hand holding a car door handle

You keep me hanging on: how the AA failed in the basics of customer service

A central London breakdown becomes an epic journey

It’s been a while since I’ve written about customer experience since there’s not a lot you can say about home delivery shopping and other pandemic-related services other than it’s been, well, OK. So it’s taken an almost entirely dreadful experience with AA’s breakdown service to get my customer experience mojo working again. Needs must, so here we go…

Thursday evening and my wife is on her way to a choir rehearsal on the other side of town. At 6.30pm and without warning the car engine cuts out in central London. Luckily she’s able to park up in a Holborn side street opposite a branch of Nando’s. Things could have been worse but then she calls the AA…

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Improve your customer service with more “gorms”

A distant reminder of Candid Camera is nothing to smile about

As a TV-obsessed tot in the 1960s, one of my favourite programmes was Candid Camera. With its procession of pranks on unsuspecting members of the public filmed by hidden cameras it provided some guaranteed laughs and played to this child’s sense of mischief. One episode that’s stuck in my mind – for some reason – consisted of someone pretending to be Swedish and asking people where he could “buy a gorm” as he’d been told by his girlfriend that he was “gormless”. It was probably one of the least funny pranks – particularly over fifty years on where making fun of someone’s linguistic challenges isn’t exactly PC – but, probably because I liked the word, I have always wondered what it would be to have one or more “gorms”.

The other day I was having a Sunday lunch in a pub in Malmesbury in Wiltshire. It does great food, but the experience was slightly marred by slow service. Two waitresses were working the small dining room: one was rushing around providing a great, personable service but the other, who gave the impression of being new to the job, was hanging around looking like she didn’t know what to do and had to be encouraged to take our order. The conclusion we reached was that she was a bit, well, gormless.

This seemed so apt that I thought I should try and unpick what it actually meant. A quick Google search was quite revealing: “gorm” derives from the Old Norse gaumr meaning care or heed, and it found its way into English as gaumless, spelt as gormless from the mid-18th Century. (Clearly the Candid Camera team were more erudite with their hapless Swede than might have been thought.) It means “lacking sense or initiative”.

What a great word to use in customer service!

Yes, consider gorms to be a measure of the amount of initiative you take with your customers. On an arbitrary five-gorm scale our Wiltshire waitress was on about one gorm; her partner was – when she wasn’t rushing about looking after the other customers – on about four gorms.

You’ve probably realised by now that I have just found another word to describe customer care – or the absence of it – but think about it: how often do you encounter service that is a bit gormless. It’s not just people: my wife has struggled for weeks with a bank renowned for its customer service when the combination of an app reset and a broken process for providing her with the right codes for password renewal meant that she couldn’t access her account other than by telephone. Collectively gormless, despite the usual pleasant experience talking to their advisers.

It’s a service truism that you have to recruit for attitude and train for skill – so you can argue that avoiding gormless customer service is just a matter of recruiting people who aren’t themselves gormless and who show the potential to be able to take the initiative. But the deeper question is to ask what processes, beliefs and attitudes in your organisation actively discourage initiative-taking and doing the right thing for customers. In other words, collectively…

How gormless are you?

To keep your fickle customers, focus on repeatable great experiences

Customer loyalty may be overrated, but achieving it is still a challenge

Residents of my little pocket of south London are lucky to have a wide choice of coffee outlets to sit and socialise or work in. When I’m working at home and need a change of scene, I often take myself off to one of them to jolt my brain, not just with caffeine, but with a different working environment.

Lately I have favoured an independent outlet with a bright airy back room and a damn fine cappuccino but my last couple of visits haven’t quite hit the spot for me. I’ve been analysing this as, whilst I am a frequent visitor to my nearest coffee house (a chain, with adequate coffee), I want to support independent local businesses as well. Without spending too much time (metaphorically) on my own psychiatrist’s couch I have concluded that something in the experience must have changed as the product – the coffee – is as good as it’s always been.

What’s going on

Part of the reason I go to my independent is that the ambience suits 30-60 minutes of pondering and writing (that’s my creative process in a nutshell – if I wanted to sound pretentious I’d call it thought leadership) even if I’m surrounded by chatting mums (it’s invariably mums on a weekday), noisy babies and background music that’s not too obtrusive. The service has usually been pleasant enough, but something has changed: the last couple of times I have been there’s been less of a buzz and the service has seemed just a little offhand.

These are all tiny changes – was I being hyper-sensitive? (It does come with the territory of being a customer experience-obsessive…) Or was I starting to become a more fickle consumer?

No, something in my gut was telling me this wasn’t the creative crucible that I had been getting used to…

Hello, lazy brain

Obviously, it’s not my gut telling me this, it’s my brain. As behavioural scientists have observed, our brains are inherently lazy and want repeatable, dependable experiences. My lazy brain got the idea pretty quickly that my local independent coffee shop could fulfil the following equation:

Great coffee + nice ambience + OK service = productive hour’s writing

So, my immediate reaction when thinking “where can I go for a break” was to choose the independent over the nearer chain.

This theme is explored in A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin’s HBR paper “Customer Loyalty is Overrated” where they challenge the accepted notion that consumers make conscious purchasing choices and therefore companies are required to come up with ever-improving, fresher propositions. Behavioural psychology research suggests the opposite: our brains are not always analytical; instead they take incomplete information and fill in the missing bits based on past experience. The more often we do this in relation to an experience the more “fluent” we become. When we make a decision that just “feels right” the processing that leads to it has been fluent.

I’ll always buy some brands because I associate them with the outcomes they deliver and don’t give the choice a second thought: in this case those brands make things easy for me by providing repeatable outcomes.

This is tough for companies where service is an integral part of the experience. A product can be manufactured, packaged and priced consistently for repeatable outcomes, but add service – typically with some form of human factor involved – and the outcome is less repeatable. Coffee shops in particular try to get around this by offering monetary incentives via loyalty cards to get you to come back. It’s not an influencer though: both my chain and my independent have equivalent loyalty schemes but that’s part of my conscious choice so not part of the repeatable experience that plays to my subconscious.

The product element in a coffee shop is easily repeatable. The equally critical ambience and service factors are less so, but they can be addressed. A market leader such as Disney puts a enormous effort into ensuring that – given the potential for massive variation – it offers an overall great experience for its resort customers, through focusing on staff (sorry, cast) selection, training and development and continuous improvement of all elements of the customers’ experience.

In my case, I may have been unlucky, and some of the factors I value were just missing on a couple of occasions. But the damage has been done: my lazy brain now has to do a lot more work to find a conscious reason to go there.

Cup half full

What bugs me about corporate attitudes to customer experience is that it’s seen as expendable and something to be cut when the going gets tough. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of making it as efficient as possible – transforming underlying processes, removing friction and augmenting the experience though new technology but too often it’s a discretionary element that can be cut according to the other demands of the business. If you were running an airline you wouldn’t knowingly send faulty planes in the sky or not provide enough fuel for the journey so why take a different attitude to service?

Good coffee in my neck of the woods is easy to come by but a consistent experience that plays to my unconscious, lazy brain is a lot harder.

This post was originally published on The Next Ten Years

Is poor service letting down your social media strategy?

According to a recent survey it is – but fixing it requires commitment across the whole organisation

Whatever you may think about Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, their ethics or market capitalisation, social media companies are not about to disappear as a channel through which brands can connect with the current or future customers. But success in social media – as in real, bottom line business benefits – depends on a much more coordinated approach than is currently evidenced.

According to a recent report by social media management company Sprout Social, 50% of consumers follow brands to learn about new products and services and 48% to be entertained – a good basis then to promote your products in a fun and entertaining fashion. But wait – 56% of consumers say they unfollow brands because of poor customer service.

If you’re a social media marketeer that’s a bummer because it happens somewhere else in the company. There you are creating campaigns that are fun, funky and geared towards your lovely Facebook audience (the most popular channel – 89% of marketers use it) and you’re getting some great engagement metrics but someone in customer service is screwing this up!

What can you do?

I’d hazard a guess – actually it’s more than a guess as this is what I’ve observed in companies over the years – that the problem is that despite the great advantage of all kinds of social media to create connections with consumers, connections across businesses still seem much harder to achieve.

Let the train make the strain

To illustrate, let me go back to a piece I wrote last year about UK train operating company GWR. Its main point was that despite the very poor service customers were getting, following the introduction of new rolling stock, there was no acknowledgement on any of their social media. From what I can tell – my wife is a regular GWR traveller for work – the service has not massively improved and the social medial feedback situation is unchanged.

Only connect

The GWR situation shows how disconnected companies can be: product development designs a great new train, it gets delivered, doesn’t work properly and has seats that almost all customers find incredibly uncomfortable – a sure-fire recipe for poor customer service.

In this situation, social media marketing is an attempt to put sticking plaster over some gaping wounds in the company’s processes and however much engagement there is, none of it will change the design of the trains in the short term.

A histogram showing which teams social marketers wish they could influence more
Image: Sprout Social
A histogram showing which teams social marketers consult and share data with
Image: Sprout Social

The Sprout Social report – which covers a lot more than I have referred to here and is well worth a read – contains some more revealing statistics. Asked which team social marketers could influence more, 59% chose sales. Sales was also the one that most social marketers shared data and goals with – so I’m not sure how effective that is if it’s not influencing sales – but where is service?

It’s clear from the factors influencing unfollowing that linking social and customer service is key, yet the driving factor is sales, sales, sales. Don’t get me wrong – it works: I am now the proud wearer of a pair of blue brogues following a well-placed ad on Facebook (I may also be having a late mid-life crisis – don’t judge) and a company needs to sell, obviously. But if your social media doesn’t listen to and respond to customers’ feedback on service or understand why you are being unfollowed then it’s not adding as much value as it could be.

What’s needed is a joined-up approach that links social, sales and service under a coordinated brand strategy. The evidence suggests that this is an opportunity most companies have yet to seize.