Charles Howden

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?

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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