What are we in service to? Do you take action when you are ‘told’ to do something or when you ‘feel’ moved to do it?

Sometimes we are fortunate to meet people that we really connect with. We meet people who do not just interest and inspire us, but make us feel completely comfortable and at ease. In my experience, meeting people like this is not common, but when it happens – you will know – you will feel it.

I was very fortunate to meet Mark Thompson whilst I was at Shop Direct Group. Mark was involved in leading and delivering a leadership development programme to all senior managers. Mark’s inspiration and friendship has allowed me to become the ‘leader’ that I am today. His influence and support are always with me in my decision making. I asked Mark if he would write a post that explored ‘leadership’ and customer service – his words are both thought provoking and stimulating – I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have…..

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I came across a brilliant definition of identity some time ago.  It said something like: “Who you are is the sum of the choices you make.  Who you are is what you do”.  It made me pause.  Really?  Not our intentions, thoughts, feelings, or dress code?  Not our job or house or friends and family?  It’s what I do?  Gosh, simple, then.  So I can decide to write a fantastic blog and send it out into the world to fend for itself, and it will stimulate, annoy, or inspire everyone to take action.

No?  Do you mean you don’t act on every bit of good sense you hear?

We are all in relationship with each other.  Even now, you reading this, puts us in relationship.  The depth of the relationship depends on the distance we have from it.  At a distance it looks like ‘I am an employee of …”, or ‘these are our customer service principles’.  Up close, we call connection passion, or love.  Business has embraced passion as an enabler, but it has yet to place love fully in its lexicon without deep embarrassment.  Why is this?  For beings who love so deeply, why have we eradicated what moves us from virtually all of the mechanisms that create our world?  The re-discovery of love as the route to political and business success will be the second time humanity has discovered fire (personally, I don’t want a corporation knowing my preferences, even if that means they can serve me better, but I do want to know what they love).

Everything is connected.  From the globe-spanning value-chain that provides me with my trainers, to the local butcher I buy my lamb chops from, to the deep and rich and challenging lifelong relationships of family and friends.  To the decision to read this blog.  Everything.  Connected.  All the time.  Constantly changing.  Me, you, them, everyone.

How do we make sense of this when we want to sell something?  Or make something?  Or service something?  No systemic modelling concept is adequate enough.  No leadership or team-working course begins to address it.  No customer service 11th-Dan belt can supply us the answers.  No illusion of control can give us the certainty we need.  The only thing we have is what we do.  And ‘what we do’ is shaped by our fears, motivators, values, hopes, our context, and to some extent by our current level of consciousness.

The famous definition of insanity is doing what we’ve always done and expecting different results – and here’s the challenge: at what point does knowing a thing rationally, consciously, turn into doing something about it?  Two answers: when we’re told to do it, and when we are moved to do it.  We will feel something either way, but I know which one I prefer.  Action occurs when we feel something, not when we know it.  ‘Planet rational’ would either be a planet of zero population, or a machine.

What moved me to action?  I heard a story, told by a man who had studied and worked with native ‘metis’ peoples of North America for two decades.  He told me about the centre of their decision-making.  They called it the ‘Children’s Fire’.  When a decision needed to be made –an important decision that might affect everyone – they would hold a council with 50% women and 50% men present.  They lit a fire at the centre and held a solemn vow: that no decision made here would harm the children – their children, all children, including the planet’s children – out to seven generations.  They made no decision that would harm the children.  What society is it that does not consider the children?

Since hearing that story, I have found an ethic for my own sense of purpose.  Legacy.  Love.  Connection.  Service.  Planet.  It landed with me in that moment, that leadership is not about me being in charge.  It is being in service to something I hold higher than myself.  This is no rational choice, but a sum total of everything that makes me up; all my voices, all my feelings and thoughts and experiences, the people who came before me, those who accompany me, and those who will come after.  I feel something about that, and it helps to align my values with my actions, and then take action.  This is both a definition of consciousness, and a conscious act.

Never mind what voices you have going around inside you.  We all have all the voices.  There are but three questions:

What do you love?  What do you serve?  What action will you take?

Mark Thompson founded courageouslife six years ago, basing his work in the development of confidence and competence around courage as a route into more authentic leadership.  To find out more please visit www.courageouslife.co.uk or contact mark@courageouslife.co.uk.  Mark works with individuals, teams and organisations in the pursuit of a changing paradigm: one that has profit in it, sure, but profit not as both grail and saviour but as equal partner to people and planet.

For a longer, harder bit of inspiration around something meaningful in the personal growth arena, also check out www.embercombe.co.uk.

Do you love Aldi? What other brands could learn from the Aldi experience

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Let me get one thing straight – I do not love Aldi. However, just to confuse you, I can also say that I do not dislike Aldi either. One thing is for sure – millions of UK consumers do love Aldi, including Mrs Golding! In September 2013, Aldi reported a rise in annual revenue of 41% (bringing it to £3.4 billion), opening 34 new stores in the process. According to Edward Kantar of Worldwide Panel, Aldi and Lidl in particular are appealing increasingly to a wider range of shoppers as they diversify their offering – selling some luxury products “like champagne and prosciutto ham” as well as basic goods. So is this the real reason why Aldi is making such a charge? It may well be a contributor, but I think there are some other pretty clear reasons why Aldi is appealing to more and more consumers, and that is the subject of this blog post.

To start with, let me just remind you of the results of my independent research into ‘what customers want’, conducted in September 2013 (http://ijgolding.com/2013/11/06/what-do-customers-really-want-the-top-five-most-important-things-revealed/). The top 5 things were as follows:

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Number one on the list is the first thing that Aldi excels at – value for money. Shopping at Aldi can save you money – fact! One of their well-known advertising campaigns states ‘like brands, only cheaper’. Aldi’s lower cost proposition sits perfectly in line with the current wants and needs of British consumers. If you are feeling the pinch, you need a way of tightening the belt. Aldi allows you to do that. Just because Aldi is great value, it does not mean it is cheap for everything. Savvy shoppers must always look closely at prices to ensure that they are getting good value – and most of the time that will be the case at Aldi.

Many people consider ‘cheap’ and ‘nasty’ as words that often go together. That is not the case with Aldi. Number 4 of things that customers wanted from my research was ‘quality’, and Aldi have created a formula that allows them to deliver great value products without any compromise to quality. They have done this through creating brands of their own, and ensuring that these brands are of the same if not better quality. Some consumers are very loyal to brand names – if you are, Aldi may not be for you. Yet if you are willing to give it a go, it is very unlikely that you will be disappointed.

Third on my list of ‘what customers want’ is ‘keeping promises and reliability’. Aldi succeed here as well. They have a very simple business model. Their stores are identical – always set out the same way – it does not matter which Aldi you visit, the experience will always feel the same. They are committed to saving you money on your weekly shop – this is the biggest promise of them all – and I guarantee that you will not be let down. The brand operates with typical Germanic efficiency. My wife always tells me that one of the reasons she loves Aldi is that the experience is so quick – you are ‘in and out’. It is the consistency of the offer, and the reliability of the service that makes this possible.

At this point, you might be thinking ‘are you sure you do not love Aldi? I am sure – and let me explain why. I think Aldi is great – it is great value. It has great quality products. It has that unique supermarket feature of the ever-changing product offer in the middle of the store – the one that contains sports equipment, to knitting kits, to children’s toys (I do love this bit – you never know what treasure you are going to find).  Yet despite this, I would never choose Aldi as my preferred place to go and do a supermarket shop. I must admit – Aldi scares me. I always feel rushed by other shoppers who know exactly where the products are without opening their eyes – I always feel like I am in the way. Aldi does not have everything I need. Some things Aldi just do not sell – this means that it is hard to do your shop in one go. Mrs G does most of the supermarket shopping in the Golding household. She loves Aldi, but agrees that the shop must be supplemented somewhere else – she still thinks it is worth it though.

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But the thing that scares me the most is the end bit – the checkout. I remember my first ever visit to an Aldi. I did not have my own bags – fail! Having purchased a couple of bags, I tried to pack them whilst the products were coming through the checkout – fail! It is amazing that I survived the experience – products were going everywhere – the checkout assistant was trying to be patient with me, but kept shaking her head. By the time the last product went into my trolley, I was shaking and covered in  sweat! I then offered my credit card as payment – fail! It became clear to me that there is a certain way of shopping in Aldi – yet no-one had explained that to me. The checkout experience is unlike any of the big supermarkets in the UK. It is not intended to be so. Aldi is growing at the rate it is because many UK consumers do not care. Value and quality are seen as being more important that someone carefully packing your bags for you – that is why Aldi works.

What is great about Aldi, and why other brands could learn from them, is that Aldi are not trying to appeal to everyone. I would not choose to shop at Aldi because I do not like the ‘stress’ of the checkout experience. I am very happy for Mrs G to do so though – she quite likes the experience. Brands do not need to be all things to all men. They just need to know what their core proposition is, and focus on delivering it brilliantly. Aldi is not know for being the ‘Rolls Royce’ of customer service – they do not need to be. Their staff are very pleasant by the way! Aldi just need to keep doing what they do and they will continue to grow. More consumers will try them out, and will either love it or will ask someone else to do the shop for them!!

If you love Aldi (or not) it would be great to know if you agree?

Are you a Leader of a Follower? Why customer experience needs good, strong leadership

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Over the weekend, I was told a lovely story that has inspired this blog post. The story was of a young lady who was applying to attend a college at Oxford University. A key part of the process was to complete an application form. One of the questions on the application form asked prospective students to declare if they were a leader or a follower. This lady was of the ‘I can only answer questions completely honestly’ ilk, and so ticked the box marked ‘follower’. Having sent the application from to the college, she was not optimistic. Oxford University will surely only accept leaders. A few weeks later she received a letter from her chosen college. To her surprise, she had been accepted. The letter advised her that the college had over 400 applications from ‘Leaders’. They felt that it was imperative that the Leaders were able to lead at least one follower!!

The story made me think about the number of people across the world who believe that they are leaders but actually are not. People who are ‘leading’ organisations, but in a way that is failing to encourage their colleagues to want to follow. During my career, I have been led by a number of men and women. Some have been ‘good’ leaders. Some have been ‘weak’ leaders. The very best ‘leader’ that I had was the one who understood the importance of one critical thing………people. For an organisation to be truly customer focussed, it must UNDERSTAND the importance of people. Customers and colleagues are people. To be truly customer focussed, an organisation must be LED by someone who understands people – and this is why customer experience NEEDS good, strong leadership.

Let’s have a look at the Wikipedia definition of leadership:

Leadership has been described as “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task”, although there are alternative definitions of leadership. For example, some understand a leader simply as somebody whom people follow, or as somebody who guides or directs others, while others define leadership as “organizing a group of people to achieve a common goal”

A good strong leader can almost certainly influence anyone to follow anything – customer focussed or not. A ‘common goal’ does not have to be of the customer focussed variety. However what the Wikipedia statement validates is that people follow leaders, whether as individuals or as part of a group. Therefore, if a leader is not particularly concerned about guiding his or her organisation to be one that ‘puts the customer first’, it is very unlikely that the organisation will.

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Organisations that are not customer centric do not have leaders who believe in the customer. If they did, the organisation would be customer centric. In my mind, it is that simple. Many businesses have ‘followers’ who do not understand why the business behaves in the way it does. They know what is wrong, and why customers get upset, yet nothing is ever done about it. These are businesses who have leaders whose motivation is not one of customer centricity. This is why sometimes, the follower has to BECOME the leader. Sometimes, followers have to influence and inspire leaders to understand that there is a problem and something must be done.

Customer Experience Professionals (CXP) tend to be leaders. They are leaders because they are passionately driven to do what is right for the customer. They will not shy away from telling the organisation the truth. They will do whatever it takes to do what is right. This is not an easy thing to do – especially when many CXPs do not operate at board level. Yet this is why customer experience has risen so significantly in prominence over the last five years. This is why many ‘leaders’ now understand the importance of customers and colleagues. This is why many ‘followers’ have risen to become recognised ‘leaders’.

Great leaders display the following traits. Customer experience requires the following traits:

  1. Ambition
  2. Humility
  3. Patience
  4. Vision
  5. Tolerance
  6. Courage
  7. Accountability
  8. Gratitude
  9. Honesty
  10. Humour

A leader who possesses these traits is a leader who is likely to do what is right for their organisation. A leader who possesses these traits is a leader who is likely to do what is right for the people who the organisation serves – his customers and his colleagues. A leader who does what is right for his people is one who is very likely to be the leader of a successful organisation.

When we think of great ‘corporate’ leaders, we find it hard to come up with a list of names. Steve Jobs; Jack Welch; Richard Branson – the names are often the same. Why is it that we live in a business world where there are so few examples? Leadership is a choice. Not everyone needs to be one. Yet, if you do aspire to be a leader, make sure you ask yourself every single day – do I really understand my people?

Who do you think is a great example of ‘leadership’ in the world of business and why?

I wish all customer experiences were like this! Five Inspiring Customer Service Outcomes

I have featured a number of guests bloggers over the last twelve months – each of them have bought a level of knowledge and expertise that I have felt readers of my blog would find interesting, inspiring and thought provoking. One of the things that connects all of us is PASSION – passion for all things customer. Passion for organisations to just do what is right. The blog that I am sure you are about to greatly enjoy reading is absolutely driven by someone who has passion in spades.

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Please allow me to introduce you to Sophia Wright. Sophia is the owner and head researcher for Customer Service Guru – we will explain more about that later. This is her very first blog post – if she can write posts like this every week, you will stop reading mine!! Sophia walks us through 5 incredible and amazing customer service stories that help bring to life what ‘putting the customer first’ really means – please read on – you will not be disappointed…..

Everybody knows that a uniquely positive customer service experience – one that makes you feel like you have stepped right onto a red carpet – is an increasingly difficult thing to come by. With many companies wishing to cut costs and focus more on quantity of satisfied customers rather than the extent of satisfaction itself, the consumer world is becoming more and more crowded with automated responses, impersonal customer numbers and reams of vague, pre-prepared FAQs that are neither wanted nor helpful.

Whilst aiming to make efficiency and majority satisfaction rates a priority is by no means detrimental, many companies would do well to realise that sometimes just one spectacular, chivalric dose of customer service for one individual has the potential to reap great long-term rewards. When people are on the receiving end of a unique, unusual or personalised customer service, they are thrilled by their own exclusivity and usually cannot wait to tell everybody they know. More often than not, this will involve the art of blogging and social sharing, which can only be further beneficial for brands.

Here are five particular customer service experiences to have made their way into the online airwaves in recent years, rocketing the companies involved into Customer Service Guru Heaven.

Zappos Sends Flowers (2007)

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A woman who had to return several pairs of shoes back to online shoe retailer Zappos was touched by how sensitive and attentive a corporate company could be. Her reasons for returning the shoes were circumstantial: her mother had recently undergone medical treatment which had left her feet numb yet sensitive to pressure.

Upon calling the company to ask for instructions on how to return the shoes and explain her reasons for doing so, Zappos later mailed a bouquet of flowers to the woman’s mother to express their sympathy, and proceeded to make the rest of the family Zappos VIP Members. If that’s not a clear-cut example of a company with some soul, then what is?

Amazon Saves Christmas (2007)

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For one particular father, it was truly a Christmas miracle when online retailer Amazon took pity on the prospect of a young boy being disappointed on Christmas morning. Three days before Christmas, when his son’s Playstation 3 was still nowhere to be found, the consumer in question was understandably worried and went online to investigate.  After finding that the package had been delivered and signed for by his neighbour, but left in the apartment building hallway where it was no longer to be seen, the customer was devastated.

The man was well aware he didn’t have a leg to stand on – the product had been delivered and signed for; Amazon had done their job. However, an Amazon customer service rep who must have been feeling festive took heed to the man’s desperate pleading and issued him another Playstation 3 that same day, with free shipping.

Even more miraculously, the Playstation 3 arrived on Christmas Eve – a true gift from Santa.

Morton’s Hackensack Surprise Dinner (2011)

Businessman Peter Shankman understandably got the shock of his life when he jokingly tweeted his favourite steakhouse, Morton’s Hackensack, expressing his craving for a porterhouse steak dinner for when his flight landed in Newark Airport after a busy day of business meetings. Despite the nearest Morton’s being a good 23.5 miles away, an employee from the branch was amazingly waiting for Shankman at the gate when his flight touched down, dressed in a tuxedo and brandishing a porterhouse steak meal, complete with silverware.

Shankman was utterly stunned, and did not hesitate to tweet his incredulity to the world…as well as blogging about the experience to the online community. Although the stunt must have taken some extensively strategic planning and time management in order to be successful, this incredible overcoming of logistics undoubtedly did wonders for Morton’s. Not only would it have inspired curious diners to become a part of its customer base, it also put Morton’s straight to the heart of the food industry map.

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Delta Airline Passport Rescue (2013)

Marketing entrepreneur Barbara Sullivan was overwhelmed by the kindness, empathy and dedication demonstrated by one particular employee after she accidentally dropped her passport into a mailbox at Charles de Gaulle airport, France. She was told by airport officials that she must wait until the following day to visit the US embassy in Paris before she could fly as the mailbox could not be opened; however, a Delta representative from the airline’s ticket counter proved to be a knight in shining armour to Ms. Sullivan’s dilemma.

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Mr. Karim Sayoud took matters into his own hands, calling US Homeland Security to verify Ms. Sullivan’s identity, before escorting her to the check-in desk and convincing his colleagues to accept her baggage and issue her a boarding bass. He then continued to escort her through French passport control and security, all the way to Delta gate agents to ensure Ms. Sullivan got on the plane safely.

He then arranged the safe return of his passenger’s passport by taping a handwritten note on the mailbox for the attention of the postal worker the following day. The passport arrived at Ms. Sullivan’s New York apartment via Fed Ex soon after.

Ms. Sullivan did not hesitate to share her experience online, claiming it had changed her attitude towards flight travel forever. She also took the time to reach out to Delta to inform them, in the hope that it would make the same impact on Mr. Sayoud’s life as it had her own.

Captain Mike of the Good Ship Netflix (2013)

One particular customer service chap from Netflix who happened to be manning the site’s online chat feature has become renowned for giving one customer an experience that was engaging, funny, and certainly different.

From the word go, the rep – who referred to himself as ‘Captain Mike of the Good Ship Netflix’ – took on a lively, inventive role, using analogies relating to the Star Trek Enterprise to make his customer feel more at ease and get to the root of the problem. What is perhaps even more pleasing about this interaction is that the customer in question had no problem joining in, playing along as an ‘Engineer’. The two exchanged information back and forth until the rep was able to decide what to do, which inevitably must have made for a very entertaining troubleshooting process.

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The rep’s initiative to change things up and assume an imaginary world was undoubtedly a risk, but one which has since paid off, earning Netflix extra brownie points for coolness.

Having worked in the consumer marketing profession as a Customer Relations manager and consultant for the last few years, Sophia’s knowledge and expertise have driven her  to establishing Customer Service Guru to share her skills and knowledge of the customer service industry.

When it comes to consumerism, Sophia is compelled by new and pioneering service and marketing techniques that put customers at the heart of success and growth. She values platforms for discussion regarding the satisfaction of the customer and enjoys the recognition of companies who are leading the way with regards to developing long-term B2C relationships. You can find out more at www.customerserviceguru.co.uk or follow Sophia on Twitter  https://twitter.com/gurucustomers

Park Slope Food Co-Op – Is the best customer experience one you create yourself?

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Have you ever been in a situation as a customer where you have thought you would/could do a better job yourself? Have you stood at a checkout in a supermarket and felt the urge to jump over the conveyor belt and start scanning the things you want to buy? Have you ever re-stacked items on shelves that looked out-of-place, or folded clothes that need folding (in your opinion)? have you ever overheard a member of staff dealing with a dissatisfied customer and cringed? One of the reasons why online shopping has become such a rapid and startlingly successful revolution is that it puts more of the experience back in to the control of the customer. You can choose when you want to shop, where you want to shop and how you want to shop very easily. The principle of ‘self-service’ means that you are less reliant on the experience being controlled by others and thus going wrong.

In a bricks and mortar store, self-service has also put more control into the hands of customers – you no longer need to feel the urge to jump over a conveyor belt to start scanning goods – you can do it yourself at a self service till. Despite this, and sticking with the example of supermarket shopping, the customer experience in a supermarket/grocery store is still one that the customer has very little control over. They cannot choose the products, the staff or the prices.

One way that customers can start to take control of these things and the entire end to end customer experience is to consider doing something that they may never have considered before – create and deliver the experience themselves. Park Slope Food Co-Op is a Grocery store in New York. It celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013. I have never had the benefit of shopping at Park  Slope. Hopefully one day I will. To shop at Park Slope you must be a member. To be a member, you must work in the store. In other words, the store is run by its customers. Customers purchase the products…..that they want. Customers arrange and receive deliveries. Customers stack the shelves. Customers serve each other. This food co-op is an example of customers generating their own customer experience.

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I have always believed that people who serve customers should treat those customers in the way they expect to be treated themselves. At Park Slope, this is exactly what happens. You can read more about Park Slope in this BBC article published a week or so ago – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25455991

So if this is such a good idea, why do we not see more businesses created by customers, for customers – or in other words, customers working together to deliver their own experiences? It is clear that we live in a world where we expect things to be extremely simple and easy – having to work in your own store to be able to benefit from better prices, better service and better products may not be considered simple and easy to many. As a society we have become very lazy – we want everything to be done for us. The more we want things done for us, the more irritated we become when it is not done to our satisfaction. We cannot have it both ways!

In my independent research into ‘what customers want’ (http://ijgolding.com/2013/11/06/what-do-customers-really-want-the-top-five-most-important-things-revealed/) last year, the top five things we want as customers are:

  1. Value for money
  2. Customer service
  3. Keeping promises
  4. Quality
  5. Ease of doing business

At Park Slope they can guarantee to deliver on all of these – although number 5 on the list could be debated. For the last 40 years, customers of Park Slope have put in the effort to ensure that they can get the things they want – I am sure that there are times when it has not been easy. How many of us would be prepared to do the same? Although we may want these five things (and more), we do not necessarily want them enough to create and deliver the experience ourselves.

I think a co-operative is a wonderful idea. Everyone and everything working together in a genuine, honest way for the good of everyone. There are no shareholders demanding year on year uplifts in EBITDA. There are no highly paid directors competing against each other with conflicting objectives. There are no strategies designed to benefit company first and customer last. The co-operative is a model that benefits one person – the customer – who also happens to be the employee and shareholder. The closest corporate model I can think of (although loosely) to this is the John Lewis Partnership. JLP is not a co-operative. Its customers are not members, and are not required to work. However its employees are all partners in the business. The partnership model has been an integral part of John Lewis’s dominance as one of the most trusted retail brands on the planet.

So the next time you get irritated in a store, or annoyed with your online transaction – ask yourself the question ‘could I do better myself?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then you may want to look into whether or not you could create your own Park Slope – at least that way, you can be in control of your own customer experience.