Claire Bonniol of Academie du Service

Written by Claire Bonniol, Academie du Service

As a customer service consultancy and think tank for more than 250 companies over many industries and in 20 countries, we get incredible insight into the differences in customer service culture around the world.  We believe that service culture extends beyond just a customer-oriented approach, focusing instead on relationships and processes that are both external (involving clients) and internal (involving employees and managers). As academic studies have established, organisations that champion service culture in this way empower employees, exceed customer expectations and set their sights not only on quality outcomes in terms of product quality, service quality and image, but also market performance (customer loyalty, customer satisfaction and repeat business).

This link between customer and employee is what we call consideration Symmetry. That means that frontline staff are satisfied and happy to service customers, back office staff are committed to make things easier for them, and management set the example by providing the level of attention that customers and employees deserve. This belief, although very simple and common sense driven, can require profound transformations in terms of management orientation, and therefore needs to be proved empirically to demonstrate its significance.

One large-scale study that has looked specifically at this was carried out by the British Columbia state government. They did extensive research into employee and customer satisfaction in its public services and found that when employee commitment rises by two points, customer satisfaction rises by one point.

On a smaller scale and in the UK, trentbarton, a Derbyshire-based bus company, has staked a great deal on empowering employees. Drivers are regarded as the company’s most valuable asset. They are recruited using psychometric testing so the objective of better customer care is incorporated into the recruitment process. Once employed, drivers are treated as brand ambassadors. Staff training covers not just lessons on how to drive buses, but how to see from the customer’s perspective. All training, says Managing Director Jeff Counsell “starts off with the customer; what the customer wants…[and] how to deliver that great customer service”. Understanding the trip from the passenger’s viewpoint means issues such as helping a disabled passenger become second nature to a driver.

Employees are also trained not to take complaints personally. “It’s not their fault and that’s the first thing we tell them: it’s not their fault, and nor is it the customer’s,” continues Jeff. Giving more autonomy to drivers supports trentbarton’s service culture. “We are very frugal in terms of management, which comes down to trust and empowering our frontline drivers. At the end of the day, if something goes wrong, customers want someone to put it right… This is also part of the psychometric test, the ability to bend the rules if it serves the interest of the customer, and that includes giving people free rides.” If the driver is running late, for example, because of traffic or engine failure, drivers can take the initiative to let passengers travel free.

This innovative approach was an investment initially but has seen very direct benefit to the bottom line. For example their customer satisfaction rate for 2015 was 96%, a 4% increase since 2014. They could also see a significant positive impact on their profit margin less than four years after their decision to make customer service a corner-stone of their business model.

Consideration symmetry can be a big cultural shift for a company and change can mean up-front investment. Return on investment may be measured through improvement in employee’s initiative, the quality of managerial relationships, reduction in absenteeism, customer service satisfaction rates but there should also be a fairly direct improvement in the bottom line. Customer service is so integral to the success of a company that it is a no-brainer that it will pay dividends in the medium or even short term.