Thousands of customers of one of the UKs largest utility companies, SSE, received an interesting letter this week. If you are not a customer of SSE, you can read my copy of the letter shown above. I think the letter is interesting because it makes a rather bold statement. It makes a statement that instantly attracted my attention – ‘Aiming higher – because you matter to us’. The letter goes on to tell us, the valued customer, how talking about the importance of service is good, but not as good as taking action. SSE wants to prove to us how seriously they take customer service, and that they have even gone ‘above and beyond’ the regulator’s standards by implementing three service initiatives.
Sounds great….doesn’t it? You could argue that this is exactly what the consumer needs to see from a company in an industry that is experiencing huge levels of scrutiny, dissent and dissatisfaction from politicians, the media and customers. I think it can only be a positive thing for an organisation to openly and overtly make a promise or commitment to its customers. Honesty, openness, transparency – even decency – are all words that we find hard to associate with businesses today. So congratulations SSE, I applaud you for having the courage to promise to treat us as you would like to be treated yourselves.
BUT…..there is usually one of those in my blog posts – can we be certain that you will be true to your word? Call me cynical (and potentially many other things), but whilst hoping that they will be true to their word, I am not going to hold my breath waiting for the promises to become a reality. Many customers will not even give SSE the benefit of the doubt. A proportion of these letters (I would love to know exactly how many) will have been filed in the dustbin without even being opened. Others will have been dismissed as clever marketing by a company in a beleaguered industry. I wish this were not true, but can you blame the public for not necessarily believing something like this?
Do you remember the Nat West and/or RBS Customer Charter? Launched in a nationwide marketing campaign, airports, train stations and billboards all over the UK were plastered with messages telling us how two of Britain’s biggest banking brands were going to become our most helpful bank. 14 customer commitments were as follows:
- To extend the opening hours at its busiest branches
- Aims to serve the majority of customers within five minutes in its branches
- To provide “friendly, helpful service”
- To help customers make the right choices
- To provide 24/7 telephone banking services
- To keep customers safe when banking online
- Helping customers whose debit cards have been lost or stolen
- Continuing to be a ‘responsible lender’
- To keep a branch open if it is the last remaining bank in that community
- To teach more than 25,000 financial education lessons in schools this year
- To “actively support the local community” through volunteer projects
- To resolve customer complaints “fairly, consistently, and promptly”
- To publish its most frequent customer complaints biannually
- To actively seek customer suggestions on how to improve
When I ask people if they have any recollection of these ‘commitments’, I am met with vague and often confused expressions. I am no sure the ‘marketing campaign’ worked. Although the Nat West/RBS Charter was big on words, it seems as though the customers I have spoken to have not really noticed any difference. I myself am a Nat West customer, and have been since I went to university. I cannot recall receiving any information about their commitments in the last twelve months. I have not been asked what I think since the day I became a customer too long ago.
I had a look to see how they are getting on with their ‘mission’ to become our most helpful bank. It seems as though they have toned down, or ‘evolved’ their ambitions since 2010. Gone are the 14 commitments, replaced by something a bit simpler – here is the RBS Group report on their 2012 performance – you can come to your own conclusion – http://www.rbs.com/content/dam/rbs/Documents/Customers/customer-charter.pdf
If you are going to make promises to your customers – you need to really mean it. You cannot make promises as part of a marketing campaign to make you sound good. You need to make a promise and stick to it. My recent research into ‘what customers want’ revealed that ‘keeping promises’ is one of the top three most important things (http://ijgolding.com/2013/11/06/what-do-customers-really-want-the-top-five-most-important-things-revealed/). Failing to deliver on promises can have very serious consequences. If you CAN do what you say, the complete opposite can be the case. Take good old John Lewis for example. Perhaps one of the best examples of an organisation that has delivered against a customer promise for a very long time.
We all know, recognise and potentially love John Lewis for its ‘never knowingly undersold’ slogan. The trust that this business has built up with the consumer over decades has made it one of the most successful and sustainable retailers in the UK. We can be pretty confident that John Lewis will keep to their promise – can SSE do the same and achieve a similar result?
John Lewis are not the only retailer with customer promises. Tesco have had made promises for years. Some of their promises have become so embedded in the way they work, customers do not even know they are promises any more – they are almost taken for granted. For example, ‘keeping the aisles clear’ is drummed into the psyche of all Tesco employees from day one. It seems a very simple promise – but it you do not have to ‘run the gauntlet’ down Tesco aisles in the same way you do in other supermarkets. Tesco also have a promise known as ‘one in front’ – if there is more than one customer queuing at a checkout, they will open another checkout. There are rarely long queues as a result.
Like Nat West/RBS, Tesco have evolved their promises – the latest version can be seen here. Are Tesco true to them? This is their attempt to openly tell us how it should feel to be a customer of Tesco. By telling us this, we can hold them to account. Do we believe them? Well that is a different matter.
So what will come of SSE’s statement of intent? Will they become the ‘John Lewis’ of the utility industry, or have they just spent a huge amount of money on a clever marketing campaign? I genuinely hope the former. I am not going to put money on it just yet though.