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View from the high street: Relationships and trust must be measured

By Andrew McMillan, principal at Engaging Service and ex-John Lewis customer service manager

So what is your strategy for sustaining and growing your business in 2013? The one thing economists seem to agree on is that the current market is the new norm, so we had better get used to it. This is why I feel so strongly about the relevance of customer experience as a commercial differentiator, and it’s virtually cost free.

In previous columns I have talked about reducing the level of customer service processes within and replacing them with an articulated attitude or standard of behaviour.  Fundamentally this is all about trust to do the ‘right thing’ and building relationships. The example I use is from Ritz Carlton hotels who talk about Welcome, Wanted, Remembered, Cared For. This should apply equally to all the relationships in the chain. In this way the customer experience is genuine, has integrity and is sustainable, eliminating the necessity for a new customer service training programme every two years or so. 

With words like integrity, trust and relationships it seems a bit of a contradiction then to try and measure it, but this is critical. One of the many things the automotive sector is excellent at is measurement and accountability. But I do question whether the right things are always measured. Measuring the wrong things can lead to disastrous results. 

I was working for the NHS a few years ago when the Government introduced a maximum assessment target time for accident and emergency patients. The intention was to reduce waiting times. The effect, in some trusts, was for hospitals to refuse to take patients from the back of ambulances when they were very busy. The target measurement started as soon as the patient entered the A&E department, not from when the ambulance arrived. In effect, the measures themselves were driving poor behaviour. This led to some dreadful patient experiences. 

Poor, highly impersonal customer experience

I see the same happening in this  sector with some manufacturers’ testing going into such levels of detail that retailers script sales processes to ensure mystery shopping targets are met. This leads to a poor, highly impersonal customer experience – not what was intended.

So how do you avoid these pitfalls? A key starting point is the way measures are introduced and the ethos behind them. When I introduced mystery shopping, customer focus groups and customer comment cards at John Lewis, it was to demonstrate how good we could be, not to try and catch people out. That didn’t mean people weren’t accountable. On the contrary, John Lewis has a performance-related pay structure.

Poor performance in employee or customer experience measures would have a direct impact on pay – it was my main KPI. However, there was a sense of anticipation rather than dread just before the monthly results were published. The focus was on demonstrating an improvement on the previous results rather than fear of a poor score. In terms of follow up, most of my energy went into celebrating the good performances rather than denigrating those with poor figures; the focus for that group was an offer of support to ensure they performed better in the next test. This is very different from much of what I see in the automotive sector.

My final point is about what you measure. It is of course critical to measure the tangible aspects of the business such as the adherence to brand signage etc. but they are unlikely to generate loyalty and advocacy. It is essential to measure the perceived experience too – how the customer felt after their visit. 

Net Promoter Score can be blunt

Smarter is the ‘Net Promoter Score’ approach which was introduced in the Harvard Business Review in 2003. This asks one question: “How likely are you to recommend company/product to your friend/colleague?” and is a better indicator of loyalty and advocacy than measuring steps in a process. However, this can be a little blunt and often does not provide actionable feedback. It also supposes that the customer is delighted with the service if they would recommend to a friend and that can be a false assumption.

Customer expectation can traditionally be quite low, so if a car service is carried out on time for the price quoted the business may get a good NPS result. That doesn’t guarantee the customer will not be tempted away by a lower-priced competitor or give any assurance that the business will be their first port of call for their next new car. For that you need to know whether or not they felt welcomed, wanted, remembered (if they were a returning customer) and cared for as an individual. A positive response to those questions will almost guarantee their future business. 

And don’t forget to ask the same questions of your employees too – remember this is about employee experience just as much as customer experience.  

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