Will customer experience survive Brexit?

The UK’s Brexit crisis means more investment in CX not less

I write this article from a country under siege. For months the UK has been in the grip of what appears to be a never-ending debate on a topic that around 97% of the population have lost interest in. Today (Tuesday 29th January) is the day when the UK Parliament is alleged to be “taking back control” and debating which version of not-being-part-of-the-EU enough people can be persuaded to agree on – although this has for a long time now resembled the spectacle of two bald men fighting over a comb.

But enough griping: I have discovered an issue that’s had scant attention so far and, to me, it’s absolutely critical: what will be the effect of Brexit on customer experience?

I don’t offer this as a solution to the Irish border question, trade tariffs, customs union or the free movement of people or any of the myriad of variously important issues that come under the Brexit banner because it’s more important than any of them.

Yes, that’s right, an issue more important than Brexit itself: what will our experience as customers be like and what can companies do to address it?

I have picked two that are top of mind at the moment.

Disaster looms

The worst-case scenarios being put forward, particularly in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit which would see Britain trading on World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs, see businesses experiencing delays at ports, disruption to their supply chains and a consequent lack of product on shelves. Stockpiling of all kinds of foods and medicines is increasingly becoming a way for people to spend their leisure time but it’s a critical preparation that businesses need to make too, to avoid one of the fundamentals of a good customer experience – i.e. the stuff I want to buy is in the shop/on the website – being severely impacted.

Licence to be a jerk?

Non-availability of products and late deliveries are the stuff of customer complaints and, sadly, likely to tip an already stressed customer into bad behaviour. It’s understandable if not forgivable that this can occur, and we’ve offered advice about this elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the toxic climate around Brexit produces extreme behaviour that businesses should be mindful of. One story that struck me in the last few days was that of a London restaurateur whose anti-Brexit messages that he’d added to his bills had resulted in death threats. Your first reaction may be that he might have been better to avoid the subject, but using your business to promote a point of view on the topic is not unknown: Tim Martin, the boss of pub chain Wetherspoon’s has been touring his venues and hosting discussions on the topic recently.

That brings us to the nub of the issue: from the point of view of many who voted to leave the EU, the issue isn’t about trade deals, it’s about the identity of the country they live in. We have an evolutionary preference for living in tribal groups so some people might feel uncomfortable with those who are not from their “tribe”. The sad thing about Brexit is that it’s surfaced these feelings in a thoroughly toxic way with a rise in racist attacks reported since the referendum in 2016.

From a CX point of view this is worrying for any business with front-line staff who are “not from round here” – in this day and age that would be most businesses – and action needs to be taken to minimise the risk of threatening behaviour from customers.

What can you do?

I’m the recipient of regular emails from organisations telling me I should do something about Brexit, usually involving emailing my MP, but the key question is what should companies do to ensure that customer experience isn’t impacted? Nearly 60% of UK companies have some sort of Brexit programme in place, and I suspect that in organisations where customer experience (CX) heads are struggling to get airtime or investment for their initiatives this will only be made more difficult by the management of the looming crisis. But here’s the thing: Brexit programmes need CX and CX needs its own Brexit strategy.

I offer the following recommendations:

1) Keep going

In the spirit of Winston Churchill – “if you’re going through hell, keep going” – any current investment in CX should be continued and ramped up to take on board the implications of low stocks, increased customer stress and complaints.

2) Foster and celebrate diversity

Anyone’s workforce will have people with a variety of social/ethnic backgrounds and lifestyles. Companies that want to get the best out of their people celebrate this diversity. In the face of divisive and abusive behaviour the best defence is to provide support to those who might face it on a day-to-day basis. Not to do so is to cave in to a small minority of people with unpleasant attitudes – and who wants their business to do that?

3) Increase expenditure on CX training

If you’re keeping going and successfully lobbying for an increase in CX investment, the best area to spend it on is staff training, particularly where it deals with handling difficult customers.

Are you affected by Brexit? What plans is your organisation making and to what extent do they include customer experience? We’re keen to hear your views.

Net Promoter Score – what’s the point?

It all depends on the context

An unwanted set of medical visits last week resulted in an equally unwanted set of follow-up texts.

My local hospital trust “would like me to think about your recent experience in the Emergency Department. How likely are you to recommend us to your friends and family if they needed similar care or treatment? Reply 1 for Extremely likely, 2 for Likely, 3 for Neither likely nor unlikely, 4 for Extremely unlikely or 6 for Don’t know. Please reply today, your feedback is anonymous and important to us and helps us to improve our service…”

There was no follow up question in their survey – clearly they were just wanting a number.

My GP’s surgery then did exactly the same.

Yes, the much-touted and widely-discussed Net Promoter Score (NPS) was at work again!

Well, actually the experience and the care in both cases were great but I didn’t reply, but because the context of the experience means that I think NPS has no significance in isolation. If I had responded with 8 but with no opportunity for follow-on comment how can they react? If the hospital looks at their scores how can they do anything meaningful unless they have some view of what aspect of my experience is not great in the my opinion.

No choice

It got me thinking what do people use NPS for? Picture the scene if you can: someone close to you is suddenly taken ill. The LAST thing you are going to do is say “Hmm, let’s take you to XYZ Hospital, they have a really great patient experience and I’d heartily recommend it!”

If you lived in my neck of the woods you would only have one choice in an emergency, assuming it didn’t require an ambulance: the nearest hospital. And that’s in London – an area not short of “competitor” hospitals; elsewhere you most likely wouldn’t have a choice.

Similarly, signing up for a GP is not like having a bank account or a phone service: you tend to sign up long-term and don’t like to switch unless you move house. You might recommend individual doctors within a practice to your nearest and dearest depending on your experience but that’s not the question.

I asked a GP friend of mine who’d moved from my surgery to another practice whether they were using a similar measure. “Oh yes” she said, “we do the scoring as specified and then we have to send the results to the Department of Health.” As far as I can tell there is no follow-up or any expectation to do anything differently. The score was being used little more than a traffic light to gauge the surgery was performing above a minimum threshold.

So, what’s the point of NPS?

Despite its misapplication in parts of the National Health Service, the measure is partially useful, but it does not deliver quite the impact it claims:

  • If I have a great experience from supplier A where various competitors are readily available, I’ll form an emotional attachment to the supplier that provided it. I might quite like Supplier A but part of the attachment is based on confidence they can do the job and trust that this will happen consistently.
  • I’ll be more much likely to tell someone that I recommend supplier A and much of the time I will give them a 9 or 10. In this scenario NPS accuracy is working.
  • I might be using NPS after a visit to a retailer. If I got what I wanted, and the assistant had smiled at me nicely then I would be more than happy to give a nice round 10. Then I would most likely forget I had ever been there and I never raise it in conversation again. The scoring system is not working so well.

Because it’s focused on measuring my reaction to specific events NPS is not a complete picture. The experience I have had needs to be part of a journey towards a particular outcome. To use my recent healthcare example, that journey won’t be complete until I have had a follow-up appointment and further treatment, if needed, a process involving referral and booking into the appropriate clinic. My satisfaction (not likelihood to recommend) won’t be determined until my desired outcome – good health, reassurance about future health concerns – is achieved.

And it still won’t involve me recommending any form of medical treatment, no matter how great the experience is.

Building on success

At NextTen we find it’s much more helpful to talk about customer success which we define as a combination of fulfilling the customer’s desired outcome and providing a good experience. Using these two dimensions we can build a customer advocacy matrix. High advocacy companies combine a great customer experience with a great outcome delivery, although it’s possible to achieve business success with an OK or even below-average experience as long as you deliver the customers’ desired outcomes as low-cost airlines continue to prove.

  • Ryanair and Spirit: poor customer experience but great profitability.
  • Kingfisher Airlines: great experience but went bust!

Context is everything

NPS can certainly tell you if you’re in the high advocacy quadrant of the matrix, but you’ll need additional qualitative data to understand why you’re there, or if you’re not, where you need to improve. And if your market context isn’t one where high levels of customer choice or switching occur then you would be better off measuring something meaningful like the number of and reasons for customer complaints.

Gender pay gap: a blunt instrument is better than no instrument

Obsessing about what’s right obscures the real issue

Measuring the “right” things is talked about in almost every company. Unless we agree with what and how something has been measured we howl “this is too subjective” and then refute some of the core findings. The rush to meet the 4th April deadline for UK companies to report on their gender pay gap is a case in point.

Criticism has come in from many quarters that the measures created an unnecessary burden on employers and failed to measure enough of the right things other than what we already knew – gender pay inequality exists.

If you look a little deeper then there are findings which are valuable and actionable:

  • The headline is that men are paid on average 9.9 per cent more than women but with significant disparity between companies and industries. Some companies like Google were quick to claim that none existed and others like HSBC, which has claimed equal opportunity as a core value, emerged as one of the worst offenders.
  • The trend in closing the gap is currently slow with pay parity only by 2048 unless something changes.
  • Interestingly, some reports demonstrated a poor understanding of statistics with 38 companies reporting no difference between median and average pay, something that is statistically highly unlikely.

It has to be said the figures are pretty depressing, but what these figures will do is put pressure on companies to action in change in a way that has not been done before. There is a very good chance that a significant improvement in pay parity will be achieved a long time before 2048 – so even if on reflection the initiative could have been delivered better it has gone further to establish change than many.

So wrong it’s right

The debate illustrates one of the key problems with measurement in business. Almost all measures other than those on the balance sheet, can be subject to debate and accusations of subjectivity.

This is particularly acute in customer experience. I’ve used all sorts of measures in my time – various types of customer satisfaction scale and, of course, Net Promoter Score – and the only conclusion I can come to is that none of them predict with absolute certainty how customers will behave.

But even if accurate prediction is impossible, correlation can give you some clues about likely customer behaviour. This is both the flaw and the virtue of Net Promoter Score: Frederick Reichheld’s research correlated high NPS with high financial performance but that doesn’t mean that in all circumstances you can generate the same increase in performance simply by raising NPS. However, the correlation indicates a general tendency for high NPS companies to do well, so if your NPS is lower than your peer group’s score it indicates there’s something you need to pay attention to and you need to drill down into the root causes of customer reluctance to promote your company.


This is like gender pay gap reporting. Any company with a gender pay gap will appear to be under-rewarding female employees but a drill-down in to the reasons why will expose the factors that cause this. Some – such as the likelihood of women to take more career breaks for childcare – may be seen to be outside the company’s control, but the link between this factor and the disparity in pay should force the debate about what the company could do to, for example, to make it easier for anyone returning from a career break to make the same, or improved contribution that they made before the break, and to ensure that it was rewarded fairly.

Whether you are talking about gender pay gaps or the gap in your customers’ experience, the essential thing is to have people accountable for the changes in what the organisation does and the improvement in the associated measures.

In the customer experience world, I have seen too many organisations where the customer experience leads have the responsibility for the measures, but insufficient accountability – whether shared or individual – exists for their improvement.

It’s wrong that women should be paid less than men for the same job. It’s wrong that people should not be seeing year on year improvements in customer experience. Both are fixed by adopting measures and clear accountability.


True agility trumps customer experience – here’s why

When a great customer experience isn’t the only answer

A few weeks ago, I wrote a glowing account of my post-Christmas experience with bed supplier Warren Evans and, more recently, The Next Ten Years gave an upbeat – albeit quite conditional – assessment of the future of High Street retail.


Warren Evans, despite its customer-centric approach and reputation for quality has not been able to overcome its recent financial woes and is now in receivership. A whole swathe of other retailers continue to experience difficult times.

Does this imply that being customer-centric is not a strong enough guarantee for business success?

99 problems…

The problems facing retail are many and multi-faceted. Tightening consumer spending fuelled by Brexit uncertainty, rising material and labour costs, high levels of personal debt and the threat of rising interest rates. The answer for many companies has been the traditional focus on cost-cutting, with the loss of managerial roles in Sainsbury’s and Debenhams being recent example.

So, is cost-cutting the real answer in these troubled times? Should CX take a back seat?

The solutions adopted by surviving retailers would appear to suggest this is the case, given yet another apparently customer-centric retailer having failed.

…1990s solutions

Back in the 1990s I worked for the consultancy that originated business reengineering. Like any company that majored on process-driven innovation, we invested heavily in looking for the “next big thing”. Business or organisational agility became, at a conceptual level at least, the candidate with the biggest potential. How could companies who had reengineered themselves into streamlined super-beasts move themselves to the next business performance level?

By becoming more agile, of course!

Great idea – what did it mean in practice?

We looked out for examples of companies who could demonstrate success through re-inventing themselves and we discovered Silver Platter – the originators of the CD-ROM as an information-storing medium.

I remember attending a workshop with their CEO, Bela Hatvany. Bela radiated gravitas and wisdom as he described the Silver Platter philosophy – being big on empowerment and innovation was an emphasis as I recall. Then one delegate asked him a great question: “who was the most important – customers, employees or shareholders?”

Bela’s response became abstract and practical: “If you have an injury in your leg, you get your leg bandaged; if you have a head-cold, you take aspirin; if your arm hurts, that’s where your attention is.”

I may be paraphrasing somewhat but the essence of his response was that you treat what’s painful, but you keep the whole body together.


I suspect Warren Evans’ problem was that they focused on a great customer experience without balancing the more traditional factors that impacted their business.You could make the same argument that strong values and outcomes came at too high a price – ethical sourcing, pioneering the option to return a mattress after 120 days – as being potential weaknesses.

The sad truth is that looking for a factor to “blame” is an exercise in 20:20 hindsight – what is the lesson for those businesses trying to avoid a similar fate?

It’s a combination of great customer centric strategic thinking – the trajectory concept described in last week’s article really helps here – and being agile enough to switch attention when required.

If you’re a customer-centric company you should not stop being customer-centric all of a sudden, you maintain the focus on the customer – an investment you wouldn’t ever want to throw away – whilst managing downsizing, de-layering, product rationalisation or whatever gets you through the tough times.

It’s the ability to seamlessly add the necessary extra dimension to core focus – that’s true business agility – which will give you the best chances of success.

The missed opportunity in complaints handling that might save your marriage!

Complaint handling departments mostly miss the opportunity to turn a dissatisfied customer into a raving fan.

I recently talked about how critical it is to detect and, if possible, avert complaints before they even happen. If a complaint does occur, it is so important to make sure it is easy for the customer to provide as much feedback as they want – ideally in the form they want. Once you have received the feedback you have a critical and short time period to not only resolve, but create a raving fan.

Be careful, time is very sensitive in these situations. Any perception of slowness can quickly make a situation considerably worse. Dealing with the complaint effectively – and simultaneously creating a significant jump in loyalty – needs a new and more innovative approach.

Understanding the“hierarchy of needs”

I’ve noticed that complaints are something that most organisations avoid like the plague! No-one wants to admit to making mistakes –all too often the attitude is to deal only with the specifics of the complaint, throw some money or gift at the customer as compensation and then move straight on to the next one. Timescales are often set by a regulator, which leads to incorrect priorities and dysfunctional behaviour.

This is about as far away from customer-centric as it’s possible to get and ignores what I call the Complainer’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is  different from the Hierarchy of Needs developed by Abraham Maslow – except that it also has five levels:

1) Hear me. I want someone to be able to listen, understand and resonate with my complaint. I don’t need an argument, I don’t want excuses and I certainly don’t want shallow apologies with no real action. Ask me questions, but only if it helps unpack the full story.

2) Acknowledge my pain. I wouldn’t be contacting you unless I had suffered in some way. It may be minor, it may be a “first world problem” but you’ve fallen short and I’m upset. Don’t overdo it but please show some genuine empathy.

3) Sort it out.At an absolute minimum, I want to be put back in the state I was in before you screwed up and I’d like some form of compensation for my inconvenience. I also want it quickly – preferably almost immediately.

4) Satisfy me. Remember I was a pretty big fan of your company before this and I’d like to believe this is a one-off and get back to those happy times when you delighted me on a regular basis. Now, what have you got? I’m not talking about a box of chocolates – I’m talking about an outcome that has value to me – assuming you understand me well enough.

5) Delight me and keep me loyal. Give me a reason to stay with you – what’s our future together going to look like? If the value is perceived to be there I will invest a bit of time asking your questions but make sure the outcome is a great reason to stay.

The best part of breaking up

And if that sounds like getting back after a bust-up with your significant other then it’s supposed to be – yes, it’s that serious! Bad significant other experiences have resulted in divorce rates at46% in the US. Interestingly, according to data from NewVoiceMedia, 44% of US consumers switch to a competitor following a poor customer service experience.Like disenchanted marriage partners, customers will exercise that level of rebellion if they don’t get what they think they need.

People in a failing marriage often cite a lack of empathy as a key reason driving the split. Customer rebellion is driven by exactly the same issue. We simply don’t recognise the complainer’s hierarchy of needs sufficiently. We extrapolate that to a belief the company does not care, and our reaction is heightened as a result. In fact, as far as complaints handling goes, we only recognise part of it, getting as far as sorting out the problem and providing what the company views as appropriate compensation without sufficiently understanding the customer’s desired outcome.

The Missed Opportunity

Aligning the customer hierarchy to the what the company does in response is fundamental:

1) Listen. Provide a channel that “works for the customer” – which often means giving choice. Technology is now more widely available and relatively cheap as an enabler. Behind that enabler should be a non-judgemental, open and sympathetic “listener” for the complainer. If you receive the complaint in writing, responding quickly with follow up is key. Customers will react much more favourably to a personal conversation, so call them back within two hours of receiving the complaint.

2) Empathise.This bit is almost obvious to state but much harder to deliver. Empathy is acknowledging that whatever happened was in some way unpleasant or inconvenient for the customer and showing the customer you genuinely care. This is not as easy as it seems. Some customers want only a “leave it with me, give me ten minutes and I will sort it” style response whereas others want more time to air their views even if that is simply to “blow off steam”. Of course, some people are more naturally empathic than others, but it can be taught and if sufficiently practised, internalised into everyday handling that is repeatedly exceptional. Make sure it’s on your training programme for all.

3) Empower people to act – rapidly. It’s too easy to hide behind processes, procedures and rules. Too much “guidance” is in place because an organisation doesn’t trust its staff sufficiently to do the right thing. Having to check or refer upwards again and again, wastes time, reduces productivity, andmotivation, and further infuriates an already-angry customer. The key here is empowerment and flexibility to allow the agent to do what is right. Post hoc checks and regular reviews are a much better way to make sure that staff are doing “the right things” instead of “doing things right”. There is a big difference!

4) Make sure your customers are satisfied. The emphasis is on the word “your”. If you think of the customer as “your customer” rather than the company’s customers, then that is a subtle but significant first step.Very often customers are happy just to have the mistake corrected or a refund provided but equally often we don’t think of asking how the experience of complaining was for the customer and, more importantly, how they feel about the outcome at a detailed level. The investment required to find this out is minimal yet it’s a practical demonstration that you weren’t just following a process, you had flexibility and you really care.

5) Understand the customer’s desired outcome and take it up a level to delight them. Having got a satisfied customer, you need to enhance the relationship and take it to a level beyond what it was before. The single most critical success factor to achieving delight is to understand what their desired outcomeis and deliver it better than the competition. And the key to this lies not only in your feedback and handling on the specifics driving the complaint. The key is to drive a deeper understanding of the outcomes and related experiences that are most important to the customer and creating an environment to deliver against it. At a basic level, reversing their negative feedback – specifically the things they couldn’t do as a result of your screw-up – gives you the starting point for understanding their desired outcomes at a deeper level, aligning your products, services and supporting processes to make it happen. This might sound expensive but the loyalty and revenue uplift that this can bring will make it an immensely profitable and rewarding exercise.

You read it here:applying this approach can make customer complaints into a revenue generator and there’s a case for treating it a profit centre. That’s slightly different to the norm don’t you think?

In the next part of this series we’ll “close the loop” on complaints by making sure that you genuinely learn from your mistakes and build a better understanding of your customers’ desired outcome