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By Jo Causon, CEO, The Institute of Customer Service

The Autumn Statement underlined the importance of tackling youth unemployment in order to enhance UK competitiveness. The Chancellor announced the creation of an extra 20,000 higher apprenticeships over the next two years. However, it is important that businesses offer apprenticeship schemes that embed the right set of skills. We believe they should aim to bridge the existing skills gap in customer service as they are essential to the longer term sustainability of organisations and must be a foundation for improving individuals’ skills and employability.

Service pervades all aspects of our economy and 78% of UK GDP is generated by the service sector. It is also central to the manufacturing sector, as manufacturing firms accounting for 15% to 20% of their revenue from service. Customer service skills are therefore fundamental to future prosperity and growth of our businesses and our country. In July to September 2013, 965,000 young people aged 16-24 were unemployed, down 9,000 on the previous quarter but remaining at a similar level to the previous year. The relevance of apprenticeships providing youngsters with the right skills to get jobs is now more relevant than ever.

Research from the Commission for Employment and Skills identified customer handling skills as one of the leading skills gaps in the UK economy, 41% of companies in England and 51% in Scotland also identified it as a major skills gap. Additionally, research form the Institute of Customer Service states that 73% of employers agree that the need for customer service skills should be recognised in the education and training system to prepare young people for the demands of the labour market. Sales and customer service occupations have a higher proportion of employees in the 25 and under age group than any other sectors.

Employers agree that young people joining the sector are perceived as lacking in customer service skills, which, given their transferable aspect- would increase their employability across all other sectors of the economy. It is therefore important that customer skills are embedded in traineeships and apprenticeship schemes. Bridging this skills gap is especially urgent because customer needs are evolving and becoming more demanding. Increased competition both within the UK and internationally has provided customers with greater choice. The uncertain economic outlook means that many customers have experienced a drop in household income, or fear they may do so. They are therefore more selective in their buying behaviour and less tolerant of organisations that fail to meet their requirements.

If we want UK businesses to succeed, there is a need to equip the next generation with the right customer service skills. These changes mean that there is a heightened requirement of specific skills focusing in particular on emotional intelligence, commercial acumen and the ability to understand and use technology flexibly. Jo Causon, CEO of the Institute of Customer Service said: “Despite the current economic uncertainties, there are fantastic opportunities for UK businesses to thrive on a global stage, if they can deliver the service and experiences customers demand. Customer service, once seen as a bolt-on set of functions, has become a key strategic driver of business performance, and is the UK’s best path to sustainable recovery and prosperity.”

Jo Causon

Jo joined The Institute as its CEO in 2009. She has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s premier indicator of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment.

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