Dick Brunton: Successful customer service has to come from the heart

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Dick Brunton, co-founder of market research company Colmar Brunton, finds too many New Zealand firms are doing it wrong by relying on formulas.

Many organisations are trying to improve customer satisfaction, and improve the customer experience. Photo / Thinkstock
Many organisations are trying to improve customer satisfaction, and improve the customer experience. Photo / Thinkstock

A recent survey from Colmar Brunton on the customer experience was widely reported in the media, focusing particularly on exalting the banks and caning the telecommunication companies.

The untold story is that 60 per cent of New Zealanders have had at least one particularly bad customer experience in the past 12 months. Add to that the 40 per cent who consider that business is a necessary evil (as opposed to a noble calling), and one has to wonder if some organisations don't see their customers as a necessary evil.

There are still some organisations which are stuck in the Milton Friedman model. However, the idea of the primacy of shareholder value is obsolete.

As reported in the Harvard Business Review for Jan-Feb 2010: "It's time to discard the popular belief that corporations must focus first and foremost on maximising value for shareholders [which] is inherently and tragically flawed ..." As Jack Welch famously said, "most employees have their face towards the CEO and their arse towards the customer".

However, I am writing on the many organisations that are trying to improve customer satisfaction, and improve the customer experience, but are frustrated. Companies spend increasing amounts with this goal in mind, but research surveys still show disappointing results much of the time.

Why? In my view, most organisations are trying to do customer satisfaction with the head and not the heart. They try and legislate customer service behaviours, with the result that the customer service is formulaic.

The answer is to do customer service from the heart. Things are changing. There is a shift in values in a post-recession world:

* Sustainability - consumers increasingly want to know whether they are buying responsible products that were made without harming either the earth or its people.

* Social responsibility - alignment with a cause gives the consumer permission and a purpose for their spending.

* Health - there is a growing consciousness of the importance of what we put in, and on, our bodies.

* Trust - the financial crisis shook trust in institutions, leaving brands vulnerable to the general sense of betrayal.

* Personalisation - the most valuable brands go beyond product features to focus on the user experience.

Consumers are increasingly savvy. They can smell insincerity from a hundred paces. They are looking for authenticity. They have become well-informed brand advocates, and critics, fortified with knowledge about price, product and supply gained from searching the internet and sharing information on Facebook and other social networking sites.

However, much branding is a work of fiction. Effectively, organisations are searching for a fancy dress to put their product or service into - the lipstick on a pig scenario.

The ad agency attaches an emotional world to a product or service (often from an emotionally barren organisation) rather than expressing an authentic world. Who are they trying to kid?

If you want to be a "lovemark" then you'd better be loving.

This is the age of standing for something, for pursuing a big ideal. This is the new era of the purpose-driven business world.

In a new study our company has carried out, in conjunction with a major client, we found that the world's best brand value builders have certain things in common.

The key one is a big ideal, closely followed by a relentless commitment to the customer experience.

Dove, for example, is on a mission to "make women feel beautiful every day by widening stereotypical views of beauty". They see themselves as "an agent of change to educate and inspire girls on a wider definition of beauty and to make them feel more confident about themselves".

Taking some examples closer to home, Kiwibank set out to create a new bank from scratch that provides better service than the Aussie banks, better interest rates and a fairer deal for Kiwi customers.

Furnware's aim is to "make our classrooms more comfortable, high achieving areas of learning".

These crusades, when they are sincere, deliver a richer customer experience - out of instinct, rather than legislation. They give meaning and significance to employees' lives. It's hard to get motivated by making money for shareholders, but a cause is different.

I remember some years back talking to a chief executive officer of a large educational organisation in Auckland. What's your mission I asked him? To be the biggest provider of educational services, he said.

I grimaced, another inward-focused mission statement. What if you said you wanted to raise the standard of education in the region, that would be customer focused, or better still, answer the "why?" question - ie, so that the region will prosper, people will have jobs, etc. Which banner do you think your staff would most like to walk under, and if you did that, do you think you might become the biggest?

As John Seely Brown said, the job of leadership today is not just to make money, it's to make meaning.

- NZ Herald

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