Guest post – Do not judge a contact centre by its accent!


I remember reading a customer complaint letter whilst I was working with a large UK retailer. The complaints that were listed were all valid and well articulated, yet it was the final comment that sticks in my mind. It was along the lines of, “and when are you going to close down your Indian call centres and bring them back to the UK?”. At that time all of the call centres were based onshore in the UK, and not a single call was answered by anyone other than a UK employee. The call centres were based all over the UK, and had a fair reflection of the local demographic population based at each of its centres.

Now was the comment in the letter a reflection of the customer’s frustration at thinking they were talking to an Indian call centre agent, or the fact that they were struggling with the communication due to the accent? The UK has some pretty extreme accents – think of Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle – they all have very strong accents, that to the untrained ear is very difficult to understand. If you cannot understand the person you are trying to communicate with, then of course the customer experience is going to suffer.

Currently I have the privilege of building a 500 seat call centre operation in Durban, South Africa. Our clients are in the UK and Australia, and we specialise in the energy, telco and financial services industries. Our call centre operators differ little to their colleagues in the countries that they serve: similar age groups, similar interests, yet there is one huge difference. The products and services that they are “experts” in servicing are often completely alien to them. Broadband?…they have yet to get ADSL. PPI?….no idea what you mean, have never had credit, let alone insurance to cover it should I lose my job or get sick. … Boiler replacement? Why would you have a boiler in your house?….You get my drift…..South Africa is in some ways behind in terms of technology and advancements you find common in the first world.

Yet with good training and support, there is no reason why these operators cannot become experts, and are able to advise and recommend the best products and services based on the customers needs. Understanding what the customer needs is done with good questioning, listening, play back (summarising what you have heard), and then agreeing on the way forward – not by ramming home the current product that there is an incentive to sell more of for that week.

Yet all of this excellent product, knowledge and skills training is going to be irrelevant if the customer cannot understand what the operator is saying. In South Africa there are currently 25 million unemployed people between the ages of 18-35, they are well educated and have a desire to work, there are just very few opportunities for them to get a job. The BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) industry is one of the growing industries in the South African economy today where there is a clear recognition that to supply the growth the industry needs, there has to be an investment in skills.

We partner with an NPO called Harambee, which is a youth employment accelerator that recruits candidates where existing corporate recruitment networks do not reach, assesses their competencies to match them to the jobs where they are most likely to succeed, and exposes them to a high quality, tailored and cost-effective bridging programme that directly addresses the needs identified by employers.

Harambee offers us a customised work readiness programme to bridge unemployed South Africans into successful agents for our business. This offers an opportunity to break the vicious circle of “can’t get a job because I have no work experience, can’t get any work experience if no one will give me a job”. The work readiness programme focuses on both the resilience and the skills needed to succeed in sales. There is a heavy emphasis on voice and communication to improve clarity and proficiency that allows the agent to be understood by the customer, and to build rapport and empathy. Those that go through the Harambee programme have got an excellent chance of getting a job in both national and international call centres, as they now have the ability to communicate effectively.

The attractiveness to Offshoring BPO is to reduce opex….however there is no point in reducing your opex by 10% if you are churning your customer base by 15%, that is not sustainable. In my opinion there needs to be a better management of expectation between client and BPO…..yes I can offer 100 seats to support a new marketing campaign….but not next week Tuesday…..we need to work on realistic speed to competency plans, with glide paths that are achievable.

Now was the comment in the letter a reflection of the customers frustration at thinking they were talking to an Indian call centre, or the fact that they were struggling with the communication due to the accent? The UK has some pretty extreme accents, Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle, to name but a few can all have very strong accents, that to the untrained ear  is very difficult to understand. If you cannot understand the person you are trying to communicate with, then of course the customer experience is going to suffer.

Currently I have the privilege of building a 500 seat call centre operation in Durban, RSA. Our clients are in UK and Australia, and we specialise in the energy, telco and financial services industries. The call centre operators differ little to their colleagues in the countries that they serve, similar age groups, similar interests etc, yet there is one huge difference. The products and services that they are “experts” in are completely alien to them. Broadband?…they have yet to get ADSL. PPI?….no idea what you mean, have never had credit, let alone an insurance to cover it should I lose my job or get sick. ..Boiler replacement,? why would you have a boiler in your house?….you get my drift…..South Africa is still a third world country and some way behind in terms of technology and 1st world advancements.

Yet with good training and support, there is no reason why these operators cannot become experts, and are able to advise and recommend the best products and services based on the customers needs. Understanding the customers needs is done with good questioning, listening, summarising what you have heard, and agreeing on the way forward….not by ramming home the current product that there is an incentive to sell more of for that week.

Yet all of this excellent product, knowledge and skills training is going to be irrelevant if the customer cannot understand what the operator is saying. In SA there are currently 25 million unemployed people between the ages of 18-35, they are well educated and have a desire to work, there are just very few opportunities for them to get a job. The BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) Industry is one of the growing industries in the SA economy today, and there is a clear recognition, that to supply the growth in the industry there has to be an investment into skills.

We partner with an NPO called Harambee, who offer a 10 week work readiness programme to the unemployed youth of SA. This offers an opportunity to get off of the viscous circle of;  “can’t get a job as have no work experience, can’t get any work experience if no one will give me a job”. The 10 weeks cover a multitude of skills that prepare for the workplace, and one of the most critical is the accent neutralisation. Those that graduate from the programme have got an excellent chance of getting a job in both national and international call centres, as they now have the ability to communicate effectively.

The attractiveness to Offshoring BPO is to reduce opex….however there is no point in reducing your open by 10%  if you are churning your customer base by 15%, that is not sustainable. In my opinion there needs to be a better management of expectation between client and BPO…..yes I can offer 100 seats to support a new marketing campaign….but not next week Tuesday…..we need to work on realistic speed to competency plans, with glide paths that are achievable.

ross telfer

Ross Telfer is the Managing Director of a large BPO based in Durban, South Africa. The operation specialises in Telesales campaigns to the UK and Australia in the Telecoms, Energy and Financial Services sectors.

Ross has held senior roles over the past 20 years in Shop Direct Group, Talk Talk, Yellow Pages and Vodafone and has vast experience of working with Outsource Partners. The challenge and opportunity to build a business from scratch in one of the fastest growing geographies for the BPO industry globally, has been hugely rewarding. South Africa is a great news story at the moment, and Ross is very proud to be a part of it.

Coracall is a full service Contact Centre global operation with facilities across the United Kingdom and South Africa.We’re owned and managed by professionals who possess many years of experience in delivering intelligent customer contact solutions and strong client relationships. As a privately owned company, we offer cost effective and flexible service options, which can be swiftly implemented by our management team to meet your business needs and objectives.

We are passionate about our business and we channel that into generating more sales for our clients retaining customers longer, developing the customer relationship, and increasing your customer’s lifetime value. Coracall operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; providing flexible solutions for your customers and clients, always keeping you connected in a 24/7 world.



Shopper Centricity: re-designing the high street store customer experience

Shooper centricity

This is not the first time I have written about bricks and mortar retail stores. The British high street has been under significant pressure for many years now – I have documented its demise since I started writing three years ago – you can read my opinions in the following posts:

There are many factors that are contributing to the steady increase in the closure of bricks and mortar stores every year. Only yesterday (16th March 2015) the BBC reported that ‘Shops desert High Street at faster rate in 2014’ – almost three times the number of stores closed down in 2014 compared to 2013. The demise of the high street is showing no sign of abating. The BBC article which reported the findings of research commissioned by PwC included the following quote from Mark Hudson, retail lead at PwC:

“Customers are embracing new mobile technologies, traditional retail channels to market are being wiped out and new channels are being created, often in the online rather than the ‘real’ world,”

It is difficult to disagree – it is also difficult to deny that this has been the case for many years now – in fact the online revolution has been in full swing since the mid noughties! That being the case, why is it that the experience that consumers have on the high street still ‘feels’ exactly the same as it did in the mid eighties?!!!

In 2015, shopping in a bricks and mortar store is like walking back in to a bygone age. Despite the introduction of a vast array of new technology, it is remarkably rare to see any of the technology we use in our daily lives even being present in the high street store. There are exceptions of course – the Apple store was among the first to change the concept of a physical high street experience – well-informed and knowledgeable staff seamlessly integrating with beautiful technology, using their own products to conduct purchases. I am not personally a user of Apple products, but have always been a fan of the Apple store concept.

The experience of shopping in the high street is often not one that consumers relish in the modern world. From cramped and confusing store layouts, to unhelpful, uninformed staff, to a lack of integration with online offerings. I find shopping in certain stores a real chore – even though I sometimes feel that the brands responsible for the store play a vital role in our high street. It is the nature of the store environment makes for a not very enjoyable shopping experience. Just think of the brands on our high streets who appear to offer a completely different layout in every store. It is like an episode of the Krypton Factor (for these of you who can remember) trying to find the things you need. Surely the experience could be better?

What about the stores that you know even before you have arrived that you are going to have to find a member of staff to show you where the things you need are located. It is annoying, time-consuming and not very enjoyable. It is no wonder that we prefer to sit at home and conduct our shopping in front of a plethora of different size digital screens.

In my opinion, the reason why the ‘bricks and mortar’ shopping experience feels like it has for decades is that the experience we still have as consumers is one that was conceived and designed decades ago – very few retailers have considered how they need to REDESIGN the shopping experience to meet the needs of the shopper in 2015. Even fewer (if any at all) have thought about the changing needs of the consumer in the future. Ultimately, the shopping experience today is NOT ‘shopper centric’ – for the high street to find its purpose again, I urge retailers to consider the need to drive ‘shopper centricity’.

So what do I mean by ‘shopper centricity’? I do not think it is rocket science to consider how to redesign the shopping experience to better fit in to the life of the modern consumer. Being shopper centric means that your store puts the shopper at the ‘heart’ of everything it does. It means that your store is designed to be functional – it allows the shopper to do what she needs to do. It needs to be designed to be as accessible as possible – it enables her to do what she wants in a store as easily as possible. It needs to be designed to leave her feeling as though she has actually had an experience – one that she will remember…… and for the right reasons. To achieve all of these things, retailers need to recognise that technology and channels can/should/must start to integrate seamlessly so the consumer is able to achieve everything they want.

facebook hangers

A retailer in Brazil a few years ago introduced clothes hangers linked to Facebook. The hangers display the number of likes related to the product that adorns it. What a brilliant idea – an idea that I am yet to see in the UK. It is a simple yet powerful example of linking technology and channels together. Walking into a bricks and mortar store CAN feel like the online experience (and vice versa).

In 2013 I delivered a presentation on customer experience to a telecoms business, Pennine Telecom and some of its clients. One of the companies at the presentation was Motorola Technologies. They were developing some amazing things that could transform the experience for companies and customers across a number of industries. They showed me their ‘electronic badge’ technology – see the image below. This replaces current plastic badges that you ‘swipe’ to get in and out of buildings, and that show your name, picture etc.. The badges enable businesses to know where their employees are at any time, delivering real-time tasks. They are looking at getting them into hospitals (replacing pagers), and retailers. Think how the experience could be improved if an employee had an electronic badge to advise you where a product was in the store. Even better – what if the store was enabled with touchscreens that consumers could use themselves to find an item….. or to order it online if not available?


This technology already exists…..yet it is still not present in the experience we have in most bricks and mortar stores. Then we come to mobile. The technology that the majority of consumers use as almost an extension of their physical form! We eat, sleep, run, play, work and SHOP with the things – yet they are still largely not integrated into the physical shopping experience. Mobile technology is a huge opportunity for retailers to radically redesign the shopping experience. The question is who will e the first to do it effectively?

I envisage a world where mobile technology helps the consumer to CHOOSE how they want to shop – rather than the retailer defining how the MUST shop. Imagine this scenario:

  • I need to buy an item of clothing for a party tonight – I need it quickly
  • My mobile tells me where I can find the item (in stock)
  • My mobile tells me independent customer reviews of the item
  • My mobile tells me my transport options to get there and where to park (free and paid)
  • My mobile informs me of payment options
  • On entering the store, my mobile and he store ‘connect’ with each other
  • My mobile tells me where the item is in the store
  • My mobile suggests other items that could complement my purchase
  • I leave the store and my mobile automatically pays for the items in my possession
  • Depending on the time of day, my mobile tells me where I can grab a bite to eat close to store

Madness? Feasible? An experience that would leave you feeling positive – emotionally? Whether this type of scenario is for you or not, we must recognise that the days of the existing high street store experience are numbered. Until or unless retailers recognise that they must redesign the experience to make better use of the technology that their customers are already using, the media will continue to report ever-increasing numbers of shop closures. We must put the shopper back at the heart of the shopping experience again – and design an experience that genuinely is Shopper Centric!

Falling out of love with John Lewis – even the best find it tough to deliver consistently good customer experiences

JL Falling

This is not the first time I have written about John Lewis. A British retailer recognised by many as the epitome of a people (customers and employees) focused brand, their challenge for a long time has been to maintain their position as a Customer Experience leader for others to look up to and admire.

Founded in 1864, the perception of John Lewis as a brand you can trust has been built over many years of hard work – hard work in adapting to the world around it and the ever changing needs of its customers. With its well know ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ slogan, the retailer will still pay you the difference if you can find an item you purchased from them cheaper elsewhere.

If you have turned your customers into loyal fans of your brand – if they have ‘fallen in love’ with your Customer Experience, it takes a lot of hard work to maintain that love – to maintain their ‘fandom’ and loyal custom. Even if something goes wrong, it is unlikely that your customer will fall out of love with you – especially if you are able to put it right quickly, efficiently and without too much effort.

John Lewis are by no means perfect – like all organisations, it is impossible to get things right 100% of the time, but in general they are well known for dealing with issues in a professional and consistent manner. However, in January 2015, John Lewis’s challenge seems to be getting ever tougher. The challenge for all businesses to maintain our undivided loyalty is becoming extremely difficult as we become ever more demanding. When you are a John Lewis, the expectation is remarkably high.

So the big question in this post is this – is it possible that the British consumer could ‘fall out of love’ with John Lewis? Could a brand with such a strong heritage and reputation lose its differentiation as a Customer Experience leader? In April last year I wrote a post that suggested the ‘omni channel Customer Experience’ is John Lewis’s greatest challenge of the moment. The story I shared demonstrated the risks John Lewis face in failing to connect the different customer channels in its business. The story I would like to share today highlights the significance of this  problem once again. Will this be the experience that sees me personally falling out of love with John Lewis?

On the 5th January 2015, I ordered a  ‘Luxury Memory Foam Mattress Bed Topper’ from John I immediately received an email confirmation advising me that the item would be delivered ‘within 5 working days’ of me placing my order. I was very happy with this as the item was intended as a birthday present for Mrs Golding whose birthday was on the 13th January! Unusually for me, I was working ahead of time with a little leeway!

JL 1

Two days later I received another email. Entitled ‘Back Order Details’, things did not bode well. In fact I was actually quite astonished to open an email from John Lewis advising me that the item ordered was NOT available for delivery. The ‘call to action’ was for me, the customer, to make all of the effort and contact John Lewis by email or telephone to ‘cancel the order’!! Alternatively I could just wait for it to arrive, or have my order cancelled in 4 weeks.

JL 2

Sadly this type of ‘broken promise’ event is pretty common with online retailers – the problem is that I have higher expectations of John Lewis than I do of other retailers. I was NOT impressed. As I did not want to have to email or telephone, I reached out to Twitter to vent my frustration:

JL 3

A broken promise of delivery of a birthday present and the first suggestion from John Lewis on Twitter was for me, the customer, to contact my local store. I was starting to get a little hot under the collar now. This is really not what I expect from John Lewis. There was no other option but to pick up the phone and speak to them.

On the 9th January I called the John contact centre – more of my time, effort and cost in telephone calls. For the first time during the transaction, I spoke to someone who gave me faith that I was really dealing with John Lewis and not a bogus website! Zain, the contact centre agent, was excellent. Very apologetic, he did everything he could to understand what had happened and what he could do about it. I was impressed. Zain confirmed the weakness in John Lewis’s operating model. The online business did indeed not have any more of the item I had ordered in stock. The item was due into their warehouse on the 5th January but had not arrived yet. The online warehouse is NOT shared by the stores – they have their own separate stock pool. Zain had to put me on hold while he contacted the stores contact centre to see if they had any of the item available. Still with me?!

If you are confused, I will just clarify that John Lewis is not a joined up, connected, omni channel business. Its stores and online propositions might look the same, but they are separate and disparate. I was suffering as a result. The only solution Zain could come up with was to cancel my online order and reserve the item at my local John Lewis store in Chester. I then had to telephone my local Chester store to confirm my reservation. The whole experience was long winded and ridiculous. I had got to the point of almost no return!

The following day (10th January) I received a message from the Chester store advising that the item had come in to stock again – hurrah – three days before Naomi’s birthday – I could get them to send the item by next day delivery and still have it in time…………or NOT! When I called the store and suggested that they send it by next day delivery, I was advised that this was not an option. I could either have it delivered to home in five working days, or collect it from the store on the 13th January. The back story of the order was irrelevant – the fact that John Lewis were affecting my ability to get my wife her birthday present on time was not important – the computer said no (albeit very politely).

So 7 working days after I placed my online order; three phone calls and one drive to a store later, I arrived at John Lewis Chester to collect Naomi’s birthday present. Amazingly, no apology for the debacle was given by anyone I interacted with. Naomi was with me when we collected it – no-one even had the courtesy to wish her a happy birthday. To say I am unimpressed by the whole experience is an understatement.

The problem with bad experiences is that it only takes one for a customer to choose to fall out of love with a brand. There were so many failings in this experience from a retailer I once trusted implicitly that I have made the conscious decision NOT to use John Lewis online in the future. I will still visit their stores. I still believe that they have an excellent proposition and wonderful people. Yet until they join their channels together, I will shop elsewhere via the internet – this experience has left a sour taste in my mouth.

So is it possible for the consumer to fall out of love with John Lewis? You bet your life it is – they can and must not ever rest on their laurels.

Update – 15th January

Having read this post, I was contacted by John Lewis on Facebook and twitter. This morning I had a telephone conversation with a very nice lady from the customer service team. Not only did the lady acknowledge all of the issues in the experience (without excusing them), she confirmed that they would be addressing the issues with the relevant teams to mitigate the issues in the future. This is further demonstration as to why it is important for organisations to readily accept feedback like this and seize on the opportunity that comes from bad experiences. If good comes out of bad, I am always very happy with the outcome.

If you have two minutes, please take the time to complete my 2 question survey to find out your personal #1 brand for delivering consistently good customer experiences. I also want to know what makes the brand your #1! The research will be used for an upcoming blog post – many thanks for your time!

You can complete the survey by clicking here


The big ‘Wi-Fi’ conundrum: a way to make money or a way to give customers what they need?

0 free wifi

Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs  is a psychological theory proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. The theory is most commonly portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental levels of human needs at the bottom and with the ultimate need for self-actualization at the top.

71 years later, it could be argued that Maslow’s perception of what constituted basic physical needs has been surpassed by something even more fundamental. Those of you who have ever seen the reaction of teenagers who have experienced a failing Wi-Fi connection will know exactly what I am talking about.  Fellow Customer Experience specialist, Dr Nicola Millard, once said that the best way to reprimand your misbehaving children is not to send them to their room – it is to remove their Wi-Fi!!

In 2014, Wi-Fi has become such a critical part of our day to day lives that it is difficult to imagine how we might exist without it. We need W-Fi for work; at school; to order our shopping; to control our heating; to stream our entertainment – it literally is an essential part of day to day living. We have become so dependant on Wi-Fi, it is becoming increasingly frustrating when we are unable to access it – a problem that is still very common. What is even worse is when we are lured in to thinking we can access it, only for our hopes to be dashed!

I travel regularly with Virgin trains – their Wi-Fi has not worked properly for the last couple of years – it is Soooooo frustrating!!! Our need for Wi-Fi has become so critical that most consumers see it as a basic requirement when interacting with organisations – unfortunately, many businesses do not quite see it that way. As we approach the end of 2014, I am amazed at the number of companies who fall into one of the following three categories:

  • We have Wi-Fi but if you want to use it you must pay for it
  • We will let you use our Wi-Fi for a short period of time for free before you must start paying for it
  • We do not have Wi-Fi available for our customers

There are a growing number of companies who fall into this category

  • We provide free unlimited Wi-Fi to all of our customers

However, how many companies could/should be in this category?

  • We provide free unlimited Wi-Fi to all of our customers whilst collecting hugely valuable data and insight about them to help us serve them better

The provision of Wi-Fi has led to the creation of a Customer Experience Conundrum – should my company look at it as a way of making money out of customers (revenue stream), or should I offer it completely free to my customers as they consider it a basic requirement (customer experience advocacy driver).

Companies that see Wi-Fi as a revenue stream will ultimately have to change their perspective. The key driver of customer dissatisfaction with Premier Inn, one of the UKs biggest hotel chains is that fact that their wi-fi is not free – it is for 30 minutes, but that is not good enough. The hotel industry is one that needs to recognise the importance of Wi-Fi as a driver of customer dissatisfaction. You may not know that there is a website that enables consumers to check the wi-fi provision at hotels all around the world – the fact this website exists suggests how important wi-fi is.

Companies that have incorporated free wi-fi into their experience are reaping the benefits. It is not often you will see an empty McDonald’s – at any time of the day or night. Last year I wrote about the influence free Wi-Fi has had on their proposition – you can read it here. Free Wi-Fi will give your customers a reason to keep coming back to you. If you are faced with a decision of visiting two cafés – one has Wi-Fi and one does not – which one are you more likely to enter?

What to do about Wi-Fi is a similar conundrum to the subject of ‘free delivery’ faced by retailers four to five years ago. Reluctant to give up a ‘revenue stream’, would failure to offer a free delivery option ultimately lead to losing customers altogether? In 2014, the vast majority of retailers now offer a free delivery option – free delivery became a basic…… in the same way free Wi-Fi is today.

The wonderful thing about Wi-Fi is that it is becoming easier and easier for companies to make it accessible for free to customers whilst at the same time maximising the benefits of doing so. Last year I met a lovely lady called Lisa Rhodes. Lisa works for a company called Express Data who is helping thousands of organisations in the UK understand how free Wi-Fi can benefit both customers and the businesses that offer it to them. Essentially, Lisa helps to put in place a Social W-Fi and Analytics solution. The principal of Airtight Wi-Fi is to combine Social Media with Wi-Fi and Analytics – all with the objective of driving better engagement with customers. To achieve the ultimate goal of more loyal customers, giving them free Wi-Fi is now imperative!!

0 airtight social wifi

It is really quite clever stuff – that gives customers what they NEED, whilst at the same time delivering a wealth of insight and knowledge to help you maximise your relationship with them. This is why the answer to the conundrum is a simple one for me. Offering free Wi-Fi to customers is a no brainer – fail to do so and your customers will eventually go to someone else who offers it for nothing. Offering free Wi-Fi without utilising any information it can give you is a huge missed opportunity. In 2014, it is not only our basic needs as humans that have changed. If you can use technology better to help you understand how to engage more closely with customers, your future will look even rosier.

If you want to know more about Airtight Wi-Fi, you can contact Lisa on +447762 887716 or email her at

1914 Vs 2014: When was the best time to be a customer?

0 1914 V 2014

Two years ago my family and I were fortunate and honoured to participate in a BBC1 ‘living history’ programme called Turn Back Time: the Family. An experience like no other, we were transported back in time to the turn of the 20th century to find out how life was like for our ancestors. The essence of the programme was for us to live as our forbears lived with a view to understanding how life for the family unit has changed over time. Whilst there was not a focus on what life was like for the consumer, it is impossible for me not to consider the impact of Customer Experience – whatever the era!! If you want to know more about the programme, you can read all about it here.

Two years on, I am continually reminded about our Turn Back Time experience as commemorations for the start of World War I increase in visibility. I personally went on a significant journey getting closer to understanding the sacrifices my family made for me. As I wear my poppy with pride, I will never forget them and the millions of others who have lost (and continue to lose) their lives protecting the future for us all.

1914 has another significance for the Golding family – it is the year my Grandma was born. Wonderfully, Pauline is still with us having celebrated her 100th birthday on the 1st May. To think that she was born BEFORE the war started is quite something. To think what life was really like in 1914 in London is intriguing. Being involved in Turn Back Time gave me enough of a flavour to make a comparison between the Customer Experience then and now. That is why I want to pose the question – 1914 or 2014: when was the best time to be a customer?

0 1914 shops

Let us start by going black and white. Life in pre war Britain was in many ways much simpler for the consumer than it is today. For a customer there was only one predominant way to shop….one ‘channel’. That channel was the channel that in 2014 is continually in decline – Face to Face! With the overwhelming majority of consumers not owning a car most customers would purchase goods with local retailers in the high street (remember them?).

As a father in 1914, I learned how important etiquette was. Manners and politeness was evident in all daily interactions at home, work and as a customer. Shops were very orderly places, manned by smartly dressed shopkeepers stood behind tall counters. Knowing most of their customers by name, products would be picked and packed whilst maintaining friendly conversation. Most of the time the shopkeepers did not even have to ask what their customers wanted to buy – they knew already. There was not a great deal of variety with the products on offer, but that just made the shopping experience more efficient.

Even in 1914 there was an alternative to shopping on the high street. The first iteration of home shopping had been in existence for some time by then – shopping by mail order allowed consumers to purchase products not available on their high street. Payment in 1914 was also pretty simple – cash or cheque with no plastic in sight.

0 2014 shopping

Fast forward 100 years to 2014. Today, consumers do not have two channels to purchase products. In 2014 we have arguably eight (Shops; telephone; web; mobile; live chat; SMS; mail order; TV). I am sure someone will tell me I have forgotten one as well!! We are able to purchase literally everything we need in any way we want from anywhere in the world. We could in theory live our lives without ever talking to anyone or setting foot outside of our front door!

If we do choose to talk to someone, it is often via an automated telephone system. It is not uncommon to conduct an entire transaction without a human being involved and even if one is, they are often just reading back a pre written script. In stores, it is unlikely that anyone will know who the customer is and staff may not even need to help you make your purchase.

That being said, we are able to choose what we want when we want it. We can buy whatever we need seven days a week 24 hours a day. We can buy things online and have them delivered to our door within the hour. We can pay in a multitude of ways without the need to fill our pockets with cash. We are even able to see what others think about the things we might buy before we commit to doing so.

So when was the best time to be a customer? the personal, simple consumer experience of 1914; or the global, convenient consumer led experience of 2014? Many will argue that surely the ‘winner’ has to be the modern-day – 2014. We experience what we do today because consumers have demanded that the organisations we interact with provide a more functional, accessible experience. We wanted the 24/7 society that we now have and will continue to demand more and more from companies.

Is that really the case though? Is everyone really happy with the connected world that we are now all a part of? It is difficult to deny ease and convenience provided by amazing technology is that greatest evolution for the 2014 consumer. To be able to do/get what we want when we need it is a remarkable thing. However, it is also difficult to deny that shopping in 2014 is often not a particularly emotional experience. It does not always feel particularly good being a customer of the global corporations who distribute the products or provide the services we buy.

in 2014, all too often we read and hear about stories of organisations completely failing to connect emotionally with customers. Not only do they not know their names, but very few businesses seem to empathise with the people who want to buy their products or services. It is almost ironic that the consumer is now demanding more and more personalisation in their interactions……a little like we used to have in the good old days.

My answer to the question ‘when was the best time to be a customer?’, is very possibly one you may already have guessed. I think there is much to learn from BOTH eras. The power a consumer has in 2014 has completely changed the relationship between company and customer. Some have adapted to the change better than others. Improved choice and convenience is a good thing. Easily accessible products and services at affordable prices is another. However, if we could consistently add the personal, empathetic, emotional flavour of the shopping experience of the early 1900’s (albeit modernised), then surely we would have an era that all consumers could enjoy with confidence.

As we steadily approach the end of another calendar year, the importance of Customer Experience in all sectors gathers yet more pace. Maybe 2014 is not the best time to be a customer at all – maybe 2015 will be!!

Customer Empathy – ignore it at your peril!

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Have you ever looked up the definition of the word Empathy? I would suspect that you have not! It is not often that we take the time to read dictionaries!! If you read the definition above, it is also likely that you will find it difficult to correlate many of the words used with organisations that you interact with on a daily basis. I often tell people how rare I think it is for companies to demonstrate ‘customer empathy’ on a consistent basis. There are many reasons why this is the case – organisational culture being the predominant one.

Customer empathy is a critical element that will have a significant effect on the experience customers have with a business. The EMOTIONAL component of all experiences (how the experience made us feel) is the one that we are most likely to remember (rather than the FUNCTIONAL or ACCESSIBLE components). We will often forgive an experience that is not as slick as it might be if it is delivered by engaging, empathetic people. Failure to display customer empathy (which can often be seen as the application of common sense!) can have significant detrimental effects on a business.

To bring this to life, I am going to share a story that was shared with me on Facebook yesterday. Brian Ward’s story is one that in principle we should be able to be empathetic towards – what you are about to read is likely to shock you…..or maybe not. I must point out that I do not know Brian, but feel that the story is so compelling, that many should read it to understand the consequences of failing to be empathetic towards customers. These words were posted on Irish airline Aer Lingus’s Facebook page on the 17th September (2 days ago):

It unfortunately has had to come to this. After many years of loyal custom from my parents William & Marie Ward, your actions and absolute disregard of their wellbeing is quite upsetting. My parents book their flights specifically with Aer Lingus twice yearly and up to now your service has never made them question this.

Unfortunately their plans this year were completely thrown off course when in July after a series of tests my dad, William, was diagnosed with cancer. Like any family, this is the news we never wanted to hear. My Dad is currently undergoing his treatment with a rigorous course of Radiotherapy and Chemotherapy.

Albeit not top of the list of to-do’s when anyone is dealt a blow like this, we set about making arrangements to cancel their eagerly anticipated 40th Wedding Anniversary trip. As you would expect their hotel, transfer company and tour agent all were extremely compassionate and assisted in any way possible. They recognised my parents’ loyal custom and they saw them as more than just a number. They completely refunded my parents trip and wished my Dad all the best with his treatment.

This could not be said for Aer Lingus, a company which seemingly prides itself on being customer focused. My dad contacted your reservations team to discuss his options and as you have probably guessed – this was worthless. Apart from claiming back the flight taxes, or swapping flights for a shorter flight option; Aer Lingus have been happy to wash their hands of the reservation and my parents’ custom. My sister has also communicated with your team who were less than friendly on three specific occasions. We have sent an email detailing our parents request on the 26th of August and to date there is still no response.

The way you have treated our parents, proves that Aer Lingus customers are just numbers, your mission statements aren’t worth the paper they’re written on and your powers that be have seem to have never encountered cancer and everything that it entails.

For a company who are on course to match your last year’s profits of €60 million, it’s sickening to think that our parents reservation costing just less than €500.00 is non-refundable. We have been more than willing to furnish a consultant’s letter to confirm the above and his inability to travel.

I would ask you to review the above and to contact me directly to obtain a resolution.

P.S….It might also be beneficial to check out last Friday (12th September) Irish independent letter section, whereby the low cost airline Ryanair dealt quite respectfully with a similar situation.

At the time of writing (00:30 on the 19th September), the post has been ‘Liked’ on Facebook over 8,000 times – is has been ‘shared’ over 1,100 times. I suspect these numbers will continue to rise rapidly. The backlash against Aer Lingus is huge – comment after comment laments the airline. The incident is incredibly damaging – the question is how damaging? Have a look at the Facebook post if you are interested in reading the comments.

This story should act as a lesson to all organisations. If you stick to the ‘rules’, fail to empower your people to do the ‘right thing’ and fail to recognise the importance of customer empathy, in the connected world we now live in, the consumer will bite back. Please share this post and ensure that this does not happen to your business.

Just to conclude the story, Aer Lingus have since been in contact with Brian to resolve the issue – see below:

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I join many others in sending my best wishes to Brian and his parents.


Book Review – Delivering Effective Social Customer Service: How to Redefine the Way You Manage Customer Experience and Your Corporate Reputation

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It is impossible to ignore the fact that customer service has gone all social on us. Our obsession with Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and more has led to the humble consumer actively seeking to interact with companies via social networks. Although this is a fact, there are still many organisations who are yet to understand how to manage this new ‘channel’ particularly well. Part of the problem is that customers do not recognise channels – they recognise the company they are interacting with. Customers just expect you to be able to deal as effectively with their problems communicated through Twitter as they do over the phone.

So why are companies still not dealing with ‘social customer service’ very well? Why do we often find the customer service received via Twitter and Facebook to be less than satisfactory? Clearly some businesses have adapted better to the social phenomenon than others – yet the majority have yet to understand their ‘ecosystem’ or develop a suitable ‘framework’ for delivering social customer service. Fortunately, help is at hand.

‘Delivering Effective Social Customer Service’ is a fantastic resource for all customer service professionals looking for help and knowledge in understanding how to best deal with customer service in the social world. The book is written by Carolyn Blunt (Managing Director of Real Results) and Martin Hill-Wilson (Founder of Brainfood Consulting). I first met Martin at a customer service conference in 2009 – his knowledge, passion and expertise is infectious – his collaboration with Carolyn has produced a resource that is a ‘must-read’ in my opinion.

The book follows a logical flow – from how everything changed, to understanding the behaviour of the ‘social customer’, to ‘how to’ guides of delivering social customer service via Facebook and Twitter. There is also valuable advice provided on reputation and crisis management as well as the legalities of social interaction.

The two chapters that I would like to draw your attention to and potentially whet your appetite are as follows:

1. The Ecosystem for Social Customer Service

I am a big fan of models and frameworks. This chapter leads to the painting of a picture that looks at the demand for service that is being generated in the social space and how your business intends to serve it. The suggested visual map allows you to understand where demand is coming from and thus what you may need to do to influence the variety of ‘inputs’ that comprise your social ecosystem. When you see the example in the book, it makes you realise just how many ‘inputs’ there are – from self help forums, to corporate blogs, to ecommerce reviews. It is quite frightening!

Carolyn and Martin suggest that most organisations fail to visualise the ecosystem – they strongly recommend that you do not fall in to the same trap. Understanding your ecosystem means that you will be better able to design your approach to influencing all elements of it. Like every chapter in the book, a helpful ‘summary action list’ is provided as well as an interesting interview with the CEO of Conversocial, Joshua March.

2. The Roadmap for Social Customer Service

This excellent chapter provides readers with a framework for producing a roadmap for social customer service. The framework suggests that the best way to start is by conducting a self-assessment of the key competencies in delivering effective Social Customer Service. The assessment contains 15 competencies that are scored on three criteria – current capability; importance of the competency for your next generation strategy; and urgency of operationalizing the competency on your roadmap. Here is an example of 2 of the 15 competencies:

  • We know how to recruit, train and manage Social Customer Service Teams
  • We are ready for unexpected volumes of ‘social’ traffic: resourcing, escalation, house style

Every competency is walked through in detail looking at its importance, consequences, issues, quick wins, follow up actions and tips. The chapter serves as a comprehensive examination of what it takes to effectively manage your customer experience on social media.

As a Customer Experience Specialist, I am constantly looking to refresh my knowledge and expertise. Learning from others is as important as learning from my own experiences. I am not an expert in social customer service and have found this book to be an excellent summary of not just what ‘social customer service’ is, but more importantly what to do about it. I have no hesitation in recommending it to others, and strongly encourage you to have a read.

Social Customer Service is only going to become more and more significant over time. Do not be fooled into thinking that you already know what to do. Pick up a copy of Delivering Effective Customer Service to either re-assure yourself that you are doing the right thing, or to learn what you can do to develop an even more robust social customer service strategy. You can buy the book online here.

Out of interest, Martin runs a number of workshops on the subject of social customer service – if you like the book, you can find information about his workshops here.