Customer service: the need to have the board on board

Tony Hsieh – CEO Zappos – source Zappos Insights culture video
Tony Hsieh – CEO Zappos – source Zappos Insights culture video

Customer service is the new marketing. It’s a saying that goes around since long before Tony Hsieh from Zappos mentioned it. Zappos is often quoted as one of those many customer service champions who, all together, are said to have changed customer expectations in various industries. Just watch the Zappos Culture video with CEO Tony Hsieh.

With Zappos Insights (what the video promotes), the company even helps other companies to work more in line with its customer-oriented culture, based on what it learned.

The need for a more customer-centric approach with a focus on customer service and, more recently, customer experience is well-known and documented. Even if customer service and customer experience are two different things (and customer-centricity a third one) meeting customer expectations is what they have in common.

Despite the key role of customer service, which goes far beyond service in the strict sense, it is all too often still neglected. On top of the traditional issues there is also a cultural challenge and one of leadership/management.

CEOs and boards don’t focus on customer insight and customer-facing staff enough

Research from The Customer Service Institute in the UK shows that according to employees and line managers most CEOs and boards have no understanding of what customers want. A whopping 51% of respondents feels that boardrooms ‘put profits before the delivery of a great customer service’.

As such, profits obviously matter a lot. However, that’s not the issue. It seems there all too often is a focus on short-term business goals and not enough on the long run by focusing more on optimizing for the customer across all processes and teams. Sure, profit also matters for tomorrow but leaders that want to really make the difference understand this simple fact: the correlation between customer service excellence and profits today and tomorrow is bigger than ever.

Let me quote Tony Hsieh from the video mentioned before: “Research has shown that companies that have a higher purpose and have strong cultures outperform their peer groups financially in the long run.” This must transcend the board and be an integral part of the organization. Let’s not forget that CEOs come and go…

It’s very worrying that less than half of employees and line managers believe senior executives understand customer needs. It’s at least as worrying that only 51% think their CEO and board are interested in customer insight. Even if their might be a difference between what employees and line managers believe on one hand and what the board and CEO say/do on the other, this discrepancy is not just an extremely big challenge regarding customer service and the customer experience as such.

Mission impossible? Engaging customers when employees are not engaged

It’s also bad for employee engagement without which better customer engagement and service are impossible. How motivated and customer (service) oriented can you be if only 44% (!) of frontline staff feels their ideas are taken on board and only 36% of managers think their senior executives ‘actively listen’ to customers in an effort to improve service? Fortunately there is also some good news. 56% of respondents says they are properly incentivised to provide good customer service.

Jo Causon - CEO at The Institute of Customer Services - LinkedIn
Jo Causon – CEO at The Institute of Customer Services – LinkedIn

Still, there is a lot of work to do. As Jo Causon, director of the Institute of Customer Service puts it: “If employees suggest that customer needs are not understood in the Boardroom, what must customers be feeling? Unless the UK’s C-suite takes the time to analyse customer preferences, behaviour and levels of satisfaction, they should not be surprised if the bottom line is hit as customers go elsewhere.”

Customer service and customer experience optimization require leadership and a clear management mandate, focus and strategy to act upon. In best-of-class customer-centric companies there often is a dedicated role for this. But even if such a role doesn’t exist in the board, it’s important to take responsibility over it. It’s equally important to get the customer service capability across the company: by motivating, training and empowering employees.

Customer-facing staff obviously is key here but a customer service mind set and clear mechanisms to move from lip service to actions are needed everywhere. It’s essential that the C-level and boards listen to customer-facing staff and take into account the suggestions of employees who ‘serve’ customer-facing staff and need to watch over the back-office processes to make it all happen, identifying the missing links and the leaks (IT, operations,…).

There is also a challenge for customer service managers, contact center leaders, CMOs and key decision makers in the overall customer service equation. The CEO and board need to be convinced that there is a clear link between profit and customer service in case this isn’t clear yet.

If we want to put customer service in both the strict and the broadest sense where it needs to be and turn contact centers into profit centers by focusing on the customer experience, we need to do the math and build the case. The CEO and board, on the other hand, need to bear responsibility when failing to listen to staff and deliver upon customer expectations leads to losses and worse.

Customer service is not just the new marketing. It’s the essence of everything we do – and can do – as leaders and organizations today and tomorrow.