In my teens, I had a weekend job at a local supermarket. I was earning a heady £2.54 an hour. I was one of the lowest paid, most disposable, and least experienced individuals in the company. But, I would be customer-facing every minute I was on the shop floor, whether I was sweeping, scanning, stocking or stickering.
The supermarket chain – Sainsbury’s – is a long-established and well-respected brand here in the UK. They knew even back then (for this was, ahem, several years ago), the importance of empowering their staff to serve the customer well, how to look after them, and to cope with difficult and unusual situations that we, as the lowly shop assistants, were often faced with.
I undertook a few days’ training. And it really was just a few. I was given all the knowledge I would need to be operational in the store. The processes I had to adhere to, and the tools of the trade. How to use a checkout, how to clock in and out, how to use the ham slicing machine, and how to weigh all manner of goods on three or four different types of scale.
The most important thing I was trained in was the art of customer service. This was theoretical at first, woven in on those first few days among the pricing policies and the doughnut filling machine. It became ingrained over the course of the next few weeks as I followed and emulated my mentor (a well-respected woman who seemed, to me at the time, to be ancient).
The biggest take-away I took from those early days, and which has stuck with me ever since, is that if you are the person a customer approaches for help, then that customer becomes YOUR customer. There are few things more tiresome as a client in any service experience, than to feel you are being passed around, with noone taking responsibility for your issue or enquiry.
So, back in those days, if a shopper approached me and asked for the location of something in the store, then I would not direct them to it, I would TAKE them to it.
Sometimes, a customer enquired as to whether some particularly exotic veg (avocado) would work with some other particularly exotic foodstuff (pasta). I was 15, and from hardly the most culinary adventurous family, so there would be little hope of me having the answer. But I didn’t direct them to a recipe book (no Google back then – gasp), or to the customer service desk, I would TAKE them. And I would listen to the answer myself. And, I would ensure they had all the answers they needed before bidding them a good day.
It’s a simple ideal that I’ve stuck to through my working life:
The customer that comes to you for help is YOUR customer.
And yet, I’m amazed how little this seems to have permeated in the service industries even to this day. We’ve all experienced this in the dreaded call centre scenario. You get passed from one agent to the next, and have to explain your query over and over. Or, even more horrific, you get told that, after a 48 minute wait and a 10 minute explanation of the issue, that you now need to dial another number to get the right department.
But this attitude pervades even beyond the call centre. In recent years I’ve come across this approach time and again.
For example, I once encountered a customer who had logged a support case via the “wrong” channel. According to leadership, the customer was therefore, apparently, at fault for the poor service they received. Despite the customer perception that they used a procedure they believed was the correct one, noone on the receiving end of the enquiry directed it more appropriately. The customer was left to languish in uncertainty. Noone followed up with the customer to ensure they were being well served. Bickering and scapegoating ensued, and the customer perception of both the speed of service and the robustness of procedures was challenged.
On another occasion, I received a call misdirected to me for a company I no longer even worked with. Some ancient reference to my number had surfaced, and the customer believed they had found a way to get their enquiry answered. They absolutely weren’t following procedure, had outdated information and a dreadful phone line to boot, but I did what I could to ensure they got service. Calling on some old contacts, I tracked down someone who was online over the holiday period and attempted to hand off the situation to them. The response I got was a little shocking – asking me (no longer with the company and having no access to processes, tools, resources or even information) to direct the customer to email through the right channels to get their required service. The resistance that my call for help (on behalf of the customer) triggered was alarming, and yet I had no way to follow this up myself. I had to push back firmly to ensure the client was looked after.
I hear others stories that revolve around the belief of “that’s not my client”. One region will not serve a client picked up in another region. Or post-sales support will not figure out anything for a prospect or project pre-go-live. Or an implementation team who refuses to engage the technical support folks with the customer before throwing the finished project over the fence.
From organisational silos, to regional divisions, to individuals working entirely within their own bubble, this issue pervades. Without an appropriate focus on, and acceptance of responsibility for, the quality of service to the customer, then companies will fail repeatedly to grasp the value of continuity of experience from the customer’s point of view. They risk dissatisfaction, damaged reputation, employee discord, and, ultimately, the bottom line.
Training your team to view the customer experience as their responsibility, regardless of their role, is the only way to prevent the rot. Give them the skills to do this, and set expectations accordingly. Guide and support them. Don’t put anyone, least of all your front line, in a position to have to defend the company or the process.
All customers are YOUR customer. Look after them.This article first appeared on my Linkedin publications in February 2018.