Leadership Series: Adrian Swinscoe

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Adrian Swinscoe is a customer experience consultant and advisor and has been helping develop customer-focused large and small businesses for 20 years. He has consulted businesses around the world to help them engage with their customers, build customer retention and improve their service and customer experience.

Leadership Series: Adrian Swinscoe

Adrian is also a Forbes contributor and published a bestselling book in 2016: “How to Wow: 68 Effortless Ways to Make Every Customer Experience Amazing” (Pearson).

Q1: Hi Adrian, it’s so nice to be able to get together for this interview, thanks so much. I was intrigued by a recent article of yours that spoke about a CEO who writes personalized birthday cards to all his 7400 employees. Can you explain the many ways a business’s culture and employee morale is shaped by ownership and management?

Hi Steve, it’s great to be with you today. I think leadership sets the tone and context but the actions of ownership, leadership and management need to be congruent with their words. That’s where many companies and many leaders get tripped up. It’s easier to talk a good example than it is to set a good example.

Sheldon Yellen of Belfor, by sending personalized hand-written birthday cards to all his 7400 employees every year, is an outstanding example of someone who is constantly setting a good example.

In addition to that, I think one of the biggest and oft ignored elements in culture and engagement is middle management. There is truth in the old saying that a person joins a company but leaves a boss and, in return, this has significant consequences for culture, employee morale, performance and engagement levels.

The scale of the problem has been highlighted by Gallup whose research found that 70% percent of the variance between top quartile and bottom quartile performing companies, in terms of employee engagement, can be explained by the quality of that organization’s managers.

That research finding is wild and shows where companies need to focus on if they want to improve their culture and employee morale.

Q2: I read where you described yourself as a “keen but distinctively average rock climber”. That’s a great description. Can you tell me a little about your rock climbing adventures?

Following a number of years playing rugby to a reasonably good standard, I started climbing in my mid to late twenties. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to have climbed all over the UK and also in France, Spain, Switzerland, Egypt, the US and Nepal.

I love the challenge and the adventure of it all, particularly when out and about with a group of close friends. Moreover, it’s an extraordinary way to explore the countryside that surrounds us.

Another thought: Alex Lowe, regarded as one of the best climbers of all time, was once asked who the best climber was. He answered: “The best climber is the one having the most fun.”

Q3: I can sure relate to that Adrian. The customer service industry is so demanding that we all need to “have some fun” periodically to relieve the stress of constantly performing at a high level for our customers. With your background in consulting, coaching and facilitating workshops, do you have a preference of one over the other and why?

That’s a great question and I must admit it is one that I haven’t been asked before. However, reflecting on it I must say that I don’t really have a preference. I see each as a tool that can and should be employed to suit the client’s need and situation and not my preferences.

Q4: You like to use storytelling in your presentations. How did you develop that skill, and do you have a favorite story that you can share with us?

I’ve think quite visually so I’ve always used stories or analogies as a way of explaining things. I hope I’ve got better at it over the years.

In terms of my favorite story I guess that one of the most recent and instructive stories would be my experience of denied boarding that came in the wake of the United Airlines scandalous incident with Dr. Dao.

Remember the story: Dr. David Dao was violently dragged off a United Airlines plane in Chicago on the 9th of April 2017, losing two teeth and suffering a broken nose in the process, after he refused to give up his seat after the airline had over-sold the flight. If that wasn’t bad enough, the initial reaction of the United CEO was appalling when he defended United’s staff without really understanding what had actually happened.

Following that story, I had my own experience of “Denied Boarding”. Here’s the story and what I learned as a result:

Following a work trip to Holland, I was returning to the UK on Friday evening. Arriving at the airport around two hours before my flight, I tried to check in using the self service machines. However, the machine informed me that I couldn’t check in at that time and was asked to report to the manned check-in desks.

On doing that, I was then told that I wouldn’t be able to board the flight as there were no available seats and I was then presented with a letter explaining the situation. (read the letter here). I was also asked to proceed to the departure gate for more information.

I was stunned. However, when I enquired why and how this had happened, the check-in desk employee was unable to give me an answer. When I persisted and asked for more information, the employee proceeded to provide an implausible (which later proved to be untrue) explanation of why I had been “denied boarding”.

Feeling frustrated and helpless, I proceeded to the departure gate as instructed and, thankfully, found a boarding pass waiting for me there. What a relief.

But, on arriving at home, I was still a little troubled by my own experience and took a closer look at the letter I received. On closer inspection, I noticed that, at the beginning of paragraph 5, it states that ‘Before denying boarding to any passenger, we will call for volunteers’.

In my case, that didn’t happen.

Further frustration.

This caused me to reflect on Dr. Dao’s experience and my own and to try and draw some broad customer service/experience lessons from this. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1. In times of crisis, disconnected CEOs can be very damaging. It’s understandable that Oscar Munoz’s first reaction was to defend United. But, he did so without fully understanding what had really happened and that suggests that he is either not connected to a full set of real time data sources or he was being fed selective information.

In times of crisis, it’s critical that leaders and executives are fully informed, regardless of how ugly the truth might be. Since the incident with Dr. Dao, United has paid the price and lost millions from their stock valuation, a number of high-profile accounts and has suffered from days and weeks of bad press.

2. Playing out unlikely scenarios will help you stress-test your policies and procedures. Not all of your policies will be customer-friendly ‘in extremis’ and that is where most of the big problems will lie. Those scenarios may not happen very often but when they do they can be very damaging. Thinking them through and preparing for them will make your customer experience stronger.

3. Provide staff with the right level of training and, most importantly, the right sort of information to help them do their job. Not doing so can put them in a compromising position, result in forced lies which can fuel both customer and employee frustration.

4. Do what you say you are going to do. Over-booking is an industry reality. But, if you are going to ask for volunteers to give up their seats, and then ask for volunteers, don’t just deny someone their seat. Not to follow your own procedure leaves a customer feeling disenfranchised, fuels negative feelings, undermines trust and does little for your brand and experience.

Q5: It’s amazing how the airline industry, who touts their “great service”, can routinely overbook as part of their general practice. Makes no sense to me. On a better note, can you share 3 ways, taken from your book “How to Wow: 68 Effortless Ways to Make Every Customer Experience Amazing”, to describe how a business can assure the customer’s experience is the best possible?

I’d be happy to. The book contains 68 insights, strategies and tips arranged across a customer journey-like framework.

1. Make it simple. – Making things simple takes time, effort and requires making choices. This can be hard and requires not only physical and mental effort but emotional effort too as we have to choose to give things up or remove things. But it’s also a continuous road and the quest for simplicity is an ongoing and never-ending process. However, simple or a simpler experience pays dividends for customers, employees and shareholders.

2. Be honest about your surveys and keep them short. Asking customers for feedback is an essential part of the learning and improvement process for any business and most companies do not ask their customers for feedback. However, many who work so hard to deliver great service and build up trust with their customers, undo a lot of their great work.

Through either over-doing the number of times they ask for feedback or how honest they are of the time it will take to provide feedback, the survey just isn’t relevant to the customer. Plus, it may be full of company speak and, finally, the customer sees little improvement or action as a result of their feedback.

3. Data, privacy and the impact on customer relationships. – The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story that has exploded in the media in recent weeks is only the start and the tip of the iceberg when it comes to data, privacy and customer relationships.

This issue will become ever more important in the coming years. Businesses, if they are to protect the relationships they have with their customers, need to start a conversation early to better understand their customers and their concerns about data, privacy and their preferences.

Q6: That Facebook story and data security, in general, will be an ongoing concern for some time. As a final question, what’s next for Adrian?

Well, I am wrestling with a couple of ideas for a new book so stay tuned.

Thanks, Adrian, it’s been a pleasure!

More about today’s special guest: Adrian is a frequent writer, interviewer, podcaster, conference speaker, panelist, chair and workshop leader on all things related to customer experience. Read Adrian’s blog and follow him on Twitter.

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