What ‘Next’ for customer service?

In the age of technology, super-efficient logistics models and the ‘always on’ society that we live in, purchasing a sofa may seem a pretty simple task.

My mission was to purchase a low price sofa for a family member who lives about 100 miles from me. They needed it quite quickly, ideally within a week.

I started with the usual culprits…SCS, DFS, etc…who are promising delivery by Christmas. I then progressed to those that you expect to deliver quite quickly – Tesco, Argos, Sainsbury, all doing large ranges of furniture with some good deals…but still 3 weeks or more to deliver. Ikea was next…good availability but quality and comfort was suspect. Finally coming to the conclusion that I may have to pay a little more, I looked at John Lewis, Marks and Spencers…all long delivery times…and then Next.

At last, a website that offered delivery on sofas in certain fabrics within 5 days…great! But this is where it all started to go wrong…

I scanned through the sofa styles, cross referenced the fabrics and was ready to place the order on a sofa in a ‘5 day fabric’ that fitted the bill. All boxes completed on the order form regarding the sofa specification…8 weeks delivery quoted! I tried another sofa…12 weeks!

By this time it was 10.15pm but luckily their customer services team would be there until 11pm so I gave them a call. Apparently their systems do not your enable them to show 5 day delivery – only 2 weeks. But if it quotes over 2 weeks it’s likely to be out of stock. If it quotes 2 weeks, however, you can order it and then, if you need the sofa sooner, you phone the customer service team and they’ll arrange it manually…although it doesn’t say this on the website!

I thanked them and returned to the site to find an acceptable sofa quoting 2 weeks delivery.

20 minutes later I was ready to place the order again. This time I got a little further…sofa specification and part way through the address details. But as a new build home, the address didn’t show up in the search and it wouldn’t accept manual entry, so I decided as a last resort to call the Next customer services line again and order directly over the phone.

I said that I wanted the 5 day delivery. Unfortunately, she explained, the delivery would be 14 days. I told her about the issue they had with their system and that she would have to adjust it manually (strange to have to tell the supplier how their system works). The lady went to speak to her manager and returned to confirm that it would be fine. I went through the whole order process, product, delivery address, credit card….”is the credit card registered to the address where you want delivery?”, I was asked. “No” I responded. “Then we can’t accept your order”.

At this stage, after days of trying to do what I believed would be a relatively simple task, I was a little frustrated. I wanted to give Next money for a product and specific service they clearly offer on their website but they wouldn’t accept the order. “What now?” I asked. “You’ll have to go into a store and order it, as they will be able to take your credit card there and deliver to a different address”.

By this point anyone in their right mind would have given up…but it appeared to be the only way to get a sofa in five days. So I headed off to the Next store in Peterborough this morning, knowing that they had a specific ‘Homeware’ department. Great, the exact sofa was on display, correct fabric and a big sign advertising the ‘Express 5 Day Delivery’.

One lady was just completing her transaction and another had joined the queue behind me. I suggested she went first, knowing it may take longer to purchase a sofa as opposed to a cushion. Finally, I asked the sales assistant if I could order a sofa. She went to find someone else to help me.

A gentleman arrived and I said that I wanted to purchase a sofa, on the ‘Express 5 Day Delivery’ and have it delivered to an address other than that to which my credit card was registered. He wrote this down and disappeared again returning with another lady. All three of us worked through the design, fabric, leg colour, etc using two separate computer terminals and he told me that delivery would be in 48 days. I asked which fabric was available on the 5 day delivery. He confirmed a couple of options one of which was acceptable but on entering the details it came up with 2 weeks delivery.

I then recounted the previous evenings tale and suggested that it was manually adjusted. He decided to call Head Office, only to return to tell me “No, it’s definitely two weeks”.

At this point, my ‘toys left the pram!’ and I told them that they were advertising an offer they obviously couldn’t fulfill and I suggested that they find a way to deliver on the promise Next were making both online and in their instore communications. The gentleman, who I have to say was trying his best, suggested I may like to go for a coffee whilst he worked out what to do and he’d call me.

After about 30 minutes I received a call saying that he thought he’d sorted it out and if I wanted to return we could try again.

I did, and it all went through without a hitch. Though I did smart somewhat when at the end he asked me if I’d tried Next Online service as there was a special offer…I reminded him that I had definitely experienced their online service.

But what can we learn from this experience?

  • Never launch an offer if your systems are not capable of fulfilling it seamlessly
  • Never publicise an offer in store or online if you have not fully trained all staff likely to face the customer to a consistent level
  • Update the website if certain products are not in stock to remove the offer and the need to progress through the whole order process to find out
  • If you get something wrong, admit it and make it better. Particularly if this is the first experience of shopping with a company, you will lose the customer for life if you do nothing to make them want to give you a second chance.

So what now? I’ll find out whether the delivery arrives on time and in good condition, which I sincerely hope it does. And will I shop with them again? Would you?

The measurement of integrity

The Sunday Times Appointments Section today featured a fascinating article by Adrian Furnham of University College London, entitled ‘The managers who leave their integrity at the door‘. This article expands on the comments I made in the recent blogpost ‘The value of values’. We are all likely to know or have heard of the type of manager referred to in this article and certainly in my 20+ years in business I have had the displeasure to work with one or two. Luckily, however, this has been infrequent and I have generally been very lucky to work with some very professional people where ethics and integrity were high on their personal agenda and contributed to their success.

Furnham questions how you identify managers with little integrity and how companies can go about assessing the integrity of their teams…a tricky one, as he says, as if you question a manager who operates without integrity, he is unlikely to tell the truth!

Only through confidential interviews or questionnaires with peers or subordinates who have actually had time to get to know the practices of their colleague, will information emerge that clarifies their position on integrity.

Furnham suggests considering a series of statements in relation to your boss or colleague:

  • They are always trusted by people in the work group;
  • They always maintain high personal standards;
  • They always tell the truth;
  • They always put the organisation’s interests above their own;
  • There is always consistency between what they say and what they do.

If you believe that any of these statements are untrue, it is worthy of a closer review. It is not sufficient to talk about integrity in the values of the business. But what should a company do to assess the values of their key team members?

It is here that 360 degree appraisals are of value, not as a one-off solution but on an annual basis. If the right questions are asked, such as questions on the points listed above, it should be easy to find individual issues and points where a consensus is reached on an individual’s behaviours by a team. All results should be shared with the level above the manager of the person being assessed…ie the level beyond those covered in the 360 degree review.

As Furnham says, ‘Integrity has to be modelled from the top. Integrity issues need to be discussed, not pushed under the carpet. And everyone should know that integrity will be assessed annually, and the organisation has zero tolerance of unethical behaviour.’

Do we need a work-life balance?

What is the truth about work-life balance? 

There are many occasions when we are asked about our work-life balance – on courses, personal development programmes, by our managers, or even by friends and family. But what does it mean? What is a work-life balance? If you work ‘too much’, is it bad? How do you define ‘too much’?

How can others comment on another person’s work-life balance? Surely only an individual can understand if it is ‘balanced’ for them.

Some people get great enjoyment out of work, like to be challenged and are eager for the interaction they get in an office environment. Others may find work hugely stressful – a level of stress that impacts their health and personal life. Both these people could be in very similar jobs, but respond differently to the pressures and challenges that they face.

In the majority of publicity about work-life balance the perception is that work is bad and life is good. But for many this is not the case. If you love the work you do, and are both challenged and motivated, work is merely part of who you are, part of life. The balance is therefore down to the individual and not something that can be found in a prescriptive, ‘fits all’ solution.

Chance meetings

I headed off early for a meeting in London today. Plenty to keep me occupied on the two hour journey, changing trains at Cambridge.

About an hour into the journey an ex colleague boarded the train. We’ve not met for nearly a year but it was a great diversion from the planned reading to stop and catch up.

One of the subjects of conversation was networking and its benefits. It’s clear that networks matter and the maintenance and nurturing of contacts cannot be underestimated. Sharing information, what mutual contacts are up to and the changes in the market place are always fascinating and help you keep abreast of activity from another perspective. And another person’s perspectives is helpful to ensure you think about an issue or a subject from more than one angle, potentially highlighting something you may otherwise have missed or an alternative approach that may offer a better solution.

Chance meetings are, by their nature, not guaranteed. So ensure you build in some guaranteed networking time with customers, supplies, contacts from other industries, colleagues or like-minded individuals at conferences or seminars, some of which are often free, on a regular basis.

The investment is usually only your time, and it’s worth investing a small amount of your time to gain a new perspective on the future.

The time to think

How often do we stop and think in a business environment?  No, really…take time out to consider our options and the best route forwards.

We all know that we need to take time for our families and are frequently challenged to maintain a work-life balance (a subject for another post!) but what about the time needed to think about our career, or about what we do at work?

How often do we stop and think before we dive into the creation of our next PowerPoint presentation…understanding exactly what message we want to get across?

How often do we consider what’s important? When did you last stop and have a coffee with one of your team who needed your support on a project but maybe thought you were too busy to ask?

What would we do differently? How could we be more effective or manage things better? Why don’t we spend more time networking with people outside the business from whom we could learn new skills or new approaches to our business challenges?

So many questions, but every now and again we all need to get off the hamster wheel of life and reflect on our priorities, our teams needs and how we could do things differently to deliver a better result. And we need to do this without guilt that we may be letting things slip.

Take time to think, reflect and reassess how you do things…as taking time now may just make you more effective in the future.

Doing what matters

Last week Seth Godin blogged about the Nile Perch. This is a massive fish and fierce predator which feeds on fish including its own species, having a negative effect on the ecosystem.

Godin drew similarities to any major new project or overbearing team member and the risks involved as the project becoming the centre of attention, often diverting the eye from the critical issues and the activities that are required to run a successful business.

The analogy is a good one. It is all too easy to allow a major project to take hold and overwhelm the ecosystem within a business, allowing it to sap too many resources, demanding corrective action to address financial or personal impact which, in return, impact on more valuable activities. But what three actions could help to avoid this?

  • Plan effectively, review the status constantly and don’t go live with a project that has fatal flaws – it is easy to set sail but if there are holes in the boat, they are much easier and quicker to fix before the boat is launched!
  • Ensure full information is shared with the relevant people. It only takes one person with good knowledge of a subject to prevent a disaster. So ensure those with the knowledge are present on the project team from the outset.
  • A strong project manager who understands the resource requirements and can plan effectively is required.  They need to understand when these resource requirements will peak and how they impact other workflows on projects running consecutively or day-to-day activities.

But most of all, the project team need to be able to say ‘no’, to delay or to have the nerve to stop the project if the impact of a flawed launch is too great a risk.

The Nile Perch is not extinct, it still exists. So look out for it in your business and manage, don’t let it destroy, the ecosystem.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but…

Press announcements, internal announcements, meetings, one to one communications, advertising, editorial, advertorials, blogs, podcasts, tweets…we are hit each day by a vast amount of communication in businesses, and that is before we venture out of our ‘business environment’ and into the social world where the range of messages we encounter multiplies beyond belief.

But what can actually be believed in business and social communications? What is unwritten but easily read, or sometimes written but blatantly untrue?

Yesterday, The Telegraph featured an article about Tripadvisor, the worlds largest travel review website, entitled ‘Tripadvisor reviews: can we trust them?’.  It brought to our attention that one of the most respected travel websites is not necessarily all it is cracked up to be. The article highlighted the practice commonly undertaken of seeding online forums and bulletin boards with targeted content and creating profiles or posting “neutral” messages to establish a credible background for a product, brand or service.

And whilst this practice grows and more and more agencies sell their capabilities to offer this service, what does this do for the consumer?

In May 2008 new regulations were introduced as part of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations that controlled viral seeding on social media channels. These regulations attempt to clamp down on unfair sales and marketing practices relating to the faking of positive brand messages. But it may be that there is still some way to go in order to achieve compliance.

So whilst regulations are being introduced to help control the integrity of some types of communications, all communications, whether internal or consumer facing are still open to abuse. For many, it will be immensely difficult to differentiate fact from fiction without the full information available to them, often known only by the select few.

Learnings from ‘The Apprentice’

The Apprentice kicked off again this week on BBC1. Lord Sugar will again put sixteen candidates through a gruelling 12 week programme to win a top job working in one of his businesses.

Whilst the programme is hugely entertaining as the collection of some of the most arrogant young people across the UK meet for a battle of egos, the one most revealing programme in the series for me is the week they conduct traditional job interviews with the remaining candidates.

When any manager conducts an interview, particularly at this level, it’s vital to understand what the candidate knows about your business. Their ability to display a basic understanding of the company shows a number of things to an interviewer:

  • The candidate is likely to be basing their decision to attend the interview on a reasonable level of understanding about your business
  • They want the job enough to put in some preparation work
  • They may have planned and anticipated some questions that they are likely to get asked at the interview regarding the business

It is usually shocking in the extreme, how little effort the candidates on The Apprentice actually put in to researching Lord Sugar’s business empire…despite having had the ability to watch prior series’ of the show to understand what will be expected.

It’s not just the candidates on The Apprentice who are guilty of a lack of preparation, however, many candidates for interviews at all levels in businesses everywhere make the same mistake.

So what preparation should a candidate undertake?  This will obviously vary depending on the role, but there are some basics which apply to any management role and which would be of value for any position.

  • Check out the company website – what does the company do? What service do they offer? Who do they sell to? Do they sell online? Are they owned by a larger organisation? Are they FTSE listed?
  • Search for the business on Google – Who are their main competitors? What news stories can you find about the company?
  • Review their parent company’s website (if they are owned by a larger organisation) and read about the other businesses within the group, look at the Annual Report if available on the site, etc.
  • If the company’s products are available in retail outlets or on the internet, do some on or offline ‘store checks’ to see how the products are merchandised, where in the store they sit, what the main competitor products are, whether there is any promotional activity in the category
  • Check whether the company has a social media presence – a Facebook page, Twitter account, LinkedIn Group, etc and how they use them to engage customers or staff
  • Look at LinkedIn. On the LinkedIn website you may be able to find a profile of the company, but more importantly look at the profile/s of the person/people who are interviewing you. What is their background? Review any recommendations to see what they are like to work for.

LinkedIn is also a vital resource for the interviewer to check out the consistency of the Curriculum Vitae and any recommendations the candidates may have on the site prior to the interview commencing.

And as an interviewer, don’t forget to ask the same questions about the business to internal candidates…these are often some of the least prepared, thinking they will not be asked as it will be assumed (often wrongly) that they know about the company they work for!

It should be a concern to any interviewer that a candidate should arrive unprepared for an interview which may result in their career progression…surely if someone is not going to prepare to support their own career, they will never prepare for meetings thoroughly or plan projects effectively if they secure the job.

Turning issues into advocacy

In a post today by Canadian blogger Mitch Joel, owner of agency Twist Image, Mitch spoke about two recent experiences of bad service and how companies often fail to engage with people who complain via traditional media.

This is very true and something I have experienced on a number of occasions in a business environment over recent years. It is a personal priority that customer service should be given equal importance to employee engagement as without engaged staff you will never deliver outstanding customer service…and without loyal customers, you won’t need the engaged staff!

But poor customer service by the traditional methods of mail, phone, face to face and even email will drive customers to use social media as a method of communication to deliver their negative comments regarding your products or service. It is often out of frustration that customers use these media to complain, making it visible to all, as opposed to a more personal one-to-one communication.

If a customer feels the need to complain publicly, it is important that a business recognises that the customer has an issue, whether they believe it to be true or not. And this issue needs to be addressed.

The benefit of the social media complaint, however, is that it can also be solved in the public domain, giving you the opportunity to show how effectively and professionally your business can turn a dissatisfied customer into an advocate. This can have a hugely positive impact on your broader customer and potential customer base.

So remember a customer who believes they have a problem has a problem that needs addressing, whether you agree or not. But address it effectively in a social media environment and you can have a loyal customer for life in addition to positive repercussions in the broader community…and the community is likely to include other potential customers who share the same interests as your new loyal customer as people who use social media tend to ‘congregate’ in communities of like-minded individuals.

Solve it quickly, professionally, publicly and reap the rewards but don’t forget that some customers still prefer traditional methods of communication and these must be addressed with the same speed and professionalism to develop advocates for your brand.

It’s all about attitude

In marketing, sales, customer service…in fact any area of a business that has interaction in any way with the customer, a ‘can do’ attitude is half the battle.

If a customer calls and asks for something specific, for example ‘can you source me a product that is not in your core range?’, ‘how can I market your products better to the end user?’, or ‘I don’t understand how to get this service to work for me and support my business growth’, a ‘can do’ attitude will often keep the customer loyal…even if the problem can’t be solved immediately!

All too often, the response can vary from not returning a call to a slightly abrupt ‘it’s not something we do’. There are always things which are just not feasible, but a ‘can do’ attitude around service often makes up for this and adds a great deal of value to your product or service offer.

So before you say ‘I can’t’, think ‘How can I…?’. It often makes your job more rewarding too!