an image of a cat with a grumpy face

Do you want nice with that?

Being obsessed with customer experience is a tough gig sometimes – every instance of poor service, inept processes and lousy systems can leave me having a less than happy day – but I recognise that I choose to be so obsessed. People in service industries, very often at the lower end of the income scale, probably have a lot more to be stressed and unhappy about right now. So maybe this is why surliness is on the rise. Or at least it would appear to be based on an entirely unscientific sample of recent interactions.

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2020: the summer when everything worked (yes, really)

How will we look back on 2020 in years to come? I’m quite sure that we won’t be calling it the time when everything went more or less right. The failure of countries to get on top of coronavirus, with the prospect of a second spike in infections means that right now it’s tempting to view everything through the lens of failure.

I’m not going to line up behind MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s remarks about people’s “constant carping” – I’m all for a good old carp if it represents criticism and concern over something that’s plainly not working (in this case the UK’s test and trace system) – but I am going to take the opportunity to celebrate a few things that did work for me this summer. In no particular order:

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Nothing goes together like a bird feeder, chocolate and the Bossa Nova (?!)

One of the less stressful aspects of COVID-19 lockdown constraints has been the increased amount of birdsong and, I think, more birds in our tiny back garden. Encouraged by recent nesting robins and blackbirds we decided to tempt some more visitors in and bought a squirrel-proof bird feeder, ordered online from garden/DIY supplier Homgar (“unique products, all in one place”).

Delivery times were impacted by COVID-19 and our expectations of a long wait – set by the supplier – were duly met, but when the feeder arrived there was a faintly bizarre addition to the box: another box containing a set of recipe cards and a CD of Bossa Nova music. Taken in isolation this might be one of those “thoughtful” Christmas gifts from a distant relative (logic: you like cooking and music so this is ideal for you!) but in the context of the delayed delivery it was both unusual and rather touching.

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How much do you really understand your customers’ needs?

When it comes to customers with any form of impairment the answer is most likely not enough

As my previous articles on accessibility have shown, the experience for a customer who doesn’t fit the “norm” of being a walking, intelligent person in possession of all five senses is typically a lot worse than it is for those who do. A conversation the other day made me realise that businesses don’t make sufficient effort to understand the needs of all their customers and therefore there is a significant business opportunity for those who do.

Say again?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss and that by 2050 over 900 million people will have disabling hearing loss – one in ten of the world’s population. That’s a cause for concern, particularly as much of it is preventable but, whatever the cause, it doesn’t take away the fact that this is going to be an increasing challenge for up to 10% of any business’s customers.

I was pleased to discover that one specialist company – SigncodeUK – has developed a simple-to-use product that has the potential to make life easier for the profoundly deaf. With Signcode, messages can be conveyed via video: all the customer has to do is scan a QR code showing the SigncodeUK logo and a video appears on the customer’s phone with the message relayed in British Sign Language (BSL).

Courtesy of SigncodeUK

Now you may be thinking “that’s all well and good, but surely most people can read the information anyway?” – good question but missing the point. For people who are profoundly deaf, BSL is their first language – not surprising if you think about how a young deaf child will learn to communicate (they won’t learn to read English first).

When Signcode’s Jeff Earl told me this I was surprised – but then I had a flashback to a scene from years back where I noticed two teenage girls on the street laughing like mad with each other but not saying anything. I then noticed they were rapidly signing to each other, and I remember thinking that it of course was obvious that that’s how deaf people would tell each other jokes – it was something that I’d never had to think about.

You may now be thinking “that’s never occurred to me either, but how many people do you think this affects?” The answer is that, in the UK around 50,000 people have BSL as their first language – less than 0.1% of population, although about the same number who speak Gaelic and not much less than the c130,000 who speak Welsh as a first language at home. In fact, as Jeff Earl points out, the number of deaf people may be under-recorded  as health organisations (hospitals, GPs and Adult Services etc) did not have to register deaf people unless they ticked the disabled box. This has led to the numbers looking on the low side as the majority of deaf people (culturally and linguistically deaf ) do not consider themselves disabled.

A tiny percentage of anyone’s customer base then. So why bother?

Health warning: the following section may be offensive to statisticians

Whether we succeeded at mastering maths at school or still remain baffled by the simplest equation, we are bombarded with statistics every day, typically to tell us things like, flying is incredibly safe or that you are more likely to die from a collapsing sandcastle than a shark attack.

We’re conditioned to accept the idea of “the norm”, the middle of the Bell Curve (“normal distribution” for the statisticians amongst us) and I think this permeates our idea of customer service and customer experience where we tend to design around an idealised view of the customer – how we would like them to be rather than how they actually are.

Now, I’m not arguing that anyone’s customer base doesn’t have a normal or typical customer – it makes sense to design your products and services around what most people would do – but I’m more interested in what you do for those in the margins, as that’s where competitive advantage lies.

The bell curve below shows, conveniently, that 0.1% of your customer population lies 3 standard deviations from the norm so in a customer population measured for hearing ability, that’s where you would find your BSL first language population. So why cater for such a small sample?

Source: Chris53516 at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The answer is that what you do for a small percentage has a knock-on effect on the whole customer population because it shows the 99.9% of your customers that don’t use BSL that you want to be inclusive, that you’re taking pains to customise your offering to those customers who do.

Extra miles (or inches)

I don’t much care for the expression “going the extra mile” in relation to customer service – sometimes an extra inch or two may be enough – but providing inclusive services will distinguish your business from the competition.

The good news is that there’s plenty of opportunity to do this and cater for people who lie closer to the centre of the bell curve – the 2% of the population with some form of dementia for example.

In my experience of implementing strategies to improve services for these “vulnerable” customers, the key to success is to embed the level of awareness in the organisation’s culture. You don’t need to dig too deep in any group of people to find individuals who – often with a passion born of personal experience – want to step up and lead the way in spreading awareness and improving services to all customers.

Very often those people aren’t in senior roles but they’re the ones who, day in and day out, make great service happen. Allowing those people to flourish is the hallmark of great customer service leaders.

Customer service basics can make all the difference (part 1)

In focusing on customer experience, CX professionals can be guilty of forgetting that very often it’s the basics of customer service that can make the difference between customer loyalty and customer loathing. Some recent personal experiences as diverse as passport renewal, bed buying, a birthday celebration and a free cup of coffee have reminded me of a fundamental customer experience equation:

  • Get everything right and I’ll be more than 80% likely to recommend to friends and family


  • Fail to deliver on the basics and I’ll be 100% sure to tell friends, family and if you’re me, my “world-wide media audience”, how you didn’t measure up. (If you’re not me, then TripAdvisor or any other opportunity to leave a point of view.)

And if you’re the kind of business where this isn’t important, you’re either getting by without loyal customers or you’re deliberately pursuing mediocrity as a goal.

Here is my take on the basics that you must get right:

1) Communicate

This is so basic that you’d think it didn’t need stating but I was pleasantly surprised when UK passport agency Her Majesty’s Passport Office (HMPO) showed me what good practice looks like, and therefore, by comparison, how this is so rarely achieved in both public and private sectors.

I took advantage of a bit of post-Christmas quiet time to get around to renewing my passport. It’s an intimidating process, with plenty of opportunity to make a mistake, so a degree of obsessive-compulsive checking meant I missed the last post before the New Year bank holiday weekend. I had provided my mobile number to receive SMS messages regarding progress but was still astonished to receive a text from HMPO the day after the application arrived setting my expectation I would receive the new passport in around three weeks. Later that day I had another text re-setting my expectation that it would arrive in a few days. The following day I was woken up early by a text from DX Delivery saying it would be delivered by the following day. Later that day the shiny new passport dropped through my door. From posting to receipt in less than a week – by public sector standards, positively supersonic!

2) Manage the customer’s expectations

Customer experience management is a misnomer, as the experience is personal to the customer and all you can do as a business is manage the conditions that create that experience. Setting expectations is one of the conditions you can definitely manage though: my passport experience is a great example: the initial communication was in line with the 2-3-week, non-urgent timescale set by HMPO on their website, but then when it shortened I was kept informed. And, crucially, the expectation set was exceeded by my experience. (It may be stating the obvious but this only works one way round!)

And so to bed…

Similarly, the prospect of a bargain in the January sales sent me shopping for a new bed and, since we bought one from Warren Evans over 30 years ago, their nearby store was first port of call. The range and quality of their products has certainly improved in three decades but whilst this, and the in-store experience, was impressive, what I really liked was the on-time fulfilment of my order.

It was this simple:

  • We chose a bed frame and mattress
  • We placed the order in the store
  • We were given a delivery date and a promise that the ‘window’ for delivery would be confirmed no less than three days before the date
  • This was confirmed in an email
  • An email duly arrived five days beforehand with a confirmation of a 9-12 window and a promise that the driver would call one hour beforehand with a more precise time
  • On the day, the driver called at 8.30, arrived at 9.30, assembled the bed and left at 10.30, leaving one satisfied customer looking forward to a good night’s sleep.

When it goes right, it really is that simple.

Don’t get shirty

Contrast this with a clothing retailer with whom I recently placed an order for collection at one of their stores. Two days after the email informing me that the order could be collected I turn up, but the order’s not there. I was told to give it a couple of days as it may have been delayed. A couple of days later I return, but still no shirt. A call was promised to let me know what had happened. Four days later and no call, so I call back: customer services was not available (it was Saturday) according to the assistant I spoke to, but I received a promise to call me back on Monday. This time – a mere 8 days after the alleged delivery of the shirt – I get a call from the assistant who informed me that the shirt had arrived, along with some other stock that had been promised. He had raised this issue with head office for investigation and to be fair, it sounds like a blip in their supply chain, but the number of unfulfilled promises does not make for a happy customer. In the light of my happy fulfilment experience with the more involved transactions with HMPO and Warren Evans, particularly annoying.

In the next part of this article, I’ll go on to consider other elementary aspects of service that my recent experiences threw up. These should always be got right – but very often aren’t:

3) Don’t hassle the customer

4) Pay attention to unspoken needs

5) Deal brilliantly with complaints

6) Don’t be content with average

to be continued…

Ryanair has a customer-centric approach, but it’s not what you think

I recently co-wrote a report on customer-centric strategy for NextTen – more on that later – that included Ryanair as a (positive) case study. The recent problems with pilot scheduling might cause me to make a hasty edit – but I think not: Ryanair is thoroughly customer-focused, but their low-cost approach illustrates the challenges of maintaining such a strategy when things go wrong. In fact, pursuing this strategy appears to be more likely to cause these problems.

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When great service is good enough – but could be even better

I’ve just had a great service experience with BT and now that more than 10 years have passed since I was responsible for their customer service strategy, I’m not blowing my own trumpet to praise them. It made me realise that when you get a great service it’s sometimes unremarkable. In this case, having a better understanding of customer outcomes could have moved it from great to outstanding.

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Tales from the sharp end #1: M&S Food

Starting an occasional series in which I report back from the front line of customer experience. As well as an obsession with the minutiae of customer experience I have an obsession with keeping things as simple as possible (but no simpler as Einstein once put it) and so a recent experience with M&S Food reminded me, once again, how introducing even a small amount of complexity into a transaction can result in a poor customer experience, despite the heroic efforts of front line staff…

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Five objections to The One Rule

In last month’s post I identified The One Rule for strategy in a customer-driven organisation.

Everything relates to delighting customers

The use of the word delighting is important: it means achieving the customer’s desired outcomes.

The word everything is important as well as it’s likely to be the source of a number of questions or objections that might be arising. Let me deal with the ones that I can think of…

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My week in CX #9

In  a week in which my customer experiences revolve around eating, I give some feedback, find out how much my advice is worth, eat far too much pizza and receive more communication from the mysterious Amy Ingram…

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