taken away from dealers as the manufacturers sought to control the retailers and also to protect there brand. Where has that got them as brand loyalty would appear to be a diminishing factor.

    • martin - 10/12/2012 14:54

      @APC1953 - Margins went many years ago through dealer indiscipline and panic measures, fuelled by over ambitious manufacturers desperate for market share, Vauxhall were at the front of this, although it is possible to make profits with the brand if your overheads are low and systems and processes top shop!

  • Matt - 10/12/2012 21:44

    Why are you all talking about car sales when the article is about customer service.... The only way us dealers can survive and return a profit is by being customer friendly, and we all know where the profits now come from. Aftersales, yes you read that correctly, Aftersales. Salesmen are at best a liability, front end advisors now need to take a leaf out of the type of people that work at John Lewis, helpful,polite,friendly and knowledgable. There are processes to adhere to, thank our manufacturer partners for that, but the customers are the most important part of our business, the sooner we adapt a true retail approach the better.

    • Matt the numpty - 10/12/2012 21:50

      @Matt - You really have no Idea what you are talking about! Back to the Valeting bay for you son!

    • APC1953 - 10/12/2012 22:16

      @Matt the numpty - Humpty Dumpty you are obviously a dinosaur. While the industry is trapped with people with your attitude it will remain what it is which is trade and that's what it is A TRADE FULL OF TRADERS AND NOT RETAILERS.

    • The Numpster! - 10/12/2012 22:35

      @APC1953 - : looking at your comments young knobby, you too are an ill informed buffoon. Stop talking about the yesteryears 24%_60% margins and move yourself into today's world. We need processes to stop clueless people like you sir from bumping into walls with no direction!

  • Matt - 10/12/2012 22:49

    I would rather be a valet 'boy' than work in your outfit. I guess that you are at best, a poor salesperson, or at worst a really bad sales manager.... dealership numbers are declining, yours will be a stat too, soon....

    • Matt - 10/12/2012 22:58

      @Matt - ??

  • APC1953 - 11/12/2012 07:06

    Well said Mat isn't it strange that when a debate starts about one thing customer service we end up talking about processes not customer. Then people start slanging each other which goes to show what they think about customers,. not a lot

    • Martin - 11/12/2012 08:20

      @APC1953 - Yes silly isn't it, the fact is that the average customer experience in many car showrooms is poor when compared to John Lewis stores, mainly due to poor staff,managers and salespeople the business does not attract really good people any more, therefore desperate Plc's mainly install rigid process to plug the leaks, customers generally don't like the formula approach.What is needed is a process so that nothing is missed, but clever staff and managers who do it so well that customers do not realise that they have been through a process! unlikely to happen, but I know a few dealers who can do it.

    • APC1953 - 11/12/2012 08:36

      @Martin - A lot the fault lies with the manufacturers and their desire to conquer the world at any cost that includes the customer that they drive away. The object should be, to be the John Lewis of the Motor Trade and that's not happening. Poor operations require process simply because the new employees are not inducted properly and basically its sink or swim for them, all you have to do is look at the staff turnover and the number of recruitment companies that make a good living out of the industry, why??

    • Martin - 11/12/2012 09:14

      @APC1953 - No boardroom vision, too much pressure from car makers,too many Plc's happy with efficiency rather than customer experience.I spend much of my time trying to get Directors to hire better staff and install better process but the auto industry is very conservative and hates change, sad but true!