Charles Howden

April 4, 2007

Too much too ask?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charles @ 5:11 pm

This weekend was the first time I have used Ryanair. I was curious when I started because through the previous week, anytime I mentioned Ryanair, I was met with variations of “Ryanair? I hate them”, “Ryanair? I’ll never fly with them”, “**** Ryanair”. With an intro like that, I couldn’t, not be curious.

I had been warned that 15kg weight allowance for checked-in luggage might be a problem. I packed sparingly, in a heavy case, and when I arrived near the check in, I looked for some scales to check the weight so that if my bag was overweight, I might move some of it to my hand luggage. On checking in, however I tried to gently let my bag down with a supporting index finger, the scales still read 18kg. A moderately friendly to warming telling off and we escaped a surcharge and onto the plane with the help (or not) of cabin crew who looked more interested in chewing their gum, than in smiling at us and making us feel at home, and off we went.

Coming home and my bag had gained a couple of kilos so I paid a surcharge of €24. Ouch, though I hadn’t been charged on the way out, so probably, despite the irritation, all-square.

On the plane and my round of drinks challenged the amount of available change. “I’ll owe you £3.00”, Ok by me, I don’t need it right now. Half an hour later and the drinks trolley passed me going in the opposite direction having finished its journey up and down the aisle. No change. Five minutes later and a member of the cabin staff walked up the aisle with what looked like a plastic mug of cash takings. No takings. My travelling partner asked if I really was expecting my change to be returned. Actually I was.

After an hour, my customer service project was outliving its interest. When another member of the cabin staff walked past I took the opportunity of asking “I think your drinks trolley owes me £3.00” “I’ll go and check” was the polite reply. I was hopeful. Half an hour later, with the tangible feelings of a flight in descent mode and I was becoming less hopeful. I was in luck as another member of staff walked past. “Your drinks trolley left owing me £3.00, I have already asked one of your colleagues to find it for me. What do I need to do to get my money back?” “Oh let me find it for you” pause “Just wait a minute”. So I did. In fact I waited seven, when a different member of the crew came walking down the aisle jangling change. “I think that’s probably mine” I volunteered, offering my upturned palm. Without a word he gave me £3.00 and walked off.

People forget, things get overlooked, stuff happens for sure. In life, what generally puts these situations right, is ¬an apology, an acknowledgement, a recognition of an inconvenience caused. Too much to ask? Apparently, for the team of that Ryanair flight, yes it was.

I’m not in the “Ryanair? I hate them” camp, life’s too short. I am in the “Ryanair, I’ll fly with someone else first if I can” camp. And that is my point. Manners are not just a matter of human decency. They are an essential part of customer service which companies ignore at their peril.


January 19, 2007

I have been conducting some further research on “Customer Value Creation” this week.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charles @ 10:16 pm

I have been conducting some further research on “Customer Value Creation” this week. I need to have some more evidence to support an academic article, which I am hoping to have published this spring.

I like doing this work because it involves me in talking to customers and unpicking how a particular product (or in my case, a service) supports a person’s whole system of personal values. In short, customers buy products and services (especially complex ones) to help them to achieve what they value in life. In a systematic way, customers buy, say, toothpaste, to support their belief and values about who they are as unique individuals. Sound complicated? It’s easier than it sounds, and discovers amazing marketing information to inform future product design.

This research goes to the heart of the difference between the study of customer value and the recording of customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction, at best, is a report card on how customers perceive their experience of using a business’ product (stated in the past). Customer value is a study of what it is that customers expect and want to receive from using a particular product in the future.

Why should anyone care? Product design based on measurement of customer satisfaction is like designing future products based on what the customer used to want. It does not elicit information about what it is that will drive a customer’s future purchasing decisions.

I may love my Bang and Olufsen sound system which I bought in a fit of indulgence four years ago. It’s looks beautiful and sounds OK. If B&O rang me up and asked how satisfied I was with my purchase I would wax lyrical about the whole experience. At every level, I am satisfied with my purchase. So, if I should happen to be in the market to buy another sound system, would I buy one from B&O? Absolutely not.

If B&O undertook a customer perceived value survey with me, they would know this already. “If you were buying a sound system in the next month, what would it need to have to for you to be happy with it?” (Big open question, allowing me to go in any direction with my answer, from “purple speakers” to “iPod hook-up’’). Further questions would drill down to elicit more detail from my answers. After half an hour of this needs elicitation process, B&O would know that my need for super wireless connectivity, so that I could position speakers anywhere in my house, with the flexibility to move them around at will, would prevent them from selling their existing range of hardware to me. Is this important to them? If I should happen to represent a section of their target market, then I would suggest, yes.

Customer value studies examine current and future purchasing motivation. Not just in terms of product features but also in use, and in desired end states. This is the information that businesses need if they are going to create the customer satisfaction of the future. Satisfaction they can measure should they need to, giving them an indicator of how well they are delivering value to their existing customers. Arguably, the sales figures will tell management everything they need to know about how successful they were in hitting the mark).

Customers’ expectations change through time. The little gizmos and extras that once had us spellbound and were features on premium goods, quickly become passé and normal features on standard models. A bit like air conditioning in cars from exclusivity to ubiquity in fifteen years of design improvement, which is a tribute to the innovation of manufacturing industry processes.

Which leaves me wondering what it is that holds the service sector back from so rapidly improving their product offer. Let me guess at one of the reasons. The quality of service delivery is generally created by the relationship between a business’ staff and it’s customers, and enabled by efficient and flexible systems. Improving the quality of this relationship requires investment in training and individual performance coaching, an investment, which is not shown on a conventional balance sheet, and an investment which walks out of the door every night, and may not come back in the morning.

You won’t be surprised to learn that when I elicit value drivers from customers of insurance businesses, the top three all relate to the quality of the relationship with the individuals at that business. I’ll leave you to guess at the balance between the investment in staff training, and investment in more tangible assets.

November 23, 2006

As it turns out, I didn’t smudge the walls.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charles @ 9:24 pm

Of course we all know that customer service is a dynamic process, our perceptions and standards move on as we quickly take for granted the level of service we experience, and expect to receive still more, and certainly, never less.

I had the perfect example of this on Monday when I went to buy some blue tack. Well not exactly blue tack, more like white blue tack. Blue tack which is blue, can leave a blue stain when used on white walls. I was delivering some training on Tuesday and was aware that the training room that I was using had recently been redecorated. I did not want to be held responsible for smudging the beautiful clean white walls. For this situation, white blue tack is the answer. White blue tack is a bit too sticky, but it does not leave a blue stain and perfect for freshly decorated white walls.

So that was the reason that I found myself in my local office supplies retail outlet (not exactly a shop) called Impact Office Supplies. In a past business life we used this business for all the stationary we couldn’t buy much more cheaply from Staples. I always resented shopping at Impact because it was expensive and they never seemed to have exactly what I needed (always at the last minute). Despite me being a perfect example of a sceptical, reluctant, last minute, urgent customer, I was usually given an increasing level of customer care from a very courteous and helpful member of their sales team called Rosie. When ever I asked for something that was not on the shelves (the very reason I was there, because I needed one straight off the shelf there and then), Rosie would ask me “when do you need this, because I can order this for you so that it will be here tomorrow, I could deliver it if you like”. She was clearly trying to help me, and over time, I got used to being looked after by someone who was keen to help me.

On Monday evening, Rosie was not in the store. I asked the sales assistant who was there “do you have any white blue tack?” To which the tart reply was “No”, end of interaction. The assistant walked off and left me standing there. The “no” I was kind of expecting. I have frequently heard it in the past when trying to buy some ordinary item of stationary. What I was expecting to then hear was “when do you need this, because I can order this for you so that it will be here tomorrow, I could deliver it if you like”. Instead of which I was left standing there, at the counter, staring incredulously into space.

Which gave me a great lesson that when a business is delivering a particular level of service and care, however good and advanced it may be, customers get used to it and will instantly recognised if the level drops off. On this occasion I ended up with blue blue tack, and as it turns out, I didn’t smudge the walls.

October 23, 2006

Do they put in the loft or do they put it in the skip?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charles @ 8:18 pm

Sitting at the traffic lights on the Old Kent Road on Saturday afternoon, I noticed a busy retail store with loads of activity going on inside it. Glancing up at the shop front, I saw that the store was “Carphone Warehouse” and for a moment I sensed confusion. Carphone? And then I remembered. It was of course only five years ago when mobiles replaced carphones and now I wonder does anyone buy a carphone these days?

Thinking back fifteen years or so ago, I remember buying my first carphone, in a world when carphones were novel and something that caused comment. Now they are an irrelevance in a world of mobiles, blackberries, and PDAs.

Disposing of old carphones taught me about the temporal nature of hi tech. The first two, I probably put up in the loft because I couldn’t bear to take the £100 trade-in that the dealer offered (in the days when a new carphone cost £1,200). Of course I ended up throwing them in a skip a few years later when they were even more irrelevant and unusable. These days we have ebay, which could help except that canny shoppers on ebay are even more choosey about the technology they buy. So invariably, these days it’s the skip, straight away.

Which highlights the danger of pinning a brand name or brand identity on an item of technology; it must have seemed a good idea at the time. And although it did not seem to deter shoppers on Saturday afternoon, at some point it’s going to go out of date. I imagine the discussion goes on occasionally in the boardroom of Carphone Warehouse, do they put in the loft or do they put it in the skip?

October 22, 2006

Thanks, but no thanks!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charles @ 8:02 pm

I love the Virgin Net attitude to a contractual agreement. There isn’t one. The message is that if you don’t like what we do, you can leave us. I love it. I have been a happy customer for several years now. For those companies that insist on a signed contract for a £15/month service, my question is “what action will you take if an unhappy customer leaves you after six months? Will you really pursue them through the small claims courts?” Thanks, but no thanks.

October 11, 2006

It insults the customer who deserve better when they are trying to spend their money…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charles @ 7:59 pm

I was writing last week about what a great experience it was to be helped by a gifted sales assistant. We were in Oxford at the weekend and inevitably found ourselves in a clothes store. On Saturday afternoon it was Toast (by name, maybe by nature).

Because my fiancé liked some of the shoes on show, she started to engage in the sales process. Our assistant was very presentable and extremely polite (squeaky posh actually). I’m guessing that whoever interviewed her thought, hmm, nice girl (a person like me, that is, the interviewer), she’ll be fine, you’re hired. Great, except that politeness is only the starting point of the process. It takes more than politeness and a smile to be a competent sales assistant. Rapport gets you started, now you need to do some work.

Do you have this in this size? What colours have you got? Can I see a pair of those? And this is where through all the politeness, the cracks started to appear. It quickly became obvious that the assistant did not know what was in stock, how long it would be before fresh stock arrived, what the full range was in terms of size and colour, how to give appropriate guidance, reassurance (very relevant for high ticket items) or attempt some trial closing. Our assistant was doing the best she could, she was clearly very bright and meant well, she just didn’t understand the sales process.

In casual conversation, when I asked her how long she had been with the shop, she told me that it was her Saturday job, and this was her second week. From what I saw, I can only conclude that, if she had received any training at all, it was probably only on how to work the till. This is probably not uncommon. Yet, how much inherent knowledge about the sales process would you reasonably expect an eighteen-year-old undergraduate to have?

I am working on the premise that there is a need to ease the sales process. I don’t think that complex garments just sell themselves without advice and guidance, and I see this as an essential role of a sales assistant.

Perhaps the owners of such shops assume that all new members of staff will learn “through experience”. For staff that don’t get training, formal or informal, then the only way they can learn, assuming they are motivated enough to try, is through trial and error over a period of time.

Is “experience” a learning process? We do not expect brain surgeons to “pick it up as they go along” because we expect some knowledge to be required. For sure, once a surgeon has studied the books, watched an operation or two, cut a bit around the edges, we might be comfortable if they then, with guidance, went a bit further; dug a bit deeper if you will.

Fortunately, being a great sales assistant does not require the same level of knowledge as brain surgery, though I maintain that there are skills involved, and a number of processes to chose from. Few of these, I believe, can be learned by trial and error without knowledge of the process.

If “experience” is a learning process, is it cost effective? OK, so the cost of training is avoided, as is the staff downtime. Balance this against the loss of failing to convert good sales opportunities and creating a returning customer, and worse, the possibility of creating a poor experience for a potential customer resulting in them never returning to the store.

I don’t like it because it fails to recognise the value that a skilled sales assistant can contribute to the business results. It fails to pass on skills to young people who deserve to be invested in. And finally, it insults the customer who deserve better when they are trying to spend their money. On this occasion, we didn’t spend ours.

October 3, 2006

It’s not that I get bored when I go shopping…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charles @ 7:47 pm

It’s not that I get bored when I go shopping; it’s just that I can get bored when I am with other people doing their shopping. Have you ever been there? The understanding that most (mortal) people are primarily focused all the time on their own needs is perhaps fundamental to the world of NLP. We can all be in charge of creating our own experience of reality; it’s just that only a few of us understand that we have real choice about how we do that. Anyway, to get to my point.

When I am out on a shopping trip and get bored, I start examining the customer service on offer. A couple of evenings ago, I was in Oasis, just of Oxford Street, waiting in a queue for the checkout. The young women who was working our till had time for every customer “that’s a nice pair of shoes, have you seen the belt?” I initially made the assumption that the women knew the girl she was serving because her voice tone was so friendly and spontaneous. After I had heard her comment to the second customer “I love that jumper, did you see it on the poster? The trousers look great”, and then to us, the third in the queue, “that hat is really funky, looks nice” I realised that something else was going on.

Either she was just being herself, naturally taking an interest, or this was an exquisite example of how to cement customer loyalty, and prompt some up-selling. Great to observe, great to be the recipient of, very impressive.

And if I had been asked, “ever thought about trying our insurance?” (See previous blog “Which would you rather pick up?”) I’d have struggled to say no, I would have wanted to say yes, which is, of course, the power created by personalised customer experience.

October 2, 2006

Filling in their paperwork is not my idea of a good start.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charles @ 7:46 pm

Is it just me? I don’t know about you but I absolutely resent having to fill in basic information for any organisation that can’t be bothered to do it for me once I have already given it to them.

Every time I buy anything from one of the professional Institutes to which I am a member, I am asked to print off an application form, which I am then asked to complete by hand and fax back. This is despite the fact that I have a shiny (golden) membership card, with a membership number, which is presumably supported by all my relevant personal information already on file. Never mind the fact that fax machines are becoming just about as easy to find as phone boxes.

On the last occasion I needed to order something, I politely asked whether if I verbally gave them my name and membership number, they would have enough information to complete my transaction. After a pause, the answer was a reluctant yes. Well of course it was, so why was this not suggested in the first place? Draw your own conclusions.

I will admit to being sensitive in this area. One of my frustrations with the part of the insurance world that I used to occupy was the constant requirement for handwritten duplication of information we already held. Asking a customer to fill in his name and address on six separate proposal forms just because his son was joining the business resulting in a change of business title, required more neck than I gladly have, so I used to complete the forms for them.

Where there is a will there’s a way and one way that I chose to judge a company is how easy they are making it for me to do business with them. Filling in their paperwork is not my idea of a good start. Good. I got that off my chest.

September 28, 2006

Which would you rather pick up?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charles @ 7:16 pm

Waiting in the very slow moving queue for the checkout in Marks and Spencer’s last night my sight was drawn to the neat row of “interest arousers” promoting their range of insurance products. I recalled that Tesco’s promote their in a similar way. I suspect they were neat because they were not exactly flying off the shelf. I do not remember ever seeing anyone picking one up in all the many times I have spent waiting at a checkout.

As I waited in the queue, I couldn’t help but think that insurance is a service, or in these cut-priced commoditised days, a product, that is bought grudgingly rather than sold. Customers do not buy their car or household insurance unless they have reached their renewal date, which in the UK means every twelve months. Out of that pre-renewal period, in my experience, domestic consumers will kill, rather than engage in a discussion about domestic insurance products (and I do speak from experience).

Under FSA regulations, renewal papers have to be with customers three weeks before renewal date so, assuming their insurers sent it to them on time, and that customers read their post promptly, 5.7% of customers may be aware that they have a buying need. That’s maybe one out of every twenty customers.

If customers have a house as well as a car to insure they may have a need twice a year. This is a big assumption in town because not every individual will have a house and a car, they may share both with someone else, they may have neither a house nor a car (unlikely in M&S), they may have a company car or not drive at all.

As I think about this, I’m struggling to work the numbers. I thought I could raise the potential buyers to above one in twenty but I’m struggling even to keep it to that level.

Never mind the whole thing about customers not expecting to buy their general insurance from a retailer, I may come back to this on another occasion. Supermarkets struggle to get into this market place, even with commoditised products, partly because customers do not recognise them providers of financial services and general insurance (no suits). The environment is also against them. Having fought your way around the aisles, queued at the checkout, packed your plastic bags, recycled or not, do you really want to spend another ten minutes in that environment talking about a subject you may have discomfort with anyway?

So I would suggest using that valuable space by the checkout to sell or promote something else. Maybe something to bring joy to the heart of a tired, weary, shopper. Small, high margin, impulse buy, along with frequently forgotten items such as razor blades, chocolates, and 250ml bottles of champagne, please add to the list. Which would you rather pick up?

September 15, 2006

Just as your mother taught you!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charles @ 7:15 pm

I’m always on the look out for new training material and yesterday during a routine Google search I came across a company called “Respond”, who promise “We can help you make more sense of what your customers are telling you, so you can extend and improve customer service, empower frontline staff, reduce costs and boost efficiency”. Wow, I thought, I bet they’ve got some really good stuff, I wonder how they deliver their customer services training, perhaps they use associates like me…

Well I could have emailed, except that I am currently on a “just do it” mission, so I picked up the telephone and called the telephone number on their contacts page. No reply, the answerphone came on. Ok, I thought, maybe they have one receptionist managing their incoming calls as well as everything else, I’ll call back. Which I did half an hour later, and then again after another half hour.

I thought I would look at their office locations and found their London details c/w a phone number, which I called. Now I was expecting, well what would you expect from a company that promises to “extend and improve customer service”?

The phone was, at least, answered with courtesy.

Me. “Good morning, can you help me? Could you put me through to whoever arranges the customer services training in your business?”

They. Silence. “Do you have their name?”

Me. “I don’t, perhaps you could help me. Who do I need to talk to?”

They. “I can’t give that information out, has someone given you their name?”

Me. “No. I was rather hoping that you would be able to help me”

They. Pause. “Shall I put you through to sales?”

Me. “This is not a sales enquiry, I was hoping to speak to someone who arranges your customer sales training”


Me. “Is there anything you can do to help me?”

They. Pause “Perhaps if you speak to the office manager”

Me. “Thank you, that’ll be great”

They. Much clicking, silence, more clicking followed by a dead line.

For sure I was not buying from that company on that particular occasion. Some might say that if I was in the role of a salesman I should expect a different level of service, except that one of the basic rules of customer service is that you never know who your customers are. Today I am a salesman, tomorrow I may be a buyer.

For pragmatic reasons alone, it is worth looking after everyone who interacts with your business. The inconvenient caller requesting an impossible request from you today, may also be the person who licks stamps in the post room of your biggest customer. How fast are they going to be tomorrow, to mail out the envelope with your cheque in it. OK so payments are made electronically today, you get the picture.

Back to my call. It is possible that the company has rigid rules, which prevented the receptionist from helping me. How should that be handled? Using the absolute number one rule in any customer interaction, with rapport and empathy. With politeness and civility, just as your mother taught you.

“Thank you for your call. I’d love to able to help you, if you’d like to email your request to me and I’ll see that the relevant person receives it”

“It sounds like I have not been able to help you, we have rigid company rules which prevent me from giving out the names of our staff, could you put your request in writing?”

“It’s not my intention to be difficult, I really would like to help, it’s just that we have strict company rules about how to deal with sales calls, perhaps if you put your request in writing”.

You get the picture, dead easy really and at no cost to the company providing it, except of course, it is so rarely done. Should keep me in work for a while though!

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