When you are busy running a business it can be very easy to slip into a routine and a way of working that, whilst easy for you, is not always ideal for your customers. How can you test your customer service and see it through the eyes of your customer? What is it really like for customers trying to do business with you?
One of my colleagues was recently applying for a mortgage and had a tight deadline to meet for exchanging contracts. His financial advisor asked the building society to escalate 'the case' so that the customer deadline could be met. The response from Northern Rock? "We are within our timescales for handling this case so will not be able to escalate for a quicker response."
From a customer perspective, my colleague certainly doesn't feel like 'a case' and whilst the timescale may comply with the internal organisational targets, measures and standards, it certainly did not meet the timescale or needs of my colleague. This is very poor customer service and demonstrates how easy it is to be busy measuring the wrong things!
Internal measures and standards that exclude the needs of the customer are at best meaningless, and at worst, self-deluding and self-destructive.
When you are working in the business, dealing with the daily operational stuff that keeps you busy it is easy to class customers who won't fit into your way of working as awkward.
You can learn so much from these awkward customers! They test your service and systems completely free of charge and give you valuable information about their experience at that point in time. Welcome these customers with open arms and open minds.
I took an American colleague to a local farm shop and cafe in York last month and was keen to show off good local food from an independent producer and business. The service was dis-organised and slow, and only two of our party of three received their drinks order together. Our food took an hour to arrive and it did not matter how local, or how tasty the lunch was, the lack-lustre service from dis-organised and poorly trained staff overwhelmed the experience.
When I paid the bill and was asked if everything was ok, I replied that it had all been a little slow, only to be told that 'we've been really busy today, and yesterday. And we do cook the food fresh to order'. Excuses, defensive, no attempt to probe the experience further and learn how to improve for the future. I replied that it was everything before the food that had been slow!
And then I was given a loyalty card so that I could receive a discount after so many visits and spend. Get the service right, make me feel like a valued customer and you don't need to discount on my nth visit.
If you visit an All Bar One restaurant, the server will give you a card with the bill and ask you to enter the monthly prize draw for a magnum of champagne by completing their online customer survey. The Dean Court Hotel in York emails guests of the hotel or restaurant and asks them to give feedback to the manager, or post a review on TripAdvisor.
These are both very pro-active approaches to testing the customer experience in a consistent and structured process.
My teenage daughter has just completed her GCSEs and wants to work through the summer in a cafe or something similar that she can incorporate part-time into A-level studies. Having made over 20 phone calls, she secured an informal interview with the female manager of an independent cafe, who said, come in and WOW me.
That's a tough ask for a 16 year old with limited work experience. My daughter decided she would visit the cafe as a mystery customer just before the interview. She bought coffee and cake and noted what it was like to be a customer in the cafe. She also checked out the cafe for online reviews and discussed these with the manager during the interview, who, it transpired, had not looked at them herself.
The manager was suitably 'wowed', and my daughter has the part-time job she wanted. The cafe also has the essential learning of someone seeing the business through new eyes - both as a new customer and as a new employee.
I wonder how many businesses use their induction programme to make new employees toe the company line - to conform and squash any observations or new thinking - rather than using those early days experiences as a way to improve the businesses customer service and ways of working.
So my top tips for testing your customer service are:
1. Put in place a regular, meaningful way of testing whether you are delivering what you think you and your team are delivering.
2. If your customers tell you that what you are doing is not good enough, don't get defensive or dismiss them instantly as awkward, listen and reflect and take appropriate action.
3. Don't waste a complaint or feedback volunteered from a customer.
4. Train your staff so that they know to actively seek our feedback and comments, and what to do with them.
5. Go to a competitor as a customer. Test them and test yourself against them but most of all, test your service against what your customers are telling you - online, in person.
6. Encourage your new employees to tell you what they see.
7. Spend less on marketing to new customers, and more on wowing your existing customers so that they recommend, refer and market your business for you.
Follow Denise Howard on Twitter: www.twitter.com/denisehoward