It’s been a testing 2018 – but the service agenda can be a beacon of hope in the year ahead

There’s no doubt that 2018 has been a difficult year – one of the most challenging years I can remember. Levels of political and economic uncertainty have been almost unprecedented, and it doesn’t feel like we are anywhere near clarity on Brexit yet.

There’s no doubt that 2018 has been a difficult year – one of the most challenging years I can remember. Levels of political and economic uncertainty have been almost unprecedented, and it doesn't feel like we are anywhere near clarity on Brexit yet. GDP has been underwhelming, productivity is still an issue – costing businesses some £11 billion a month as I described in last month’s blog – and incomes are still squeezed for many.

It has been concerning that, during 2018, many organisations seem to have taken their eye off the customer service agenda. The July UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) showed a flatlining of customer satisfaction levels with more businesses seeing a two point drop in their score than those who saw a two point rise, and I am not convinced given what I am seeing that this will improve dramatically in the next survey. One of customers’ biggest bugbears is that they are having to put in too much effort to have issues resolved. Organisations need to make it easier for customers to contact the right person to help them when something goes wrong. It hasn’t all been bad though. The banking sector recorded its high ever score in the last UKCSI, underlining the industry’s commitment to improving the customer experience. A number of individual businesses – John Lewis, Amazon, First Direct to name but a few – continue to score highly and lead the way, consistently performing in the top 10 of the UKCSI. 

So, with a new year around the corner, what do businesses need to focus on in 2019? 

There are a number of areas to consider but for the sake of brevity I will focus on five!

One priority I regularly hear when talking to business leaders is to achieve better recruitment and retention outcomes. Many executives are saying that it’s hard to find the right people who have good technical skills and also a customer-centric attitude and aptitude. Businesses need people who are resilient and agile, who can think strategically and act locally and who really buy in to the organisation’s purpose and values. Winning the war for talent will be a major focus next year.

Secondly, organisations need to focus on the productivity problem I alluded to earlier. The key here is about getting service right first time so that resources aren’t just sucked into fixing problems. This waste of effort could be put to much greater use in terms of real service and product innovation. Businesses that genuinely recognise the strong link between customer satisfaction and employee engagement and pay people fairly, connecting them to their overall purpose and giving them work that adds value will I believe drive up productivity.

Thirdly, I believe automation and AI will continue to be an important theme in 2019. But this needs to move from the back office where it’s currently focused to front-end, customer-facing innovations. This will require staff with higher order skills that give them both technical confidence and customer experience awareness.

Fourthly, data will continue to be a real challenge in turning this into insight that we can understand, interpret and deliver innovative solutions from. Businesses need to think differently about how they connect the huge datasets that they hold, currently we are still trying to understand the data through the wrong lens or viewpoint, we look at it through ‘our’ eyes rather than truly understanding the needs of the customer and what they are really looking to achieve. We also look at it in singular form when the future is all about connectivity and collaboration. Additionally for me ethical standards and transparency will be absolutely key to a successful 2019. So the future is about much greater ownership and accountability, about doing the right thing… and being clear about what we are doing and why.

If all of this feels rather gloomy and pessimistic – I would like to cheer us all up a little because the answer to the above is in truth really focusing on the customer. Time and again, research from The Institute has shown that there is a tangible reward for organisations who put the service agenda, across the whole organisation, at the heart of their purpose.

If a business really focuses on the customer experience, it will achieve better outcomes. In a difficult environment, this must be our beacon of hope. Organisations must put customers at the centre of how they work, keep focused and carry on. Those that do so should be able to look at 2019 with a strong degree of positivity and confidence.

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