The Customer Service Pit

There is an interesting parallel between Dr. Jenny Dougmore's current position as a services guru and her previous occupation 15 years ago as a research scientist, when she was looking into the effects of thin layers of film, a few atoms thick, on various surfaces. In this process, known as catalysis, a small amount of substance can catalyse major changes.

Dougmore, who chairs the British standards Institute's (BSI) customer service committee and has just finished a five-year overhaul of the BBC's internal customer service operations, applies her experience as a scientist to running a successful customer service operation. Implemented in small, well planned stages, the effects can be so dramatically successful that the service becomes invisible, the mark of a smooth-running operation.

As head of consultancy Service Matters, and architect of Cap Gemini's outsourcing services operation, Dougmore has had plenty of experience troubleshooting service operations that have gone badly wrong. Take, for example, the insurance company that excitedly decided to launch a range of new products. The products were fine, the sales process was fine, but service was so far down the list of priorities that the services people weren't even told about the launch. Even if they had been, the chances were they would not have been able to cope adequately because they were still busy running to catch up with other products that had been launched without them being informed. According to Dougmore, this type of oversight is not the exception, but is in fact frighteningly common.

She believes that the reason for customer service failure, aside from poor communication within a business, is often that people panic--this stops them from formulating a well-crafted process and simply compounds the problem. "A company may have extremely poor service levels, it panics and throws money and more and more people at it. The people are not properly trained, customers are treated inconsistently, and end up getting very irritated," she argues.

Gone are the days of patting staff on the head, telling them how lovely they are and then sending them off to be nice to customers, a practice championed by Tom Peters in the ‘80s in his top-selling tome In Search of Excellence. Times have changed. The PC is now commonplace, hardly a business discussion goes by without the mention of the Internet and e-commerce, customer expectations have changed, banking is undergoing a dramatic face lift, and products come to market with dizzying speed.

It may be hard for companies to break away from the idea that service comes way down the priority list, and that maximising profit and shareholder value through the launch of goods and services is the only route to success. But even huge automotive suppliers such as Ford, the second largest company in the world, have woken up to the customer service siren call. Ford has recognised that service will eventually supplant the strength of a brand, and has embarked on a massive and demanding operation to turn its business towards the customer, with high quality service considered the cornerstone of future success.

Dougmore believes that great customer service is invaluable in boosting the bottom line. She likens it to firm foundations on which a building of great architectural merit may be built. You will not see the foundations, but if they are flawed in any way the cracks will appear in the structure. Customers will eventually take flight, and you can be sure that if the service is particularly bad it will find its way into the pages of the newspapers and attract flak from the shareholders. Witness some of the cable companies and telecoms operators, whose flawed services have become hot news.

But it takes more than mere commitment to customer service to make a success of it. A number of high-profile companies have publicly declared their intention to improve their service offering and have later ended up with sliding results, resigning chief executives and poorer images than before. The key factor, according to Dougmore, is the modus operandi, the manner in which the service is implemented and run.

Managing change
In contrast to Dougmore's experience as a former research scientist and work with sub-molecular particles, the practicalities of good service owe more to common sense and an analytical approach to implementation than high-flown theories. Rather than going for a big bang implementation, she recommends going ahead in small, easily digestible stages, keeping control of the implementation and monitoring the effects.

Companies have often found themselves with outdated technology on their hands, whether through growth or mergers and acquisitions, she says. The old technology dictated business processes that are no longer appropriate, and the first thought is often to throw it out and replace it with something more suitable. But questions are rarely asked about how staff will cope with the new system, whether they have been trained appropriately, how to maintain service while replacing the system, and what business processes will be engineered. "Everything falls down, and it is the customer that gets hit," she says. Why throw out an entire call logging system, threatening one of the key pillars on which support is built, when you can make incremental changes to buy time? Some might point out the issue of customer satisfaction at this juncture. If the service falters they may flee. Not so, asserts Dougmore. "If customers are kept informed about what is happening, they tend to be quite tolerant as long as the service is consistent."

step-by-step automation
Her approach to service implementation focuses on "people, processes and technology". She argues that if you want a smooth service operation that not only meets the needs of customers but also anticipates future demands, and which works very closely with other areas of the business, then you need to train people correctly, ensuring that they are familiar with the pre-determined business processes. Once these factors are embedded, it is time to bring in the technology and automate the processes step by step.

"You can do service improvements by lumping these three things together, but it tends to be crude." She warns that the implementation of technology must be very carefully managed or "it can create more problems than the benefits it brings". Again, it is a matter of making incremental changes, beginning with the first point of contact which is the customer. The processes can be smoothed in and staff can become familiar with the methods at a reasonable pace, rather than being expected to handle the results of a big bang implementation. The support network must be there too. It's no good dancing a jig of delight because customers can get through in five seconds on the phone, when it takes an engineer three weeks to respond to the call.

The expense of putting together and improving customer service operations is always uppermost in Dougmore's mind, and she insists that people keep this point in mind. "When people think about a new product, a new area of business, changing the way a business works, or a merger or acquisition, they should be absolutely clear what is the true cost over the next few years of launching a customer service operation. Lots of organisations don't think through the implications because it is not started early enough. The longer you leave it, the harder it gets," she asserts.

Dougmore has applied these techniques to her work at the BBC. It began five years ago when there was a major change in the organisational structure of the broadcaster, which is enormously dependent on technology. It needed a completely different service support model and its internal customers were "incredibly unhappy". Customers include everyone within the organisation, from the director general seated at his polished oak table, to radio-carrying security men and plumbers charged with sorting out the porcelain problems. "The support structure was completely inappropriate. It reflected where the BBC had been before, but it did not reflect the new customer grouping."

Complete turnaround
Each department had its own little IT support group and there was no standardisation, which meant there were no economies of scale. "It was very slow, very expensive to run and very unsatisfactory. Individuals were mapped in a physical sense to their business units, supported by local staff within the unit." Dougmore set about turning the service around by envisaging a centralised support operation. Customer needs were mapped onto the business processes with cost kept very much in mind. A complete restructure of the PC infrastructure support also took place.

It has been a lengthy process, but the outcome is a service in which emergency calls can be responded to within three minutes, whether they are from Greg Dyke or the canteen chef. The technology can be supported locally, or remote support analysts can be contacted according to the need, but the same central number is always called. To ensure that staff were made aware of the urgency of some of the calls, they were sent on a course on how to make TV programmes. This was a serious exercise which provided a realistic insight into the pressures of programme making, and worked wonders in impressing a sense of urgency.

For her endeavours at the BBC, Dougmore and her team scooped the customer service excellence awards at the 12th annual Helpdesk Conference, an accolade that not only acknowledged the work but also vindicated her theories. As part of the turnaround, a continuous improvement programme is in place, a crucial aspect of service because, as she says: "If you are relying on complaints, you are dead in the water."

Dougmore has a long-term ambition to awaken the interest of senior management, not just service management, to the importance of customer service initiatives established on sound implementation methodology. This has been achieved to a degree by her work chairing the BSI committee, which produces a government-endorsed publication The Guide to Service Management. But work is also in hand to establish a specification, which means there will be a benchmark against which organisations can be externally audited. This will harden the industry's view on best practice.

As Dougmore argues, you would think that the cost of winning new customers as opposed to keeping the existing ones would drive businesses to welcome customer service initiatives with open arms. Why lose your good customers through bad service or poorly thought-out practices?

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