Charles Howden

March 8, 2007

Twenty Questions

Filed under: Customer Service — Charles @ 11:12 pm

Delivering a uniform level of excellent customer service across a country wide network of branches or stores can be challenging for sure. At a strategic level, the best you can hope for is to educate and empower your branch managers, communicate with newsletters, memos, regular meetings, guide with Mission, Vision and Values statements, reward the achievers, train the less gifted, and then, just hope for the best.

I’m not sure what happened in the Diss (Norfolk) branch of the Nationwide Building Society the other day. My fiancé Deborah and I needed to set up a joint building society account and since Deborah is already a customer of the Nationwide, we thought we’d take advantage of a spare fifteen minutes to drop into out local branch and do the necessary paperwork.

It was my first visit to a Nationwide branch and I was surprised to find it busy. Maybe not busy, maybe just a lot of customers standing in a long queue waiting to be served. It took a while. When it was our turn, it was necessary for Deborah to prove her identity. “Do you have your account card?” Fair request, Deborah did not. For a weekend away, Deborah had not brought it with her. “Let me show you my driving licence card” which you will know, has a photograph, a name and address, and a signature. “Not acceptable, I need to see the paper part of your licence”. I still haven’t worked out what additional information (apart form traffic convictions) the paper section carries. Deborah proffered any number of other cards, none was acceptable to the assistant. The queue was getting longer. “Let me ask you some security questions… Date of birth?” Correct “last time you used the card was?” close, “yes it was mid January, no that is not the correct amount” we could have tried to work out how much the transaction was for. So many square yards of carpet, at so much per square yard, plus VAT. We were there, plus or minus fifty quid. “Do you have the £10 for a theatre ticket two weeks ago at the whatnot theatre?” “Yes, I can see that”. We thought we were making progress. “How many Nationwide accounts do you have?” Deborah has several.

Consider your own banking arrangements and consider how many accounts you may have with your main bank. How many accounts do you have? You may have a current account, a savings account; would you include a building society account, a Visa credit card account, a PEP saving account? Deborah did not. “You have failed to answer all our security questions to my satisfaction so I cannot complete your transaction today” or words to that effect, she certainly looked full of satisfaction. Rather than argue the toss, the queue was getting longer (not that any member of staff would have noticed) we left the branch and went home for lunch.

In the afternoon, Deborah called her own Nationwide branch to ask what the standard procedure was for proving identity. “There is no standard procedure, it’s down to the discretion of the local manager. As far as we are concerned your driving licence would be fine.”

So later in the week, I was standing in the Nationwide branch outside Aldgate East tube station, where the local manger effortlessly and politely helped me conclude my transaction. A process which took less than five minutes. Thanks Natalie, fantastic service! I appreciate it.

Now I am sure that beating up your (six) account-holding customers with random twenty questions is not regarded as best practice at the Nationwide. I am pleased for them that this is not the procedure at all of their branches…


February 23, 2007

A sandwich is a sandwich

Filed under: Customer Service — Charles @ 10:25 pm

OK, so it’s easy to find examples of poor customer service. I was going to say that it’s a shame, except of course it’s actually good for someone like me who makes a living from helping companies to deliver great customer service.

This evening (Friday) we bought sandwiches and cups of tea from the Upper Crust sandwich bar at Liverpool Street railway station, and wow! How helpful, polite, friendly the assistant was. He gave us his absolute full attention throughout the whole transaction, was quick, offered some extras, as if I would enjoy them rather than he had been told to sell them, and then wished us a good weekend like he really meant it, which I’m sure he did. It wasn’t difficult to deliver, though it was so unusual to receive. And now, in a crowded marketplace, I’m a customer for life. Which is the compelling reason for all businesses to make sure that they help their staff to deliver this quality of service for all their customers all the time.

A sandwich is a sandwich; a sandwich with a genuine smile and a personal connection, now that’s special.

February 9, 2007

As an apology, how does it do?

Filed under: Customer Service — Charles @ 10:24 pm

“We apologise for the late running of this service…” If you have ever travelled on a train, you will be entirely familiar with this lame excuse for an apology. On a bad day, on a busy railway station, this insipid line can be bouncing around the platforms like an echo on a frosty morning.

As an apology, how does it do?

I came across a great ordering system for grading apologies for failures in customer service on the Seth Godwin blog (thanks to him for the following….

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is best:
“You can always take your business elsewhere.” (1): Thank you, I will, and so will all of my friends.
“It’s not our fault.” (2): This is a non-apology, where you are not seeking to redress the issue, nor evincing any sort of sympathy for the injured.

“We’re sorry that you feel that way.” (3): This is also a non-apology, which roughly translates into “It pisses us off that you feel that way. If you didn’t feel that way, we would be happy.” It also doesn’t take any responsibility for the problem, and places all of it onto the injured party. Be careful of any apology that starts “I’m sorry that you…”

“We’re sorry if we did something wrong.” (6): This is getting there, but doesn’t really accept responsibility either. You are not acknowledging that you did anything wrong; you’re still hoping that you haven’t. You are offering an apology for appearances sake.
“We’re sorry that this occurred.” (7): You are sorry, but as a matter of principle you’re still trying to insist that it wasn’t really your fault.

“We’re sorry that we caused this problem.” or “We’re sorry that we have let this happen.” (9): This is a full apology, and is what the customer needs to hear. Frankly, it doesn’t matter that it was really the post office’s fault, and not yours; the customer doesn’t care. Most people hearing this cannot help but respond with some sort of graciousness, such as “Well, all right then, these things happen. What are you going to do to fix it?” This is the target level that you want to hit for your customer service.

But for the record, there is still one level to go. The complete apology is: “We’re so sorry that we caused this problem; we are really distressed over this. Please know that we take this very seriously. This is a huge oversight on our part. I will immediately notify my supervisor, and we will review our procedures to ensure that this cannot happen again. In the meantime, that is no consolation to you for our lack of service! What can we do to regain your trust? We will be sending you a little surprise as a token of our appreciation of having you as a customer.” (10) In truth, this little speech goes on until the customer interrupts. And it is followed by a few more apologies as the conversation closes, as well.

Customers expect things to go wrong. We are all human and “stuff happens”. When organisations respond quickly, sympathetically and magnanimously, they can (the research confirms) build higher levels of customer loyalty.

The best apologies come from the heart. The worst come from a script. And the ones on the tannoy system? I’ll let you decide.

My suggestion? Dispense the recorded message, it does not achieve anything from the customer’s perspective except, perhaps, mild irritation. Replace it with real person tasked with picking up the mike, perhaps every half hour if the service is really disrupted, who can give anyone listening the big picture in his or her own individual style. Maybe something like:

“I’m sorry the trains are running late today, we got caught out by the snow this morning. Our gritters are out clearing the lines and we expect to be on top of things by early afternoon. In the meantime, do watch your step on the platform, we’ve cleared most of the ice but it may still be slippery in places.”

The train’s still late but at least a real person is taking time out to tell us.

January 22, 2007

It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s good for business.

Filed under: Customer Service — Charles @ 10:18 pm

It’s what your mother would have told you, was the title of an earlier blog. As a theme for training staff about customer service it can be a useful starting point because looking after customers becomes intuitive when it is placed within a framework of manners and common courtesy.

Last weekend we were shopping on the Kings Road. It was a busy Saturday afternoon and I was in a mild state of shock having had my innate sense of “value” severely challenged by half an hour of being led around the Conran store (that’s another story though).

So, onto the Kings Road, and standing for too long in a slow moving queue for the checkout. One of the ultimate insults must be to charge (in my subjective view) ridiculously high prices and then make your customer wait for the privilege of giving you their money. Sales assistant “That’ll be £40 then”, us “both items are in the sale and are marked up at £10 each, making £20”. Sales Assistant “No. They’re £20 each”. Us “Would you like to check?” The girl wrapping items next to the sales assistant confirmed, “Yes, they are £10 each”. “That’ll be £20 then,” said the sales assistant, with no apology or acknowledgement of her mistake.

At the other end of town after a morning of DIY (not a strong suit of mine but I’m getting the hang of it), we were at the checkout at B&Q. “That’ll be £9.89, then” “No, I believe it’s marked up at £3,89” “It says £9.89” “Your machine may say £9.89, the price tag said £3.89, would you like to check”. Annoyed look, request for help over the tannoy, no assistance on its way. “Can I deal with the next customer while you wait?” Two customers later, still no help (we probably would have still been there now, except) “Can you call your supervisor now so that we can get some help?” Supervisor arrives, and nods to the girl immediately to reduce the figure to £3.89. We pay the expressionless girl and leave.

Next stop ASDA to collect some photos, from a film I had left two days ago. Is this film a “*^&+%” film? “I have no idea, it’s a film I left with you for developing”. “Well it’s not ready, our machine broke down” “I need the photos this afternoon to give to someone who is traveling abroad tomorrow” “Oh well I’ll try again” “Will it take long?” “Ten minutes if I can get the machine to work”. Twenty minutes later and we have our prints and the checkout girl takes our money.

And what do these three transactions, all in the space of a week, have in common? It would be easy to say that they were handled ineptly, that the internal systems were not supporting the check out staff. For me, each one has left me with a sense of grudging hostility against the offending store. Nothing I can’t live with for sure, though one which would encourage me to shop elsewhere if I had the choice.

All the transactions caused the customer some discontinuity, something they were not expecting which interrupted the expected service. All the problems were the responsibility of the company. At no time did any of the staff offer a standard apology, perhaps worse, none of them even offered an informal apology. Perhaps they are so disengaged with what they are doing that they don’t even recognise that they have failed to provide what is expected of their role.

In sharp contrast to this is the service we received in an Indian restaurant recently. For the record, it Ruby’s in Leyton, a large established restaurant and takeaway on High road. On the first occasion we were there, when taking our order, the young lad was gracious in his apology that because it was a Moslem restaurant, he was not able to serve me a beer. I still remember how courteous he was and am now a loyal customer, and happy to drink something else.

Do let me know your best and worst examples of this kind of rudeness, I would love to hear how bad, and how good, your experience has been.

Apologising when something isn’t as your customer would expect it, is quick, is easy, and is good for business. It’s also just plain good manners. Just like your mother would have told you.

(And of course you are absolutely right. I shouldn’t casually make the assumption that everyone gets to learn good manners from their parents.)

December 23, 2006

This one took me off the island…

Filed under: Customer Service — Charles @ 10:14 pm

December has been a great month for me having spent the second half of it lounging around in Barbados being spoiled rotten. As I move around the Island enjoying myself, meeting friend and family (to be) I can’t avoid observing the levels customer service we experience on the island. I am a visitor; everyone I meet is kind, friendly and helpful, and I don’t want to behave like a critical guest, so I don’t want to sound picky when I trip over service which doesn’t measure up to my expectations.

This one though, took me off the island.

The other day I visited the official Rolex website. I wanted to find out where the official outlets were on the islands. We had been out shopping in Bridgetown, and I watched as a rude and poorly trained sales assistant lost a sale for a new watch. For sure, not her fault. She clearly hadn’t been trained how to sell, or how not to be rude to customers on the verge of buying (when you are selling a top brand, you can generally get away with murder). Later, I surfed the Rolex site because I wanted to connect the potential buyer with a more qualified store on the island and was surprised that there was no facility to find a list of retailers. Especially surprised because Rolex so tightly control their retail outlets and definitely know where they are. Never mind, I thought I’d email them to let them send me a list, except that their website, which is very pretty, lots corporate colours and flash images, has no facility to contact anyone at Rolex by email. Not for any reason. What does that communicate about a brand and it’s capabilities? And in this case a top “aspirational” brand. Not impressed.

December 11, 2006

Do warm customers buy more?

Filed under: Customer Service — Charles @ 9:27 pm

If you work in Woolworth’s you may not have noticed that Christmas shopping has already started in earnest, OK, cheap shot, their national sales figures are down by seven and a half percent so their staff may not be experiencing a frenzy of activity. I was in London through the weekend so I got to experience Oxford Street in full Christmas swing. Selfridges were offering 20% off, Debenhams similar, Next, up to 30%, which got me wondering whether they were cannibalising their own sales figures or taking customers from other stores. Given the collective push, the whole Oxford street shopping area is probably competing for their customers with out of town shopping centres.

So on Saturday afternoon, after a canteen lunch on Brick Lane (fast, easy, sit-down, at Sweet’nSpicey, two Indian meals for a fiver, can recommend it,) we set off, shopping list in hand. First stop, not on the list, was at the Atlantis Gallery, hired for the weekend for a handbag sale. Bright, welcoming lots of space with boutique clobber for sale. I was pleased I hadn’t just bought a two hundred pound bag for two hundred pounds. Seeing it marked down to £50 might have left me feeling a bit bruised.

With only one checkout for a large room full of people the queue could only be long, combined with no facility to use a charge or credit card; who carries that much cash around with them these days? There was a large pile of identical gloves piled up by the till, “how much are these please?” (I had a pair too) “Forty pounds” and so my pair added to the growing pile. Even if I had thought that their sale value to me was forty pounds (I didn’t), I didn’t happen to be walking around with a bundle of cash or a chequebook. If I had see that they were forty pounds when I first picked them up, I would have left them there, and been happy. That I had picked them up (they were unpriced), considered how great they would have been for my goddaughter, and only then discovered the price, I then have a sense of disappointment to add to the experience. Never smart to disappoint customers or to make it difficult for them to pay.

Then down to the small boutique style shops on Cheshire Street, shops taking the style of a converted front room in a Victorian terraced cottage. “Please knock,” said the sign, “not sure if I can be bothered” was my internalised response. We did, and after an irritating pause the door did open and we managed to gain access to the shop where everything was just a little too much trouble for the pre-occupied sales assistant. Placing obstacles to potential customers has never been on my list of smart things for retailers to do. Security on the door of a Sloane street designer store may add to its allure, especially if you can see the goodies through a large plate-glass window. Knock and wait procedure at the other end of town, where customers may have lots of other places to walk into doesn’t work for me.

Walking through the Dray Walk, where Cafe1001 was heaving with customers inside and out, we noticed two wharehousey spaces either side of the Big Chill. The first space was badged up as “fair trade” merchandise. We wandered in. None of the stallholders seemed particularly keen to sell us anything, though they all seemed to have a warm glow about them. Perhaps that’s the unique selling point of “fair trade” clothing, it’s part of joining a club; you are supposed to get a warm sanctimonious feeling when you buy it, even if it doesn’t look that nice or fit well. Like most clubs, you have to apply to join and we couldn’t find an application form, or anyone to give it to.

The second space, on the other side of the Big Chill, offered a completely different experience. Big windows, well-lit, shiny, music, lots of merchandise, except as we walked in we noticed a sign that read, “entrance £1”. So that’s a charge of one pound so that I can come in as consider buying your goods. Hmm, interesting approach I thought. We weren’t being offered a coffee, or a seat, just admittance, so we declined. Curiously, I felt less affronted by being asked to pay a pound to get into a sales environment that did look vaguely promising, than I did being asked earlier to knock on a dark wooden front door and wait while someone got around to letting us in.

One of the highlights of the weekend shopping was at the end of Sunday afternoon when we were looking for somewhere to eat. Actually we knew where we were going. Busaba Eathai on Store Street, just off Tottenham Court road, is a restaurant that specialises in fast Thai food. Lovely friendly environment recently kitted out in dark brown tables and benches. Warm half lighting, lots of helpful staff, minimal waiting around, huge choice of food served up promptly. Can’t recommend it highly enough, and all for twelve quid a head including a Singa beer.

On the way out I noticed it. On the pavement along side the restaurant, where a queue often forms (well it is very popular) were a line of those outdoors heaters. Those tall gas lit heaters designed to keep you warm when you’re standing around outside at a party wishing you were inside. Heaters to keep their waiting customers warm before they get their seat inside. Now that’s what I call service. Do warm customers buy more? Who cares, nice thoughts like that go along way. We’ll certainly be back.

November 28, 2006

Breakfast of champions?

Filed under: Customer Service — Charles @ 9:26 pm

I smiled when I first read the line “feedback is the breakfast of champions”, it’s so easy to say, even easier to agree with, and leaves a kind of virtuous feeling that comes from being sure about doing the right thing. It’s curious how difficult it can be to actually achieve the state of being open to feedback, and anytime I think I am wide open and welcoming of it, I just have to recollect how I feel when someone talks to me about my various websites. Maybe it’s something about the amount of time and effort I have invested in carefully jumping through programming hoops, when someone gives me the benefit of their views, I can become peculiarly defensive.

Proper feedback is of course very specific. “I think your website is rubbish” is not feedback, it’s not specific enough, it is really only criticism and needs to be filed wherever criticism is filed (can still be helpful). “The so and so page took two minutes to load, which meant that I couldn’t wait and surfed off somewhere else” is very useful feedback, prompting a quick download of image reduction software resulting in a 0.5 sec loading time.

Where am I going with this? I was thinking about organisations that ask customers to complain to them (a great feedback opportunity for any business) by providing a dedicated telephone number or mailing address. I was thinking about this because on September the 14th I wrote to “One”. Of course I mean “One” rail. “One” is an incomplete noun and needs a second word for it to make any sense. In my humble opinion, a completely ridiculous name for a railway company (note I didn’t say “railway service”).

My letter to “One” was the first letter of complaint that I can remember ever writing, and I shan’t bore you with my story. Ok, so it was something about sitting at the railway gates for twelve minutes when no train was coming to subsequently miss my scheduled train by a minute, only to be charged full price for a replacement ticket. All it needed was a swiggle of a biro. I picked up a copy of the customer complaints leaflet and wrote my polite and constructive letter to the designated address.

And what precisely is the purpose of setting up a customer complaints facility if you are not going to do anything with the customers’ complaints you receive. It might just be my complaint of course, though I wouldn’t put money on it. To date, ten weeks and counting, I have been deafened with silence. Not a word, a call, an email, absolutely nothing. I would rather have received prompt “take a hike” response; at least I would have been addressed.

It’s an interesting approach and not one I’ve come across in any business textbook I’ve ever read. Customers don’t actually expect services to be perfect every time and do understand that occasionally things can go wrong. Research suggests that a business can make a loyal advocate from an unhappy customer, simply by acknowledging the complaint and doing something (anything) promptly about it. This makes the approach of “One” particularly innovative. First they invite their customers to send them their complaints about how their service let them down, and then they use the opportunity to add insult to their already injured state by just ignoring them.

Breakfast of champions? I wonder what the guys at “One” eat in the morning, presupposing they are up in time, that is.

November 13, 2006

Life’s too short?

Filed under: Customer Service — Charles @ 9:19 pm

At the end of May, when I moved on from my day to day, working world of general insurance, I ceased to trade through one of my business entities. I cancelled all direct debits and kept the account open so that I could bank odds and sods of receipts that I expected to receive, and settle some last minute bills. All easy stuff?

On my September payment, the previous quarter’s bank charges were £60 or so. A bit high I thought, for an account with about four transactions a month. “Oh that’s for your overdraft facility”, said my helpful bank manager once I had tracked him down. I have ceased trading, I don’t need a facility, I explained. “That’s OK, I’ll cancel it for you”. Perhaps I expect too much. When I briefed him in May, telling him how our account would operate from June onwards, I had expected him to arrange the changes on my account accordingly. I had expected that, in the belief that because he knows how his banking procedures and charging mechanisms work, he would arrange things to my new requirements. Not so.

Also on our September statement was a direct debit for £260.78 from a company called the PHS Group plc. When I called them to ask what they were taking our money for, they apologised for their mistake. My partnership had not ordered any services from them this side of May ‘06 and they had used a cancelled direct debit mandate to take their payment from our bank account. Life is short, too short to invest time in trying to make sense of these things so I settled for a promise that the amount would be promptly refunded.

Except of course, you’ve guessed it, it wasn’t. Three weeks later, and despite three more calls, promises of refunds, promises of anything I’ve asked for, nothing has happened. I was told this morning, that “everything has been agreed, it’s now with customer services”. I would rather it was with their accounts department, actually I would rather it was in my bank account and I would rather have not spent two hours or so through the last three weeks trying to get the matter resolved.

The best the account handler could come up with today was “to be quite honest” (like she wasn’t being honest before?) “you’d do better to speak to your bank”. So I have to ask my bank to give me their money, so that this company can hang onto our money for even longer. At which point I asked for the account handler’s line manager. I was given a name, told that the person was in a meeting (naturally) and was assured that she’d call me back, except of course, you’ve guessed it, she hasn’t.

Maybe life isn’t too short. I’ll keep you posted…

November 5, 2006

Which would you rather hear?

Filed under: Customer Service — Charles @ 9:17 pm

Do you ever shop in the Co-op? If you do you may remember being asked, by the checkout assistant at the till, “share number?” and if you are not a regular customer of the Co-op, you may have been a bit confused by the question. Yes, the Co-op is, as the name more than suggests, a co-operative venture founded and run to share the benefits of its trading with its members. This it does each year by dispersing a share of its profits to those customers who have joined it as a member. The more you pay, the more you receive back as a dividend, a delightfully laudable principal and I wish it well.

When I shop in the Co-op, as a non-member, as a I approach the till, I am already anticipating the question, “share number?” to which I reply “no”, or “I don’t”, however I phrase it, it is still a “no”. And my point is, as any salesman, account handler, will tell you, No is not a word that any business should purposefully elicit from their customer. I don’t know how you experience it but when I am asked for my share number and have to answer with a muted, almost embarrassed “no” I feel cut off, deficient, left out. For sure I could get a share number, but hey, I only went onto the shop for a loaf of bread, yet I as a customer, am left feeling this negative state.

Salesman everywhere will know about the power of the “yes-set”. Never ask a question that you need a positive answer to, a “yes”, if your potential customer has just either said or is likely to be thinking a “no”. It is the oldest trick in the sales book, start the customer building agreement with you, the yes set, before popping the closing question.

No Problem. When I am negotiating arrangements with a supplier, or anyone come to that, I do not like to hear “no”, I certainly do want to hear about “problems”. Yet this expression is supposed to make me feel reassured, except that it doesn’t. From my negative state brought on by the disagreement “no” set, all I hear is problems…

The reason for this is that the brain does not recognise the “no”, all it hears is “problem”. It’s like the words of encouragement “don’t slip”, the mind hears “slip” and the body follows the command. Or in the golfing world, “don’t hit the water” (thank you I hadn’t even seen it until you just drew my attention to it) followed by a splash.

As a side issue, I have noticed that when people get used to saying “no problem” it can quickly fall into their regular language. If I hear one, I’ll bet I hear half a dozen before I have concluded a transaction.

And my point is? My point is that if you are in business the last thing you should be doing is planting disagreement in your customers’ minds. There is usually plenty of difficult stuff to negotiate around without bringing it on with sloppy use of language. What would I rather hear? Variations on the “yes” theme: can do, OK, love to, easy. Feel free to regard these as cheesy lines, in many situations they are, except when I want to get something done. Which would you rather hear?

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