We are living in truly challenging times for business leaders. The economic outlook in the UK is increasingly a cause for concern, with inflation hitting a near four-year high last month and wage growth currently unable to keep pace.
It’s a situation which means that consumers are feeling squeezed. Add to this the fact that the country faces a difficult period with tough Brexit negotiations just beginning, while the General Election resulted in a less than certain political environment and, after the Queen’s Speech, a seemingly less ambitious agenda.
With the recent terrible terrorist attacks and the awful Grenfell Tower tragedy, the prevailing national mood is sombre, reflective, cautious – and a bit fearful too. At a time when there is less money in people’s pockets, with those people also more discerning and less trusting, businesses need to differentiate themselves through authenticity and integrity. So the onus is on business leaders to demonstrate that they really are listening to customers and staff; and it increases pressure on them to be both proactive and responsive.
But what worries me is that when spending tightens and the economy is more difficult, many businesses focus either on lowering prices to keep customers spending, or on cutting costs. Or both.
Either would be a mistake. They don’t create any real differentiation and neither option is sustainable. For me, more than ever, now is the time for enlightened businesses to hold their nerve and stay committed to the service agenda.
To do so makes sense commercially. Surveys continually show that higher levels of service lead to higher levels of customer trust - and trust leads to higher levels of repeat business. What’s more, the latest UK Customer Service Index, published by the Institute, indicated that over a quarter of consumers are prepared to pay significantly more for better levels of service.
Another concern is that low wage growth may produce a decline in employee engagement – which is vital to delivering high quality service. But it’s important to realise that employee motivation is not just about money. It’s about engaging the workforce by giving them a real voice and listening to what they say. No one can deny that pay rises matter, but it’s also about truly supporting staff in a range of ways – listening, responding, and making time to address worries and concerns.
As we navigate this challenging period, I hope organisations resist the temptation to be seduced by the idea of price or cost-cutting. Instead, businesses need to focus on their service levels, drive the service agenda forward and keep focusing on the real purpose of their business.
Against this backdrop it is very timely that we, at The Institute, are launching a set of membership principles and promises. The principles set out what we ask of our members, while the promises set out what we pledge in return. For members, the principles are about keeping committed to the service agenda, investing in people capabilities, and continually reviewing and improving the customer experience. Our promises revolve around continually championing service, working with members on organisational development to deliver it, and our commitment to providing access to leading resources and networks.
It’s by working together and passionately focusing on service that organisations can weather the current storm and remain sustainable for the long term.