TALKING is easy. STARTING is harder….. but SUSTAINING is the hardest Customer Experience challenge of all!


CX Challenge

Do you work for an organisation that aspires to ‘put the customer first’? Have you listened to senior leaders in your business talk about the importance of ‘being customer centric?’ Does your company have a ‘value’, or ‘vision’ or ‘mission’ that makes reference to ‘focusing on the customer’? How many of you work for companies that have actually STARTED to DO any of those things? How many of you work for businesses that have SUSTAINED those things over a long period of time? How many of you are confident that your organisation will be able to SUSTAIN the approach indefinitely in the future?

This may not sound like the most positive of starts to a blog post, yet the sentiment is likely to resonate with many. Over the last twenty years, I have worked in a variety of organisations across multiple industries who have all TALKED a very good game when it comes to being customer focused. If I had a Pound or Euro or Dollar for every senior leader who has uttered the words – ‘we want to put the customer at the heart of everything we do’ – I would have a nice little pile of cash! However, of all the businesses I have worked for, the overwhelming minority have been able to get to the ultimate state when it comes to actually being customer focused – the ultimate state that enables that organisation to SUSTAIN a continuous approach to actually being customer centric. Achieving a sustained approach to Customer Experience is without question (in my opinion), the greatest Customer Experience challenge of them all.

talk

Talking about Customer Experience is EASY. Literally anyone can do it. In a world where a significant number of working people still state that Customer Experience is a little ‘soft and fluffy’, those same people will still stand up and state how important it is for their business to put the customer at the centre of decision making. However, the startling reality is that there is still an overwhelming number of examples of organisations who are absolutely NOT putting the customer at the centre of everything they do – these tend to be businesses who are either very product centric, or shareholder centric or both.

I have worked with companies like this – I am sure you have (or do) too. It is so frustrating to walk into an overtly ‘non’ customer focused business who have banners or posters prominently TALKING about how  the customer is at the centre of their universe. TALKING about Customer Experience is EASY – but just TALKING about it means nothing if you do not actually do anything about it.

start cx

Many business who talk about Customer Experience have not even STARTED to do anything about it. If this sounds like a strange statement to make, you would not be wrong. Although ALL businesses are delivering customer experiences today (whether they are conscious of it or not), a huge number of them have very little idea of how capable they are of delivering an experience that meets and potentially exceeds the expectations of their customers. Some of these organisations do not even have clarity of understanding who their customers are in the first place. What makes this even more remarkable is that a large number of these companies are the ones who are TALKING about the importance of being customer focused!!

STARTING to introduce and embed a customer focused culture into a business, whatever size that business may be, is HARD. The reality is that to START actually being customer centric, an organisation must acknowledge that it may not actually be customer centric in the first place. That is why the transition from TALKING to STARTING is HARD. Acknowledging the need to be more customer centric is an incrediblly positive thing – it opens up a wealth of opportunity. However, acknowledging the need for improvement is sadly seen by many business leaders as an acknowledgement of failure – which may explain why these leaders may not think they have a problem in the first place.

Businesses that TALK about being customer focused but who do not know what their customers actually think of them must stop TALKING about it and START to understand how to actually do it – it is a big step, which is why STARTING is often a HARD thing to do.

sustain cx

Yet like most things in life, STARTING something is not nearly as HARD as finishing the thing you have started. In fact STARTING something that should in theory have no end to it is even HARDER. When it comes to Customer Experience, an organisation’s ability to SUSTAIN its approach to Customer Experience INDEFINITELY is without question the HARDEST challenge of them all.

I consider myself very fortunate to be working in a rapidly growing profession.  The fact that more and more businesses all over the world are not just TALKING about Customer Experience, but are now wanting to know how to START doing something about it is a hugely positive thing. However, the sad reality is that there are still painfully few examples of businesses who are seen as guiding lights – organisations who have so successfully embedded a customer centric culture that they have continuously SUSTAINED an approach to customer centricity over many years. That is why we often hear the same companies cited over and over again in benchmarking studies and Customer Experience Research as being true leaders in the field.

I recently published my own research into ‘what makes the worlds #1 CX brands‘ – brands such as Disney, John Lewis, Amazon, First Direct and Apple – were all in the top ten of companies considered as the #1 when it comes to delivering consistently good Customer Experiences. This was not a surprise to anyone – these companies are regularly named in similar studies. My research also highlighted WHY these companies are people’s #1:

  • Corporate attitude
  • They’re easy to do business with
  • They’re helpful when I have a problem
  • The attitude of their people
  • Personalisation
  • The product or service
  • They’re consistent
  • The way it makes me feel
  • The way they treat me
  • They’re reliable
  • They do what they promise
  • They’re quick
  • The technical knowledge of their people

The common characteristics of these organisations are characteristics required by companies who will have an ability to SUSTAIN a focus on the customer. Led by the attitude of the business, corporate culture is absolutely critical in SUSTAINING the TALK. Yet all of the characteristics highlighted in my research need to be SUSTAINED for a business to remain truly customer centric indefinitely.

SUSTAINING an approach to Customer Experience is without question the hardest challenge of them all. I am aware of a number of companies who STARTED to focus on it, but have since changed their focus. I have said many times in the past that Customer Experience is for life, not just for Christmas – our businesses exist to serve our customers – without them, we do not have a business. Whilst this is one of the most obvious statements of all time, why is it that too many businesses fail to recognise the significance of the statement?  The absolute key to SUSTAINABILITY is to embed Customer Experience so deeply in the culture of a company that it is not reliant on any one individual or group of people to SUSTAIN itself.

Customer Experience is the responsibility of everyone in an organisation. Everyone needs to TALK about it, START doing it and KEEP doing it to SUSTAIN it for evermore. Sounds so EASY – but in reality, it is so HARD to do!

Customers + Employees = People. People = Business. Why Business is all about People


customers + employees = people

If you have ever heard me speak in public, it is very likely you will have endured hearing me recount my favourite quote of all time. I know that ‘quotes of the day’ are not everyone’s bag, but sometimes you hear someone say something or are referred to something someone in authority has said and their words touch you. A while ago, I had the pleasure of coming across these wonderful few words uttered by inspirational business author, Simon Sinek:

100% of customers are people. 100% of employees are people. If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business

This quote is the inspiration behind the image at the head of this post and epitomises the essence of what you are about to read. As I continue my personal journey of learning as a Customer Experience Professional, I am ever increasingly satisfied to discover that the thing that makes businesses successful; the thing that business is all about; is that thing we call PEOPLE.

Sounds obvious right? Maybe…. but ask yourself this. How many PEOPLE do you know work in an organisation that does not feel as though it is all about people? How many work in businesses that feel as though they are more about spreadsheets, or numbers, or tasks, or processes? In a world where there seem to be as many ‘shareholder centric’ organisations as there are ‘customer centric’, it is refreshing to come across businesses who genuinely do put PEOPLE at the very heart of everything they do.

Last week I found myself being fortunate (as I often am) to act as a judge at the first UK Employee Experience Awards.  The awards recognise and celebrate best practice in the delivery and improvement of outstanding employee experience – it is no coincidence that the awards have been created by the excellent Awards International who are also behind the UK Customer Experience Awards.  To deliver consistently good and great Customer Experiences, it is essential to also deliver as good and great employee experiences. To be a brilliant business, you must nurture and cherish all the PEOPLE who interact with you – that means customers and employees.

In London last week, I witnessed shining examples of role models – role models of leaders who were teaching, caring for, guiding, coaching, mentoring, empowering and generally inspiring the people they work with to do the very best for their customers, themselves and their business.  The people I saw were of all shapes and sizes – metaphorically speaking! From front line staff to team managers to CEOs – from financial services to utilities to retail. The thing these PEOPLE all had in common was remarkably easy for me to fathom – they all understand the importance of PEOPLE.

It was when one of the finalists said that his most important business principle was ‘adult to adult communication’ that I realised why the recognition that these awards purvey is so very important. Treating PEOPLE like adults in business sounds so startlingly simple, yet in my experience it is so utterly rare. Remember that I am talking about both customers and employees here. So often businesses talk to their customers as though they are still at school – the parent child relationship is  even more common for the poor employee.

The finalist who talked about ‘adult to adult communication’ was one of the very few CEOs present at the awards ceremony. As far as I am aware, he may have been the only CEO at the ceremony! Is it any surprise that he is the CEO of the company who only last year won an amazing 6 (six) UK Customer Experience Awards! Mark Horsley is the CEO of Northern Gas Networks – a business that the consumer on the street knows very little about, but a business that as a result of Mark’s humbling approach to empowering people is resulting in them becoming one of the most significant role models for any business in the world.

Mark and his people do not sell cutting edge, fashionable technology. Mark and his people do not have a compelling and seamless omni channel offering.  Mark and his people do not spend millions on adverting and big data. Mark and his people are responsible for putting pipes in the ground – pipes that enable energy suppliers to put gas into houses, offices and factories. They do it by a relentless focus on doing what is right for PEOPLE – customers and employees. The results speak for themselves – commercially and through the ever improving perception of customers and employees – PEOPLE!

Mark Horsley, CEO, Northern Gas Networks
Mark Horsley, CEO, Northern Gas Networks

Mark was as deserving a recipient of the award as any I have ever judged. Mark is a role model to anyone who ever aspires to lead a business. Mark accepted the award on behalf of his people (customers and employees) – I would have expected nothing less. This is not the first time I have written about Northern Gas Networks – it is unlikely to be the last. Who would have thought a company that puts pipes in the ground would have been a text book example to others as to how to deliver world class customer and employee experiences? The reality is that I am now teaching Customer Experience Professionals all over the world about this company – the company that as much as any I have ever seen bring Simon Sinek’s inspirational quote to life.

Northern Gas Networks understand that business is all about PEOPLE. The vast majority of PEOPLE present at the awards last week do too. This can only be an encouraging sign as the Customer Experience continues to work its way ever more into the business dictionary. We will never do away with spreadsheets and numbers and tasks and processes completely – nor can we – yet the shift towards a ‘PEOPLE FIRST’ culture in business does seem to be closer to reality than it ever has been.

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


accents

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.

coracall

 

Leveraging the soft and fluffy: how important are soft skills in delivering Customer Experiences?


Fluffy Dog

Yesterday I had the enormous pleasure of co-chairing the first ever Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) Members Insight Exchange to be held outside of the US. The gathering of Customer Experience Professionals (CXPs) from across Europe was as inspiring an occasion as I hoped it would be. I have always said that when you put a group of CXPs in a room it acts as a mass counselling session – the Member 2 Member principle that underpins the CXPAs approach enabled everyone present to learn from each other in a wonderful collaborative environment.

What struck me throughout the day was the clearly evident ability of almost everyone present to communicate and integrate together in friendly, engaging and warm conversation. It is not often you put practitioners and vendors in a room together, many of whom are technically competitors of each other, only for them all to act as extended members of family!! The CXPA is all about learning from each other (as I have already said), but it is one thing stating the ambition and a completely different thing seeing it actually work in practice.

It was therefore fascinating for me to reflect on the day by connecting some of the thoughts from the very first speaker with everything else that followed. We were honoured yesterday to be addressed by a business that has incredibly successfully re-invented itself in the UK over the last few years. Unlike it’s US parent, McDonald’s UK has managed to maintain a very firm place in the heart of millions of UK consumers. Jack Upton, UK Director for Training, Education & Customer Services shared his thoughts on what lies behind their success – ‘blending the employee and customer experience’.

Jack Upton addressing the CXPA UK Members Insight Exchange
Jack Upton addressing the CXPA UK Members Insight Exchange

Jack shared many valuable insights – from their use of the ‘people-profit chain’, to the increase in importance of ’emotional engagement’ between employees and customers, to the principle of ‘fusion’ – the better the delivery of customer experience at McDonald’s, the greater the value for the employee. Yet it is when Jack started to talk about ‘soft skills’ that my ears pricked up. Yes…..soft skills.

I, like many CXPs am often accused of talking only about the ‘soft and fluffy’. In fact I have used the image of the lovely cute dog at the head of this post in many presentations I have made to senior leaders over the last few years. Whilst I take the ‘soft and fluffy’ accusation in my stride, it is important to consider whether there is actually anything wrong with talking about the soft and fluffy!! Jack’s insight into the importance of soft skills to the McDonald’s business helps to explain why.

Before I expand on Jack’s thoughts, let me clarify what is meant by the term ‘soft skills’. I shall do this by quoting the modern ‘font of all knowledge’ – Wikipedia:

Soft skills is a term often associated with a person’s “EQ” (Emotional Intelligence Quotient), the cluster of personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, friendliness, and optimism that characterize relationships with other people.

McDonald’s is one of the biggest employers of young people in the UK. The development of soft skills in these young people is core to their approach. In fact the development of people is one of the cornerstones of the success of McDonald’s this side of the Atlantic. I have seen this in evidence with my very own eyes – McDonald’s training facilities are quite simply fantastic.

Research led by McDonald’s and backed by other organisations including the CBI, Barclays and learndirect, as well as entrepreneur James Caan has identified that Soft skills such as communication, teamwork and time management contribute £88 billion to the UK economy! You can read more about the research in an article published in HR Magazine in January 2015 – in it Neil Carberry, CBI director for employment and skills said:

“Business is clear that developing the right attitudes and attributes in people – such as resilience, respect, enthusiasm and creativity – is just as important as academic or technical skills.”

I could not agree more. In fact some of the best examples of genuinely Customer Centric organisations are those who solely recruit based on the ‘soft skills’ elements of Neil’s statement. Zappos, the online retailer now owned by Amazon, is perhaps the most famous example of all. Jack confirmed that this approach is just as important to McDonald’s. Soft skills alone do not guarantee the consistent delivery of great experiences, but if you are able to leverage the power of these skills, the behaviour of your people will go a huge way to developing unbreakable emotional bonds between employees and customers.

With this fresh in my mind, it was therefore no wonder that a room full of CXPs was able to engage with each other so successfully. CXPs do not just possess a collective obsession and passion for all things customer experience. They are also living, breathing examples of people with highly developed ’emotional intelligence’. CXPs understand the importance of a strong work ethic; having an unbreakable positive attitude; great communication skills; good time management; the ability to solve problems; working as a team; accepting and learning from criticism; flexibility; adaptability; working well under pressure; and doing the right thing. These are the attributes of brilliant CXPs – these attributes are known as ‘soft skills’

Maybe the soft and fluffy is not such a bad thing after all. I have met many leaders in my time who do not understand the importance of ‘soft and fluffy’. These leaders do not possess an abundance of emotional intelligence. One of these so-called leaders once called me ’emotionally immature’ – I will never forget it – although it is one of the many things I have learned from in my career.

I believe that the more you can leverage the soft skills within your organisation, the more your organisation will want to engage emotionally with your customers. Emotional engagement and empathy generate advocacy. Advocacy leads to loyalty. Loyalty leads to sustainable growth. Makes perfect sense to me……what about you?


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

 

Guest Post: The Importance of Personal Growth for Customer Service Professionals


Deanna Ayres

This week I am focusing my blog on the importance of developing ‘authority’ as a Customer Experience Professional in celebration of the upcoming CXPA Members Insight Exchange on the 10th February in London. If you have not read all about how to earn authority as a Customer Experience Professional here.

I am delighted to follow my post up with a guest article that also speaks of the importance of ‘personal growth’ – this time from the perspective of the Customer Service Professional. Written by Deanna Ayres, I am sure you will find a lot of value in her wisdom…


Customer service professionals are one of the major points of contact between the consumers and the company. Considering that they are a representation of the brand, customer service workers must be well trained and knowledgeable in a wide variety of topics, both general and pertaining to the company itself.

When people leave school, most people consider it the end of the studying, exams and assessments. For customer service professionals, however, it is important to continue their learning process to meet the continuously evolving needs of the customers.

Whether we choose to accept it or not, employees are constantly being judged on their skills and benchmarked against their colleagues. And, unlike studying for a final exam in college, new technology, customer demand and legislation make for an ever-changing environment.

According to a 2012 survey by an adult learning organization, there is a strong correlation between continued learning and sustained employment, especially when it comes to those fields with direct customer contact. Staff that participate in learning programs are more capable of adapting to changing requirements of organizations, putting them in a better position for promotion in their current company or with a competitive edge in the job market. They are also more likely to be viewed by their superiors as highly motivated and engaged in the business, two positive attributes to have for any employee.

Some organizations are good at providing learning opportunities for subjects that directly translate to improved performance on the job. In customer service environments, as well as many other work environments, keeping your employees happy is a way to boost the bottom line. To keep employees happy, companies often invest in creating a culture of learning by organizing continuous learning programs for employees to better themselves and their performance. There is plenty of evidence that these types of work-based learning programs are dollars well invested by the company. They cultivate engagement, flexibility in work schedules and an increased sense of appreciation and connection with the company.

To promote personal growth, companies can bring in guest speakers; encourage employees to start office-based clubs built on their interests, and implement computer rooms in the office where employees can participate in online training programs. Each of these three possibilities can be tweaked according to the type of business you operate in to meet the needs of your employees specifically. To help the company help its employees, it is worth it to invest in a call center management software as well just to ensure that the entire process stays on track and remains beneficial for everyone.

What the company offers in terms of training options, however, may not be in line with what you really want or need for your career. Depending on what area of your job you are looking to improve, there are a variety of ways to get started with your personal growth.

A great place to start is to look at past performance reviews or speak with managers, colleagues and the human resources department to seek advice from those whose skills and careers you are aiming to achieve. To improve these areas, you can identify workshops; approach someone in the business to be a mentor or sign up for an online study program. Another idea is to shadow someone who is very good at the skill you’re looking to improve. You can shadow them for one day, one week, or once a week for a longer period of time.

Instead of identifying areas of improvement based on comments of those working close by to you, you can benchmark your skills according to the job market. Check out advertisements of roles similar to yours to understand what it would take for you to get hired in the case that you were unemployed. Are your IT skills up to par? Negotiation skills could use a little improvement? Whatever the job market is looking for, you can adjust your learning program to accommodate those skills.

Sometimes the skills you need to work on aren’t so much about learning something completely new, but rather about refreshing and updating old skills. For customer service professionals, a brush up with handling difficult customers, communication skills or people management skills, for those looking to climb the ladder.

Outside of professional training, personal development outside of work can often lead to the gain of soft skills that can improve your performance in the workplace as well. Volunteer work, fundraising projects, joining local committees or participating in research activities are all ways to create personal growth without focusing on one, specific skill.

A good workplace makes employees feel like their company invests in and believes in them for the long term. Providing and promoting personal growth for customer service professionals leads to happier employees which creates bigger returns for the company and its investors. It’s a cycle with an endless amount of benefits, which just keeps going around.


Deanna Ayres is the SEM Strategist and Community Outreach Supervisor at The Marketing Zen Group & Kova Corp. She loves to come up with new content strategies for and with her team and believes that connecting on a personal level is vital to success. Growing up in Europe has allowed her a unique insight into cultural differences in business & marketing. In her spare time she is a photographer, hobby cook with a love for coffee, gamer and geek. Follow her @deanna_ayres

The Elms Hotel – Customer Experience Review


CX Review - The Elms

Anyone who is lucky enough to have a family with three or more children will be able to empathise with the age old problem of booking hotel accommodation. As the average family size in the UK has continued to rise (1 in 7 families with children in the UK have three or more children), the majority of hotels have steadfastly refused to budge from their belief that two adults come with two children! Every year the Golding family (with our three children) struggle finding both summer and winter accommodation in hotels  – sometimes reduced to ‘smuggling’ one of them into our hotel room, we regularly feel that the travel sector really does not do enough to accommodate larger families.

Travelling with children is tough enough as it is – if you can get past the booking challenges, you then need to determine if the hotel will have everything that little people need. Amazingly, there is less choice than you might imagine. 9 years ago, I took Naomi and our first daughter (Ciara, who was not even two at the time) to a hotel called  The Ickworth – owned by  Luxury Family Hotels, not only had we found an idyllic location to take a break in the Suffolk countryside, we had also found a proposition that catered for everything a family could desire. This review focuses on another of the groups hotels – The Elms Hotel and Spa in Worcestershire. In 2013 we decided to stay at the Elms for Christmas. Having enjoyed ourselves so much, we decided to go back a second time – on this occasion for three nights from the 26th to the 29th December.

The review you are about to read is one that is written in the spirit of all of my reviews – with as open and honest a perspective as possible. The review is based on my own methodology and scoring mechanism and is obviously my opinion – you are completely free to disagree with me!! My intention is to allow anyone who reads it to understand what makes or breaks a good customer experience and to enable those being written about to learn from my expertise as a customer experience specialist. Let the review commence!

Date Review Conducted 26th to 28th December 2014
Hotel Experienced The Elms Hotel & Spa, Stockton Road, Abberley, Worcester, WR6 6AT
CX Review Total Score 32/50
Stars Awarded 3/5

Luxury Family Hotels group of 8 beautiful residences around the UK are a young families dream. Designed to offer fabulous accommodation in idyllic surroundings whilst giving both children and adults everything they could desire,  their proposition is almost too good to be true! Every mum and dad with young children craves relaxation – what better way to do it than in a luxury environment whilst the kids are having fun.

Luxury Family Hotels describe their proposition very well on their website :

Our country house hotels are stylish and sumptuous, yet we welcome the thunder of little feet – and paws too. Babies and young children will love our Ofsted-registered crèches, while older children can make friends in the games room, try outdoor activities, or watch Blockbusters in the cinema room.

Being experts in luxury family breaks, we put family time at the core of your holiday: Make a splash with the kids in the pool, enjoy leisurely family meals, and explore our grand estates and their surroundings. But rest assured there’s plenty of scope for grown-up time too. We offer a complimentary crèche and baby-listening service (or babysitter, if you’d prefer), so you can relax under the spell of a spa treatment, don glad rags for a candlelit dinner, or simply take a walk or some time to yourself.

Our staff will immediately make you feel at home, and are always on hand to give you an insider’s guide to the local area. And to make packing easy, we’ll be in touch to ensure your room is kitted out with everything you need, from cots and sterilsers to toddler steps and bed guards.

Sounds great doesn’t it? The question is, does the experience live up to the proposition. In 2013, when the Goldings (with Naomi’s parents in tow) turned up at the Elms for the first time for Christmas, it certainly did. Luxury, relaxation, happy children, full and satisfied belly’s – there was little to fault it. So when we decided to take another winter break (this time from boxing day), we immediately decided that the Elms would be for us again. The returning customer is exactly what all business crave. The ability to deliver a consistently good experience is the challenge. Were the Elms able to live up to the 2013 experience – read on to find out…..

The Elms

Accessibility – CX Review Score 8/10

In my review process, the definition of accessibility is ‘how easy was it for me to do what I wanted to do’ with the organisation I have chosen to transact with. I have awarded the Elms 8 out of 10 for this category. This is a pretty good score, largely driven by the Elms experience having a significant number of plus points. Not only is booking the accommodation easy, the hotel is as accommodating as you would expect it to be in dealing with a family of five plus a dog! Yes that’s right – not only is this hotel able to cater for the needs of families of all shapes and sizes, it is also able to cater for creatures with four legs. We were given the same rooms as we were in 2013 – two separate rooms parted by a small corridor – the set up was perfect. Dog bowls were waiting for Rosie, and the the kids bedroom set up exactly as we expected for the three little people. All great so far.

Whilst our rooms were housed in separate building (only 30 seconds away), my in laws were booked in to a room in the main house. As we entered their room, things started to take a turn for the worse. It was rather cold on Boxing Day – a fact not lost on my in laws who recognised immediately that the radiator in their room was not working. Additionally, the curtains had been pulled away from the runner and would not close. On inspecting the bathroom, my mother in law realised that whilst the roll top bath might look nice, it was going to be extremely difficult for her to get in to it to have a shower. To say that they were not impressed with their ‘lot’ would be an understatement. The problems identified may sound like little things, but when you are paying a significant amount of money to stay in a hotel like the Elms, you expect basics (such as working radiators) to be operational. Within ten minutes of arriving at the Elms, we found ourselves back at reception asking for help. Issues with ‘the basics’ continued in our rooms. A total of three lamps  contained light bulbs that did not work – again, something that we all take for granted in a hotel, but a basic detail that had been overlooked.

The Elms has wonderfully cosy lounges to relax in – perfect on a freezing cold winters day. Two of the lounges benefit from roaring log fires – we could not wait to settle in front of one and put our feet up ahead of dinner. It was with a real sense of disappointment that we found the fire in one of the lounges to be unmade. The staff showed no willing to set it up and light it. Whether a lack of staff of boxing day was the cause I am not sure. All I know is that we did not quite get the cosy rest we expected.

On the 27th December, The Elms hosted a children’s birthday party. A function room and one of the lounges was blocked off for the event. Additionally, a large space in another lounge was reserved for another party of guests not staying in the hotel. The result is that there was very little space for paying residents to sit in the communal areas of the hotel. We wanted to have some lunch after a delightful winters walk to Abberley clock tower – it was a struggle finding anywhere to sit – we then had a lengthy wait to be served as all the staff were attending to the party. We had a genuine feeling that we had become ‘less important’ to the hotel  – not a great emotion for guests to have.

Despite these issues, the Elms (in general) does work very well as a hotel to relax with family. The best way to describe it is that the Elms is a ‘home from home’ for children and adults. Kids are free to roam around the hotel in a safe environment without fear of groans and moans from non child loving guests. A brilliant creche and play room provide plenty of stimulus to keep little people amused. An outdoor play area complete with trampoline sits in beautiful gardens – a space that would have been used more if it had not been so cold and wet!

The spa is also fantastic. A lovely heated swimming pool is complimented by a large Jacuzzi pool that sits half inside the building and half outside. Our children would have spent all day every day in the pool without any problem. Naomi and I had a treatment during our stay – the service was excellent. However, the spa showed further evidence of the lack of attention to detail., Both mens and womens changing rooms have seen better days – locks not working on lockers, unclean and stained showers. It almost felt as though has been an absence of tender loving care  in the twelve months since we last stayed there.

To highlight yet further the lack of attention to detail, I want to share with you the daily newsletter that sat on our table at breakfast every morning. A lovely idea for both children and parents. However, please note both the date of the newsletter (the 29th December) and the article in the bottom right hand corner – about an event that finished on Christmas Eve! This article remained firmly in place in all three newsletters we were given during our stay which started on Boxing Day. If someone at the Elms was paying attention, their newsletter would at least be up to date!

The Elms Newsletter

So it is with mixed feelings that I awarded a score of 8 out of 10 for the accessibility category – mixed because in normal circumstances, with the number of issues we encountered, I would have awarded a lower score. However, the brilliance of the proposition of this hotel in making a holiday EASY for children and adults alike has ultimately won me over!

Range/Choice – CX Review Score 7/10

When it comes to Range and Choice, I have awarded the Elms 7 out of 10. The hotel does very well in terms of its ability to offer a huge amount of choice for families in determining how to plan and manage their time there. From room configuration, to facilities to amenities, there is almost anything to suit the needs of anyone! Even dinner was full of choices – the choice to eat as a family, or for the kids to eat earlier and for the adults to enjoy a child free dinner after they had gone to bed (all made possible through the hotel’s ‘baby listening’ service). There is also the option for your children to be looked after early in the morning so mum and dad can have a lie in – fabulous! We observed a number of parents enjoying a quiet child free breakfast before their little ones were returned to them later in the morning.

So why have I only awarded a 7 for this category? When reviewing an end to end experience, I consider range and choice from a number of angles. In this instance, we were staying with the Elms on a ‘dinner, bed and breakfast’ basis. When you commit to something like this, you expect the range and choice of food on offer to be acceptable. We actually had the choice of two types of menu – there was plenty to choose from. However (sadly I have to use that word), although there were options, the Elms were unable to satisfy all of them. For the three nights we dined at the Elms, the steak was not available. On Boxing Day, the hotel could not make a banana split – they had run out of bananas!! My mother in law is a Coeliac (an allergy to Gluten) –  a point we had made clear when booking the holiday. Unfortunately, on our first night, the staff were completely unable to understand the fact that she needed to know what she could eat and could not eat. We had to ask repeatedly for help and for a menu to be marked up by the kitchen staff – it was not a pleasant experience. This was addressed by the second evening – but it should have been sorted from day 1. Additionally, as a customer, I do not care what day it is – I expect a restaurant to have the food it displays on its menu!

People – CX Review Score 7/10

I have awarded a score of 7 out of 10 for the Elms people. I must make it clear that the Elms staff are extremely nice. They are accommodating to children, adults and animals! However, just being nice is not enough to deliver consistently good customer experiences. On our first day (Boxing Day), we were served by staff who whilst being nice, were inefficient, unknowledgeable and actually quite unhelpful. We had to wait twenty minutes for a cup of tea to be delivered to us in the lounge for example. I have already covered the dinner debacle – the lack of understanding and knowledge of the staff made my mother in law feel very uncomfortable. When we asked our waitress about wine, she was unable to answer our questions – she did not look for help either (maybe there was no-one available to ask). It almost felt as though they were understaffed with a number of untrained staff – this was wildly different to our experience a year earlier.

At certain points, one member of staff was visibly ‘stressed’, clearly under pressure and as a result pretty aloof when serving customers. By our third night, all of this had changed. Members of staff we recognised from the year before had reappeared.  The Food and Beverage Manager served us our last meal – he was excellent – it was just a shame he was not present to observe service the previous two nights. In fact I would argue that there was a visible lack of presence of management throughout our first two days at the Elms – I do not recall seeing the General Manager during our whole stay. At one of the busiest times of year, you would expect a hotel to be fully staffed from the top down. I felt as though we were short changed – especially on Boxing Day. If the Elms want to offer a sub standard service on Boxing Day, they should reduce the price to reflect that fact.

All that being said, it is important to point out that that the Elms staff are very nice people. By our third day we finally felt as though we were being looked after. It is this fact that has prevented me from awarding a lower score.

Value – CX Review Score 5/10

The Elms is part of the Luxury Family Hotels group. When you see the word ‘luxury’, you automatically expect it to come at a price to match. It is therefore true to say that the Elms is not a cheap holiday option. It is a beautiful hotel in an idyllic location with amazing facilities. If you are prepared to pay for luxury, it is not unreasonable to expect the experience to match the price tag. That means at a very minimum the basics must be delivered. Luxury does not equal a non working radiator. Luxury does not equal broken light bulbs. Luxury does not equal a stale roll being used for a lunchtime sandwich. Luxury does not equal a customer having to constantly badger staff to find out what they are able to eat. All of these things were experienced by us in our stay at the Elms.

If any organisation fails to deliver on the basics (all of which these issues are), it is impossible to say that you have received good value for money. In many cases I would have awarded a lower score than the 5 out of 10 I have. However, despite the issues, we still felt rested after our three day stay – but we would have felt as though we had got much better value for money if the end to end experience actually matched the price tag.

How did it make me feel? CX Review Score 5/10

As we drove away from the Elms on he 29th December, it was with real mixed emotions. We had enjoyed a lovely break away from normality. Someone else had done the cooking and cleaning for three days and nights. It was lovely being able to go for a swim every day and to walk Rosie in a beautiful environment. These should have been our parting memories. However, as described throughout this review, the EMOTIONAL component of our experience has been tainted by a number of basic FUNCTIONAL and ACCESSIBLE issues that ultimately left a sour taste in our mouths. When we complained about the stale roll used to make a lunchtime sandwich we had ordered, there was barely any acknowledgement of the problem. The whole experience has left us feeling that whilst the circumstances of the hotel are great, the inability of the Elms to deliver a consistently good experience left a stain on our three days there.

The point is that it is the issues we will remember – the emotional component of the experience is what all customers remember. The question is – do you want customers to have negative memories that will result in them never coming back?

Would I use them again? No

It is with regret that I can confidently say I will not be returning to the Elms in the future. I say ‘with regret’ because there are so few hotels that are able to offer the type of break that my family wants and needs. However, if I am going to part with my hard earned cash, I demand that the experience I am promised matches the price I have to pay. The Elms need to have a long hard look at the little details that are absolutely essential in delivering great experiences. Every day of the year is the same – as far as the customer is concerned. Whether it is Boxing Day, Easter Day or any old Tuesday, the price; the service; the experience needs to be the same and at its absolute best. That is not what we experienced in our time at the Elms.

As always, I hope the Elms and Luxury Family Hotel management teams are able to learn from this review. Ultimately the ability of any organisation to react positively to the opportunities offered with positive or negative feedback enables that organisation to continuously improve the experience for customers in the future.


My reviews are based on a format I created to assess experiences I have with a variety organisations. They are intended to act as a demonstration of how Customer Experiences affect the customer in a number of ways. The reviews are based on my opinion as a Customer Experience Specialist – an opinion that readers are perfectly welcome to disagree with!! I always welcome others perspectives and would love to know what you think of the companies I do review.

You can read all of my reviews here.

Dare to be Different – The ‘Dignity in Diversity’ of Customer Experience


Dare to be Different

People often ask me where the inspiration for my blog posts comes from. Whilst there is no single answer to this question, I will say that the best blogs are usually those that are unplanned. In other words, I am regularly inspired by the things I see and hear – my posts will almost always be as a result of a recent experience of my own.

At the weekend, I was fortunate to hear a sermon from a retired Anglican Priest. I must admit that I was not particularly focused in absorbing what he was saying. I did hear him repeat three words at least three times though – those three words were ‘Dignity in Diversity’. I heard the words, but they did not really touch me….. not until my wife brought them to my attention again a little later.

The Priest was describing the importance of being different – trying something new. In what I now recognise as a very poignant speech, he was telling those that were listening why there is actually something to be proud of in driving and accepting change – change is not a bad thing, it is a good thing. It is his speech that is the inspiration for this post.

Delivering great Customer Experiences – consistently – is all dependent on an organisations ability to repeatedly and continually evolve/adapt/change/transform (delete or include as appropriate). Continually doing what you have always done is rarely a recipe for success – it is almost impossible to stand still as the world and the people who populate it (your employees and customers) constantly demand something different…. something better.

Therefore the discipline of Customer Experience is all about knowing what and how to change – easy to say, yet not so easy to do. There are challenges with both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Let us explore knowing ‘what’ to change first of all. For me, this is the bit that requires a structured, fact based approach to Customer Experience. This is where it is critical that a business understands what it is supposed to be doing for its customers and has a clear understanding of what works and what does not.

The problem is that too many businesses still make decisions on what it is their businesses should focus on without putting customer focused facts on the table. It is still very common for companys to look towards their competitors – often from only their own industry and attempt to do the same things……slightly better. Either that, or they look to who they consider to be the best and attempt to emulate them – if only I had a £ or a $ for every time a senior leader has told me that they would ‘like to be like Apple’!

Not like Apple

This is where the headline from this blog post comes in – Dare to be Different – there really is dignity in diversity – we should aspire to be different, not the same as everyone else. There is nothing wrong in learning from others, both inside and outside the industries from which our own businesses exist. However I strongly believe that our organisations should have the dignity to be as diverse as their customers need them to be – as different as they need to be – to constantly provide customers with better Customer Experiences.

In my time leading Customer Experience programmes, I have often been ‘knocked back’ for suggesting things that have not been done before – or that have never been tried by another company. ‘Dignity in Diversity’ is a different way of saying ‘Dare to Try’ – it plays to innovators and transformers. Being different is not a bad thing – it is what can truly make your business differentiate itself. To enable your business to change it is vital to unlock the potential that comes from within – this is the ‘how’ to change. Don’t be constrained by the negative (it has never been done before); look to the possibilities of being the first to ‘dare to try’!

In my final blog post of 2014, I suggested that we should ‘sweep the steps’ of Customer Experience in 2014 and move onwards and upwards to the land of opportunity ahead of us in 2015 – we could do this by truly daring to be as different and as diverse as our customers really want us to be. So go on – give it a go – don’t dare to dream of being like Apple – dare to dream to be the first to do something that has never been done before!

Dare to be Different