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Customer Service: Code of Practice and Role Development

Customer service, especially in the shape of a call-centre - is to customers one of the most visible and significant aspects of organizational performance.

To many organisations however customer service is one of the most challenging and neglected areas of management, including those with modern call-centres.

For customers the quality of customer service determines whether to buy, and particularly whether to remain a customer.

Think for a moment how you yourself behave as a customer. You can perhaps think of an occasion when poor customer service or an unhappy exchange with a call-centre has driven you to leave a supplier, even if the quality and value of the product or service itself is broadly satisfactory.

The significance of customer service eludes many senior executives, let alone the methods of establishing and managing customer service standards and quality. 

Our own experiences as customers demonstrate all the time that many large organisations fail particularly to empower customer-facing and call-centre staff, and also fail to design policies and systems to empower customer-facing staff and enable effective customer service. 

Often, these are defensive strategies because staff are not trusted, and because competition is feared, or because simply the policy-makers and systems-designers are too far removed from customers and their customer service expectations.

Pricing strategy also plays a part on customer service - especially strategies which effectively discriminate against existing customers in favour of new customers, which in certain situations borders on the unethical, never mind being stupid in a customer service context.

This is strange since by any reasonable measure or criteria - in any market or industry - it costs far more to gain new customers than to retain existing customers. Neglecting, constraining or failing to optimise customer services capabilities is waste of great opportunities.

Instead many organisations and their leaders are habitually fixated on sales, marketing, advertising and promotion - desperately striving to attract new customers - while paying scant regard to the many customers that are leaving, just for the want of some simple effective customer service and care. We see this particularly in highly competitive and profitable sectors such as communications and financial services, where new customers are commonly extended better terms and attention than existing customers. No wonder customer turnover ('churn') in these industries can reach levels exceeding 25%. Leaders and spokespeople will blame the competitive market, and the fickleness of customers, but ultimately when a customer leaves a supplier it's because they are unhappy about the service they are receiving - otherwise why leave?

Benefits of Effective Customer Service

The central aim of effective customer service and call-centres is retaining customers, but when an organisation gets this right the acquisition of new customers - and so many other things - automatically becomes much easier too.

Retaining customers - enabled by excellent customer service - produces many positive benefits for the organisation aside from the obvious revenue and profit results:

  • Retaining customers through effective customer service enables easier growth, indirectly and directly, for example by sustaining healthier volumes and margins, and by business expansion from word-of-mouth referrals.
  • High levels of customer retention via effective customer service also improves staff morale and motivation. No-one enjoys working for an organisation that feels like a sinking ship, or where stressful arguments or pressures prevail. When customers are happy, all the staff are happier too - and more productive.
  • Improved staff morale and motivation resulting from reducing customer attrition also positively benefits staff retention and turnover, recruitment quality and costs, stress, grievance, discipline and counselling pressures.
  • Reduced customer attrition and upset naturally reduces litigation and legal problems, from customers or fair trading laws.
  • Retaining customers also enables the whole organisation - especially middle-managers - to focus more on proactive opportunities (growth, innovation, development, etc) rather than reactive fire-fighting, crisis management, failure analysis, and the negative high pressures to win replacement business.
  • Having a culture of delighting and retaining customers fuels positive publicity and reputation in the media, and increasingly on the web in blogs and forums, etc. The converse applies of course, when nowadays just one disgruntled customer and a reasonable network of web friends can easily cause a significant public relations headache.

For these and other reasons the cost difference and relative impacts on organisations between gaining and retaining customers can be staggering.

A useful analogy is that only a fool tries to fill a bucket of water when the bucket has lots of holes.

Better to fix the holes and stop the leaks before you try to fill the bucket.

Especially consider the actual cost of retaining customers when all that many customers require is not to be upset .

While the trend is apparently for more people to complain (mobile phones and the internet make it easier to do so, and people are less tolerant than they used to be) this does not necessarily mean that customers are more likely to migrate to competitors.

In fact these days time pressures and the 'hassle factor' combine to create huge inertia in people's decision-making, which means although they might complain more, they have less inclination to actually change suppliers because of the time and inconvenience of doing so. There are arguably some exceptions in fast-changing sectors, but largely inertia tends to make it more likely for customers to stay than go.

People behave like organisations, when the true costs of change in time and hassle are recognised often to be greater than the savings that the change will achieve.

Consequently most people prefer not to change suppliers - they have better things to do with their time - which means that retaining customers should actually be easy - if only organisations would attend to the basic customer service principles and keep customers happy. In short, customers largely don't usually leave unless they are upset enough to do so.

Contrast the cost of achieving happy customers - virtually zero aside from normal customer service and operating overheads required to run a business - with the costs of marketing, advertising, selling, sales training, sales management, credit-control and account set-up, that necessarily arise in the acquisition of new customers.

Consider also that the main factor in keeping a customer - even if the situation appears irretrievable - often comes down to a simple apology or update - just by keeping someone informed and avoiding upset - and compare this with the huge costs of acquiring a new customer.

It is then easy to see that the costs of gaining a customer can be five, ten, a hundred or a thousand times greater than retaining a customer.

And yet from the customers' view many organisations seem unaware or dismissive of the need to prioritise great customer service above many other perhaps more exciting or fashionable initiatives - typically related to sales, marketing, advertising, technology, the web, etc.

These high-profile customer acquisition activities, plus systems, policies, procedures, training, etc., all play a major role in running a high-quality organisation, but the glue which holds it all together for the customer - and often the only thing that really matters to the customer, is the quality of customer service that the customer feels and experiences.

Within customer service there are many elements which must be organised to make effective customer service happen properly - pricing strategy is important of course - but the crucial constant factor is the human element - how people are treated and communicated with - because simply, customers are people, and people tend to behave like people and respond to people - they do not behave like computers, and they do not respond like machines.

Policies, systems, technology all enable customer service, but none of these actually determines effective customer service. Only people - your employees - can do this, particularly when serious problems arise which by their nature must be escalated to a 'real person'.

People - your employees - also (if encouraged and enabled) perform another critical customer service function - that of giving feedback and suggestions to improve customer service systems, policies, processes, technology, etc. Often policies and technology are dreamt up by managers or consultants working away from the actual day-to-day customer-facing activity. Feedback and recommendations from customer service staff - and customers too - are vital in refining and improving the systems and policies within which the function is operating. So again, people - your employees - are the most crucial in shaping effective customer services capabilities.

Ignorance and avoidance of these factors is a problem, but also a big opportunity.

Where customer service is neglected and ignored the function is powerful lever waiting to be pulled.

Improving customer service - especially empowering and listening to customer service staff - offers many organisations a bigger return on investment than any other initiative.

Customer service is generally the critical factor in determining whether a customer buys and is retained, which is ultimately what the organisation exists to do - to serve and retain customers.

The 2007 British Standard Code of Practice for Customer Service, number BS 8477:2007 provides an excellent basis for understanding, planning or reviewing your customer service approach.

The Code of Practice is summarised and reviewed below.

The full Customer Service Code of Practice is an excellent template for anyone considering how to address customer services, whether setting up a customer service capability for the first time, or seeking to improve and existing customer service department or team.

Customer Service Code of Practice (British Standard BS 8477)

While other customer service standards exist in various forms around the world the British Standards Institute offers a useful and authoritative interpretation which will transfer to most situations.

The British Standard Code of Practice for Customer Service was published by the British Standards Institute (BSI) and became effective on 16 April 2007, under the authority of the BSI Technical Committee responsible for Relationship Management Systems.

You can obtain the full BS 8477 Customer Service Code of Practice at the BSI website, cost £72 or half-price for members (prices correct at August 2007).

As a Code of Practice, this standard is one of guidance and recommendation - it is not a formal or mandatory specification and should not be offered, implemented or quoted as such.

The Introduction of the code of practice references the Harvard Business Review in summarising the main benefits of improving customer satisfaction via effective customer service as being (the '3Rs'):

  • retention
  • related sales
  • referrals

It also refers to the research by the (British) Institute of Customer Service (ICS) in identifying the most important elements of service delivery according to customers:

  1. timeliness
  2. appearance
  3. courtesy
  4. quality and efficiency
  5. ease of doing business
  6. problem-solving

These are interpreted into an alternative set of '3Rs' for effective non-commercial, public sector customer services and service delivery:

  • responsive
  • reliable
  • respectful

BSI suggests that the Customer Service Code of Practice will assist organisations to:

  1. Establish effective customer service mechanisms
  2. Improve competitiveness
  3. Differentiate their offering via innovative customer services
  4. Build customer loyalty through positive customer service experience
  5. Increase customer retention
  6. Attract new customers via word of mouth
  7. Reduce marketing costs
  8. Increase service efficiency
  9. Reduce complaints and complaints handling resources and costs
  10. Improve compliance with consumer trading laws
  11. Improve services and accountability (especially for public sector organisations)
  12. Develop and sustain organisation-wide focus on customers and quality
  13. Improve ease of dealing with organisation for customers

Proactivity and anticipation are identified as crucial underpinning factors in working with the code of practice.

The code of practice is primarily aimed at organisations with external customers, but the principles apply to relations with internal customers too, and apply to all organisations regardless of size and industry sector - including small consultancies and sub-contractors.

These Customer Service Principles are outlined and regarded as essential:

  1. Commitment (at all levels)
  2. Credibility (keep promises)
  3. Culture (customer service ethos)
  4. Competencies (of staff - in recruitment, training and assessment)
  5. Responsibility (clear and supported with suitable authority - with at least one person responsible for customer problems)
  6. Resources (adequate for effectiveness)
  7. Identification and management of all customer service issues
  8. Quality (of customer service - relevant input and review)
  9. Feedback (enabled for customers and employees)
  10. Continual improvement (to meet or exceed customer expectations)
  11. Internal customers (establish concept and communications)

The code of practice outlines the Implementation obligations for each main group of workers, (critically within which is the appointment of a dedicated customer service manager):

  1. Top management - establish resources, responsibilities, processes, reporting, empowerment, culture, etc
  2. Customer service management - detailed processes, financial management of customer services, staffing and training, legal, complaints handling and escalation
  3. Employees - awareness of customer services aims, responsibilities and benefits
  4. Customer service employees - competent, aware, committed, etc

And gives Operational Recommendations for:

  1. Timeliness/responsiveness - for enquiries, orders, deliveries, appointments and complaints*
  2. Provision of information to customers - at each stage of the purchasing process
  3. Customer interaction - for all the ways and reasons which customers are engaged
  4. Documentation - relating to service
  5. Corrective action - in response to problems
*The document actually uses the word 'timelines' in the Operational Recommendations section heading, which almost certainly refers to 'timeliness' - meaning 'on time' - since this terminology occurs frequently elsewhere. (As a complete diversion it's fascinating how one letter can change the word altogether, and yet retain a very similar meaning.)

And outlines principles for the Maintenance of effective customer services, entailing:

  1. Feedback - staff, customers, systems
  2. Audits
  3. Benchmarking
  4. Complaints

The code of practice also contains an annex covering the Recruitment, Competencies and Training of Customer Services Employees , also covering motivational factors and recommendations, conduct and behavioural development. The customer service staff competencies are summarised as:

  1. Interpersonal and empathy
  2. Communication
  3. Handling stress
  4. Active listening
  5. Team-working
  6. Problem-solving and complaints-handling
  7. Product and organisation knowledge
  8. Commitment to aims and values of organisation

The 2007 BSI Code of Practice for Customer Service is an excellent template and essential reference material for anyone involved with introducing or managing customer service.

You can obtain the full BS 8477 Customer Service Code of Practice at the BSI website. Cost is £72 or half-price for members (prices correct at August 2007).

Here are details of BSI Membership, which will be a useful subscription for anyone routinely concerned with standards and codes of practice.

Other Customer Service Standards Interpretations

The British Institute of Customer Service (ICS) promotes best practice for customer service. The ICS provides its own interpretation of how to establish customer service standards, together with some supporting research and information. This is a helpful additional perspective of customer service alongside the BSI Code of Practice.

The ICS guidance for setting up customer service standards focuses on:

Defining the service standards outlines three sections -

  • Timeliness - the essential time-related performance standards for each stage of customer engagement and process
  • Accuracy - how reliably the customer's experiences match the supplier's promises
  • Appropriateness - common-sense honesty, integrity and fitness for purpose

Creating the standards, identifies seven main groups who should have input -

  1. Management
  2. Employees
  3. Existing customers
  4. Potential customers
  5. Lost or former customers
  6. Competitors
  7. Regulatory authorities

Other ICS customer service pointers -

  • The number and extent of standards should reflect the situation and size of the organisation.
  • Measurement and technology are important aspects of implementation, for which senior management is responsible.
  • Ownership, visibility and commitment are identified as crucial in implementation.
  • ownership - starts at the top - there must be accountability somewhere for everything
  • visibility - must enable awareness and two-way communications among all staff
  • commitment - to customers and staff
  • Standards enable performance to be properly managed and measured.
  • Sales and marketing functions should resist making claims in promotional material and selling pitches until standards have been demonstrably met and sustained.
  • Standards must be reviewed every 12-18 months, because fundamentally standards are market-driven, and the market is always changing.

Some Complaints Statistics

The ICS also has some interesting things to say about complaints handling .

The statistics are from their joint survey with training company TMI in 2001 - shortly to be updated - some of which echo similar studies and anecdotal references used in customer services training courses.

  • More people are complaining than used to be the case - especially older people, of which two-thirds of people over 50 apparently complain very often if dissatisfied about a product or service.
  • Having a complaint resolved apparently causes most customers to recommend the supplier to friends.
  • 80% of customers tell someone if their complaint is not handled well.
  • Only 25% of staff feel qualified to deal with complaints.
  • Only 33% of customer-facing staff have received specific training in dealing with angry customers.

The Institute of Customer Service (ICS) is a membership organisation which promotes and defines educational and operational standards for customer service, including input to vocational customer service qualifications.

Complaints Handling and Customer Service Role Tips

Here are some useful principles for handling complaints and the customer service role itself. These suggestions are primarily for customer service staff and those concerned with customer service training and customer service staff motivation and development. Some suggestions for organisations and leaders follow below.

Of course it's easier to describe these suggestions than to put them into practice in the heat of the moment. Customer service can be an extremely demanding and stressful role - especially for those involved in high pressure sectors such as communications, finance, distribution and logistics, public services and utilities, education and healthcare, computers and IT support, when customers' emotions can run very high indeed - especially if at the same time management and executives appear to be blind to the needs of staff and customers alike.

Like any skill, real expertise comes with practising techniques under pressure. Expertise is the key word here, because customer service is an expert role which should be treated and acknowledged as such.

This is the first step towards developing and improving performance and enjoyment in the customer service role - to regard customer service as a real expertise in its own right , rather than a stop-gap job, or a stepping-stone into sales.

Shamefully many large organisations do little to raise the profile and reputation of the customer service profession itself, and if you are working for one of these ridiculous organisations please keep reminding yourself that regardless of how customers and your employer treat you, you are doing a highly demanding and sophisticated job. Your experiences and the skills you are learning are extremely transferable and will be of enormous value to you in whatever you do later in life.

Self-sufficiency and inner-resolve are therefore useful attributes to foster in the customer service role, that is to say: if your employer isn't valuing you or helping you, then you must do it for yourself.

Remember that the customer service role contains the essential elements of some very specialised and highly regarded professions, such as counselling, coaching, teaching, training, consulting and project management, such are the skills and behaviours required to perform the customer service role well.

Also interestingly, if performed well, the customer service role is far more sophisticated than a basic selling role, which is ironic considering how both roles are positioned in many organisations.

The customer service role by its nature requires a greater ability in problem-solving and (albeit not always on a grand scale) project management than many sales roles. Customer service also tends to connect to - and requires cooperation with - far more internal functions than a basic selling role. In fact customer service has much in common with a major accounts sales role, given the emphasis on mediating, problem-solving and the need to react positively and creatively to diverse and unpredictable customer situations. And while this explains why so many of the best sales people started their careers in customer service, it certainly does not follow that the sales role is more important or more demanding than customer service. Usually the opposite is true - ask most customers. Many organisations could do well to think more creatively about where they put their emphasis in respect of customer service and selling.

Central also to the value and expertise of the customer service role is the strong emphasis on emotional skills demanded in modern customer service. Dealing with emotional people, and solving problems with significant emotional implications, require the same capabilities and attitudes found in many specialised professions involved with helping, healing and developing people.

So look upon the stresses and pressures of customer service as your own personal free training for one day becoming, if you want to, a professional expert in whatever specialised field interests you. A couple of years in high-pressure customer service is super and relevant experience for moving into any people-related profession, especially if you can augment your experience with a little background psychology or other relevant technical theory along the way.

Complaints Handling Tips

Emotional complaints are usually the most difficult to handle, so these tips focus mainly on the more challenging complaints scenarios.

Aspects of Transactional Analysis theory are helpful in understanding and managing emotionally charged situations. Understanding where anger and upset come from and what triggers these emotions can help us to remain objective, and to separate the emotion from the actual content or facts of the matter. 

Transactional Analysis is a tremendously useful way to develop this understanding and the interpersonal (and self-awareness) capabilities which can be so helpful in handling difficult complaints and emotional people.

Many complaints are made by phone - in which case immediately take the person's phone number and explain you've done this in case the line is cut off, which helps preempt and diffuse a major cause of distress and frustration. Demonstrating that you have anticipated and guarded against this is a very positive first step, and this is especially helpful if the customer has been hanging on the phone, been transferred, or made previous attempts to resolve the problem.

If your policy permits giving your name and direct line then give both. In an age of anonymity, faceless voices, avoiding responsibility, and ridiculous impenetrable automated answerphone menu systems, when you demonstrate a swift firm clear personal responsibility for someone this is another big positive step.

If your policy permits it - which ideally it should do, although the policies of some large organisations prevent it - tell the customer that you will take care of the problem until it is resolved. This is your personal commitment to see it through. Even if you rely on others to fix it, the customer is seeking someone to look after them from start to finish. 

Customers failing to find anyone to accept personal responsibility for resolving their problem or complaint is a major cause of extra upset and frustration, so when a distressed customer finds someone who promises to take responsibility this lifts an enormous pressure.

Listen - let the other person talk and explain - and let them emotionally unload too if that's what they need to do.

When you listen, listen with feeling and empathy - the other person will be acutely sensitive to (and enraged further by) an automaton-like reaction, so try to really empathise on an individual and special basis.

When someone is very angry, exasperated or distressed, try to remember that they are feeling rather like a child does when upset and seeking reassurance or help from a parent or grown-up. They want to unload, and often just allowing people to do this will alleviate 90% of the problem, although do not ever expect any customers to admit to this. Think about your own experience when complaining emotionally about something - it is very difficult to remain angry and emotional much beyond a minute or two if the customer services person is really listening, allowing you to unburden, and understanding how you feel.

Do not confuse anger and rage on the other end of the line with adult behaviour - it is just another form of child-like tantrum or upset, and it needs absorbing calmly and sympathetically in an adult way. By your behaving calmly and being grown-up (which definitely does not mean acting officiously or patronisingly) the sooner the other person will be able to shift from 'child' or 'sergeant-major' back to sensible grown-up again. Again you might find the Transactional Analysis theory helpful in understanding how and why this happens.

Take notes. Get the facts. And take time and let it be known that you are doing so. This shows you are taking the problem seriously, that you value their words and their time spent explaining the problem. Also, by encouraging the other person to focus on the facts you can help to move the engagement away from emotion and into content and facts, which will normally reduce the stress for both of you.

Try to step back and look at the situation objectively with the other person, rather than getting drawn into confrontation or a head-to-head. Encourage the approach where you both work on the problem together to agree what should happen next. Keep control obviously, but involve the other person in your thinking and decision-making.

Understand how the other person feels. This is not the same as agreeing. It's important to show understanding. It is not possible to agree with an emotional interpretation or a mood, and until the facts are properly known it's not always possible to agree with even a perfectly balanced unemotional and reasonable claim or complaint unless or until you can substantiate the facts or claim. But you can always show that you understand how the other person feels, and this is a very big part of the customer's need at the time of complaining.

Of course if the complaint is plainly justified and clearly demonstrates a failing in your organisation's service or product then you must acknowledge and apologise for the problem without dispute, and then focus on resolving and recovering the situation.

By understanding and being empathetic about the other persons emotions they will often naturally extend you some leeway for a little firmness where required about your processes and the next steps. On occasions customer's expectations and demands are not realistic, which needs managing of course. The worst thing is to promise or agree to remedial actions or compensation that you will subsequently be unable to deliver. You will find it easier to be firm where you need to be if you have first shown a strong understanding of how the other person feels.

Rapport - trust - is necessary before you can move forward.

Here are examples of how to combine emotional understanding with control:

"Okay, I really understand and agree with you that this is very/unbelievably frustrating/annoying/stressful/upsetting/enraging to you, but for me to help you I must work within our processes, otherwise it'll be you and me on the outside trying to resolve this. My job is to find a solution for you and that's what I'll try to do if we can work together on this. Can we agree to go forward like that?"

If pressurised to agree or commit outside of what is reasonable or authorised you have to be firm and honest:

"That's not something that would or could be agreed at this stage if at all, I'm sorry. The customers who arrive at the best outcomes are those who allow us to work through our processes and consider the situation properly. I can't pre-judge it and I'm sure you wouldn't want to be dealing with me if I promised you something without knowing I could give it. If you let me help you with this I assure you that's the way to resolve this quickest and best. Can we go forward like that?"

Tell the customer what process or steps you will use to resolve the problem, which should always include a clear commitment to provide updates if appropriate, details of how decisions will be made, and how any remedial changes will be considered and incorporated into future procedures to prevent a recurrence. Many customers like to know that their complaint has been useful in helping the organisation to improve its operations, and where this opportunity arises you should feed recommendations back internally and inform the customer accordingly.

Unless you are empowered to make exceptional arrangements you must work within your policies and systems. If you do not agree with your policies and systems then go through proper channels to recommend constructive changes, preferably supported with a brief business justification.

If your employer does not allow you to make recommendations then find another employer who will value your effort and commitment to the role. There are plenty of organisations out there who need all the good customer service people they can find.

In essence the professional customer service role is being an expert translator and mediator - a crucial pivot - in reconciling customer needs with organisational capabilities. At best the role will even influence organisational capabilities through good feedback and recommendations.

In keeping with such a role, you are a mediator, facilitator, and enabler. Remembering and aspiring to these qualities will help you do a great job and to keep an aura of calm and professional authority while doing so.

Customer Service Tips for Organisations and Leaders

For organisations needing to improve their customer service, gathering and reviewing customer complaints is the quickest way to draft an action list. Consulting customer service staff is also essential.

For all organisations, customer complaints and feedback from customer-facing staff will keep you constantly aware of areas to improve to keep up with changing markets needs and expectations.

Treat complaints about service failures like precious gems, because they are that valuable. Organisations pay huge fees to researchers and survey companies to discover their weaknesses, whereas complaints effectively provide the same data for free. Moreover, each service failure complaint is a very specific prompt to improve a process or policy or someone's training somewhere. Wasting or losing these gems is daft.

So welcome and encourage complaints, don't fear or hide from them, or pretend you are fantastic because you (make sure that you) don't get any complaints.

Make it as easy for people to complain as to buy . There's a challenge for you..

Here are some common mistakes that organisations make about customer service and complaints handling in particular:


  • Make it difficult for people to complain, e.g., long-winded contact method on your website.
  • Make it difficult for customer service staff to give feedback and to influence customer service systems and policies.
  • Treat the customer service function like a battery hen farm.
  • Fail to have a complaints handling process which you have tested and had approved by complaining customers.
  • Fail to appoint anyone responsible for managing complaints handling.
  • Fail to inform staff about the value of complaints and the need to encourage and respond to them.
  • Refuse to escalate complaints and problems, or make escalation to a higher level difficult.
  • Refuse to give customers the names of senior managers and executives and their contact details.
  • Fail to put free or local-rate customer services phone numbers on your invoices and website.
  • Fail to show clearly and make available your head office contact details.
  • Fail to expose senior managers and executives to complaining customers.
  • Pretend to have a customer service department but merely outsource a basic message-taking service.
  • Offer an automated telephone menu system which excludes appropriate and easy options to complain.
  • Design punitive termination penalties for customers wishing to cancel their contracts and instruct your customer service staff to use such threats freely and forcefully.


Check your culture. This comes from the top and pervades everything. So this is ultimately for the CEO or the shareholders to start changing if it's not right.

There is little point in implementing a wonderfully robust and logical customer service code of practice if your culture can't support it.

So this section is really all about culture and particularly how you treat staff ans customers. All the rest is relatively easy and mechanical for any decent modern management team, because aside from culture, customer service relies on sensible service and pricing strategies and the processes to sell and deliver then and to sort out problems. What makes the real difference is how you involve and treat people within these processes. Which all comes back to culture.

The culture must be one of really honestly respecting and valuing staff and customers. When you have this culture the human element gets to work: relationships and communications work, problems are solved, internally and externally people focus on looking after colleagues and customers, rather than merely working systems, executing processes and adhering to policies. The organisation has life - becomes organic - rather than operating as an inflexible machine or a set of instructions.

In the context of customer service, a good indication of culture is how easy it is to complain. In lots of big organisations it's actually very difficult to complain, and even more difficult to complain and be taken seriously.

You must make it easy for people - customers and staff - to contact you and complain, by email, post and especially by phone, and to every level in your organisation - especially to the CEO.

Executives who never see complaints are deluding themselves. On the pretext of protecting their precious executive time, countless senior managers and executives are oblivious of what is happening in their business. Worse still, this ostrich-like example teaches all managers that avoiding complaints is the way to manage customers, which as a customer service strategy is what might technically be referred to as a load of bollocks. Ask your customers what they think about senior managers and executives hiding from complaints and most people will use far stronger terms than that.

Executives who hide from complaints also tend to develop a culture among managers and all staff that is scared of complaints, which naturally causes people to cover up complaints and to distort complaints and failure statistics even when asked to report on them.

Megalomaniac, autocratic and egocentric leaders are particularly prone to this syndrome, in which customer satisfaction information is obscured and massaged so that the entire senior management moves from denial to blissful ignorance, while the customer service staff continue to act as a super-absorbent firewall, until one day - when the customer churn is nudging 25% - the board finally realises that they do indeed have a problem, and that the market and the competition and the customers - and the customer service staff - are not to blame for it. The problem is the leadership: the culture, the systems, the policies, the strategies - out of step with what the customers need and expect.

Interestingly this stems from the insecurity which drives certain traditional leadership styles and cultures, in which criticism is seen as a threat rather than a useful reflective and improvement aid. If you are one of these leaders please go get some therapy before you do any more harm to your staff and customers. Arrogance and bluster are not effective behaviours by which to run a proper business in the 21st century, let alone to encourage and inspire employees and managers to strive for customer service excellence.

Instead expose yourself to all the complaints you can find. Remember - you would normally pay a researcher lots of money for this information. And each complaint gives you the chance to solve a customer's problem, which often means that you then get to keep that customer for life.

To do this you will need to check that your complaint handling process works for your most awkward customers and for your most passive customers. This will turn many of your most awkward customers into your best customers, and some of your most passive customers into awkward customers, but you will now be receiving complaints, which if you were not seeing any before is a major advance.

With all these new complaints you will need some expert input and ideas about how to improve things. Lucky for you, your employees are the world's best experts at improving your services to your customers, so it makes sense to ask for their help.

Obviously ensure your customers' complaints are resolved along the way, and equally importantly, help the organisation to develop the capability (and culture) to identify the causes of problems and to rectify the root causes, to prevent the problems happening again.

It's simple when you get the culture right. Open all the communications. Encourage complaints. Fix the problems and the systems. Utilise your people to contribute to the whole process.

Empower and encourage your customer service staff to give feedback about the systems and policies within which you expect them to work and deliver great customer service. Train and develop and nurture and love your customer service staff - they are almost certainly your most under-valued and under-utilised asset. They will perform as you treat them. If you treat customer service staff like battery hens don't expect them to take much of an interest in your organisation.

Think creatively about the emphasis and status you give to the customer service role. Customer service staff are widely under-valued and under-utilised. They are by nature extremely helpful and loyal people, capable of doing a lot more for you than they are typically empowered to do. So empower them, and you will see significant improvements in customer satisfaction, because the experts will be taking care of it for you.

Customer Service Case Study

This is a true story.

The name of the organisation is not given, to protect the well meaning customer service staff from embarrassment. Given the current economic climate and intense difficulties within the banking industry, they have enough to worry about.

As ever, when things go wrong with customer service, it is rarely the fault of the customer service staff, who almost without exception do their best to do a good job. When things go wrong with customer service, and especially with subsequent complaints and remedial action (or absence thereof) the faults lie in the policies and attitudes of the executives running the corporation, who are responsible for providing systems, training, and information fit for purpose. In this case study, many of those crucial functions are not adequately designed, or even monitored.

Week What Happened
1 A small village sports club appoints a new treasurer at its annual general meeting. Accordingly the new treasurer needs to be added to the bank account as a signatory and the main contact for bank statements, etc. The club secretary visits the local branch, where the club has been a customer since its foundation in 1980. The account has never been overdrawn. The branch is not open on Saturdays, so it is suggested that the new treasurer visits the main city branch to prove his identity (which he is required to do in person with a passport and a utility bill, because he is not a customer of the bank), and to complete and sign the necessary two forms, which will then be sent to the local village branch for counter-signature and processing. Secretary questions whether this will work and is reassured that it certainly would. What could go wrong?...
2 The new treasurer visits city branch during his lunch hour, explains he is new treasurer to be added to the relevant club/society account as a new signatory, shows and has his ID checked and copied, completes and signs forms provided, and later notifies the club secretary that he has completed this part of the process.
3 Secretary visits local branch to check if the paperwork has been received at the local branch for counter-signature. It has not. Local branch staff attempts to check on status of paperwork but is unable to locate it. Secretary agrees to return a week later.
4 Secretary again visits local branch to check if the paperwork has been received at the local branch for counter-signature. It has not. Local branch staff attempts to check on status of paperwork but is unable to locate it. Local branch staff asks secretary to ask new treasurer if he can remember which member of staff dealt with him at the city branch. New treasurer, not surprisingly, cannot remember name of staff member, and the only details he can remember - gender and ethnicity - are not particularly helpful given the potential to be attached to blame.
5 Secretary visits local branch and is told that the paperwork cannot be located, and (in the absence of any other option) can only suggest that the Treasurer repeats the process - i.e., visits city branch with ID and completes forms, for them to be sent to local branch, etc.
5 The secretary calls the bank complaints department, and asks that the matter be escalated to ensure either that the paperwork is located, or is given suitable priority to resolve quickly with minimum fuss. Central complaints department states that escalation procedure is to refer the matter back to the branch, and also is unable to provide phone number for manager or area manager. Instead a request was logged for the area manager to call the club secretary. No other complaints options are offered.
5 Secretary telephones city branch to do his own investigation and fortunately the call is answered by a particularly sharp member of staff, who checks the system, looking for the name of the new treasurer, and finds that his name and validated identity are indeed on the system - but there is a problem: he was given the wrong forms to sign, for a personal account, not a club/society account. The matter is escalated by the staff member to a supervisor at the branch who promises to have a pack of the correct forms ready for the treasurer's next visit to the city branch, which is duly arranged.
6 Treasurer again visits the city branch during his lunch hour, to sign the correct forms, but on this occasion he sees a different staff member and his proof of identity is not acceptable (he has recently moved) although the same ID was accepted the first time on the wrong forms. The treasurer leaves the branch and notifies the secretary of the stalemate, and another wasted lunch hour.
7 The secretary telephones the city branch. The supervisor apologizes for the misunderstanding and offers to send the forms in the post to the treasurer, saying that he will not need to visit in person and that his ID is acceptable. The forms are sent.
8 The treasurer signs the forms and takes them to the secretary. The secretary takes the forms to the local branch, along with a copy of the AGM notes showing the appointment of the new treasurer, and his own ID. The staff consult with each other and decide that the signature of the outgoing treasurer is also required to validate the application. The secretary questions this requirement on the basis of it being unconstitutional and daft: surely the signature of the club chairman would be appropriate, rather than an outgoing official. The branch staff says it will investigate, and the secretary says he will do likewise.
8 The secretary again calls the bank central complaints department to attempt to resolve the matter, but again is told that the matter can only be 'escalated' back to the branch; also that the telephone number of the area manager cannot be divulged, and that the response time - even for emergencies - is 5-10 days. When the secretary suggests he will stay on the line until the matter is escalated the customer service representative states that the policy for such occasions is to terminate the call.
8 The matter is developing into such a wonderful customer services case study that I contact the media relations department of the bank and ask for clarification of some of the key points of customer services policy. The press contact asks for details, which I send. I receive no reply to my email.
9 Secretary again visits the local branch and is told that the new signatory can be processed without the approval of the outgoing club official. The forms are duly signed, and presumably later sent for processing.
10 Secretary again visits the local branch and is told that the new signatory has not yet been processed, and that the branch staff will chase it up.
11 Secretary again visits the local branch and is told that due to backlog in the central processing department, the signatory will not be added for at least until at least twelve days time.
13 Secretary again visits the local branch and is told that the signatory has still not been added. Branch agrees to chase it.
13 I again contact the media relations department who have no record of my earlier contact. They ask me to re-send the email. I do, and by now I'm fairly sure I'll want to publish the case study. I receive no reply.
14 Secretary again visits the local branch and is told that the signatory has still not been added. Secretary telephones the city branch in an attempt to reach an area manager. Call diverts automatically to a call centre instead of the city branch, where a the staff investigate and escalate the matter, and after about an hour's discussion and investigation, the customer is informed that: the paperwork has been rejected - due to being 'incomplete' - by central processing and returned to the branch. The bank now seems to realise that there is a problem. The customer receives a phone call in the evening from the area manager (who apologizes and says that the matter will now quickly be fixed), and then another phone call in the morning from the branch manager (saying much the same thing).
15 The secretary again visits the branch to meet with the branch manager, who explains that the chairman's and secretary's signatures will suffice; that the outgoing officer need not sign the forms, and - wait for it...... that the treasurer will have to sign new forms again because the original paperwork has been lost. When I heard this I decided the story was too good to keep to myself.
16 New forms are signed and submitted to the branch.
17 The new signatory is finally added to the account.

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