It seems there has been almost complete buy-in in forward-thinking firms to the notion that they must listen to customers and try to understand them and what they are trying to get done, if there is to be any hope of building satisfaction, let alone loyalty.
As I wrote in my blog post, Breaking News: Loyalty Programs Don’t Lead to Loyalty. Duh!, customer loyalty won’t come from loyalty programs alone or from promotional activity that drives repeat buying. Loyalty is earned and develops over time, borne along by a succession of satisfying customer experiences. To ensure that we are consistently delivering superior customer experiences, it is essential that employees understand their role and the fact that the way they interact with customers can make or break a relationship.
I advise some clients to establish customer advisory councils. These have been well discussed and are emerging as a valued tool to allow businesses and their more senior managers, in particular, to get closer to customers. The value of consumer councils, as distinct from conventional forms of market research, is that their role is one of conversation. They provide a more relaxed format in which managers can talk with customers person to person, thereby avoiding the detached impersonality of survey statistics and the gatekeeper role of the focus group moderator.
Recently, I have been conducting a series of client focus groups with customer-meeting employees, and the results have been little short of a revelation. The purpose of conducting the groups in the first place was to learn from those who meet and talk with customers what they were hearing and observing in those interactions. But the information we obtained from employees was every bit as insightful as what we learned from customers themselves.
For example, when we shared with employees the results of recent customer research, their response was typically, “Of course that’s the way they feel. We could have told you that. And, by the way, here’s why they feel that way. Here’s what we do that causes them to feel that way. And here’s what we should do about it.”
‘The information we obtained from employees was every bit as insightful as what we learned from customers themselves.’
They tell us that, if they were allowed to exercise their own good judgment and depart from rigid procedures and scripts, they could sort out most customer problems before they escalate into complaints and defection.
Employees are as frustrated as customers with unwieldy systems and processes that make it impossible for them to deliver good service. They end up spending time working out solutions to avoid the systems, thereby delaying action or responses and causing customer frustration and worse. Employee frustration arises from the fact that they know what needs to be done but they are prevented by systems and processes from doing what’s right for the customer.
This knowledge of what lies behind customer comments and ratings suggests an expanded role for customer-facing employees, that of interpreters of research results. At the moment, most of the market research conducted by major firms is interpreted by the research professionals who conducted the research and by mid-level and senior executives, many of whom sheepishly admit to rarely, if ever, talking with, let alone meeting, customers.
Interestingly, when I give a public talk or workshop on the subjects of customer loyalty and the customer experience, I often hear in the Q&A that follows something along the lines of, “I agree completely with what you are saying, but how do I get my employees to buy in?” My conclusion, after conducting these discussion sessions with customer-facing employees is that they already get it and are actually out front of the managers in their thinking about what should be done to increase customer service levels and to deliver positive customer experiences.
I believe it is critically important that companies learn not only from their customers but also from their front-line employees. One important role these employees can play is to participate in the interpretation of customer research. They are the people in the firm who most closely identify with the customer and who every day are hearing directly from customers how they feel.
By asking them to comment on the results of research and on other matters relating to customers—including your plans to make changes in customer service delivery, for example—you are tapping into the knowledge that is gained through their regular contact with customers. Equally important is the fact that you are now engaging employees in the productive exercise of looking for ways to better serve customers. You are seeking their input, making them part of the solution and involving them in the company’s success. I have written before that increasing customer involvement is one of the essential tools of customer relationship building (See my book, Build Your Customer Strategy: A Guide to Creating Profitable Customer Relationships (John Wiley & Sons, 2006). In the same way, involving front-line employees as advisors will lead to more committed and loyal employees.
So how do we go about it? I am currently working with clients in quite different industries to establish parallel customer advisory councils and employee advisory councils. The employee councils should be made up of employees from various parts of the company, but all should be in customer-facing roles. They should meet regularly with senior managers to provide feedback on customer service and on the state of customer relationships in general but also particularly when customer research has turned up results that need some insight from those who know customers best.
The response from employees has been enthusiastic. They appreciate being asked and like the idea that their input is valued and is being acted upon. They become much more valuable employees and serve as advocates for the customer.