Sky's the limit

8th Jun 2015

It was the night of a big, world championship boxing match, a box office event and one of Sky TV’s signature broadcasts, hugely important for Sky’s loyal customers and for the Sky brand. The staff were massively busy. Thousands of fans logged in to watch the fight just as the boxers’ ‘ring walk’ music heralded their arrival into the arena and then suddenly, no bookings could be taken.


‘We had a system outage,’ recalls Tom Scott, customer service director for Sky UK. ‘We were still processing sales and making viewing available to customers, when we lost the system.’ It was a  challenging situation given the potential impact on customers – but what happened next was more memorable and extremely positive: ‘It was amazing to see the effort and the teamwork trying to resolve and fix this major problem,’ Tom says. ‘It’s that kind of ésprit de corps in the face of adversity that is always the interesting thing for me, when you see people really step up.

‘You almost need problems to check you’ve got the right team.’ That sort of teamwork – focused on the job that needs doing, looking for solutions, all eyes firmly on achieving the objective whatever the setbacks – brings to mind the approach to difficult challenges that Tom saw in his 18 years in the army, where he served in the Royal Engineers. He retired in 2007 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, having completed ‘operational tours’ in places such as Northern Ireland, the Balkans and Iraq.

He also worked as an engineering instructor, a career manager in the Army Personnel Centre, and completed a two-year stint with the US Department of Defense in the Pentagon where he was working on a large digital change programme at the time of 9/11. ‘I think you’d be surprised how similar corporate life is to life in the military as an army officer,’ Tom says. ‘It’s people, it’s politics, it’s people trying to hit targets. You’ve got to pitch for your budget, you’ve got to get your money and you’ve got to deliver whatever the required outcome is as effectively and efficiently as possible. ‘The army is the ultimate in leadership organisations that value and rely entirely on their front-line staff. I run a large operation now and it’s exactly the same thing: you are nothing without the quality of your people and as a leader and manager you can only exist to try and make their lives easier and to make their job as easy as possible. It’s remarkably similar.’


Service is crucial


Tom Scott is now in charge of 7,500 customer service people working in 17 different sites, mostly in the UK. It sounds like an extraordinarily large number of people but then they are servicing around 11.5 million customers. He sees customer service as being as crucial to Sky’s overall offering as its technology and content. Technology ranges from set-top boxes and all the software that goes into them through to mobile apps and Sky’s broadband offering as an internet service provider. Programming includes the programme content Sky buys in or makes itself. ‘Service is there to allow people to maximise the enjoyment that they pay for,’ he says. Excellent customer service, for Tom, means ‘it’s as effortless as possible, it’s consistent, and it’s reliable. Customers value customer service but they don’t buy Sky for customer service. They buy it for the entertainment.’


“ Service is there to allow people to maximise the enjoyment that they pay for.”


A customer may be a first-time subscriber figuring out how the remote control works, or trying to get their new internet connection switched on, or wanting to find out how to download a box-set of a TV show or watch a programme on a tablet device. Then, as Tom says, ‘Our responsibility is to try to understand the customer’s issue quickly and then advise them and point them to the best place to get that resolution.’ It’s not just call centres that are offering advice and support. There are apps, information pages on the website, instructions via set-top boxes and ‘live chat’ facilities over the internet. ‘One of the mantras that we use is “brilliantly easy”,’ Tom says. ‘Is it easy from a customer perspective? Is all the effort taken away from the customer? That’s what we constantly check against:

will a customer find this easy to do, and if they don’t then let’s think about it again.’ The ethos that drives that sort of customer service is based on a three-pronged behaviour set which Tom describes as: ‘Doing the right thing from the customer’s perspective, taking ownership for anything that the customer needs and teamwork.’


The right numbers


The measure of success is net promoter scores (NPS) – a common enough metric perhaps, these days, but one which at Sky has been on an uncommon trajectory. Overall, across the various delivery channels, the NPS has risen around 40 points in the last two years. ‘That’s a huge increase,’ Tom says. ‘It’s reassuring that we’re on the right journey.’


The business consequences of such an increase are felt in improvements in indicators such as the number of people who leave Sky, or the number of different products and services people take. ‘All those metrics correlate nicely to what we’re providing in service.’ Tom Scott has little time for some of the more conventional call-centre cost-related measures, such as how long staff spend on each call: ‘Fundamentally, if you do the right thing, answer the query that the customer has in the best possible way and get it right first time, then the other metrics will follow. Obsessing about how long someone is on the phone is the wrong method. The minute you chase those traditional KPIs you lose the essence of that “do the right thing” behaviour.’

It’s all about the people

As Tom confirms, statistics don’t drive the business or the customer satisfaction scores – people do. ‘We have invested lots of time and effort over the last two years in selling that very simple vision, helping our staff, removing obstacles, changing the management culture to really put the onus on the front line – and acknowledge that the front line is where it happens,’ Tom says. ‘And those guys and girls have truly embraced it and realised at an individual interaction level that they can drive that NPS score for the company. All the other stuff we do – how clever you make the systems, how clever you make the processes – that’s just good hygiene. It’s all about the people.’


The performance of the front line customer service people may drive the NPS, but it’s their knowledge and experience that’s the critical element in deciding how to drive that figure even higher. ‘Quite frankly, we’ve got the richest vein of insight you could possibly imagine. We’ve got millions of interactions that take place every year on a one-to-one basis,’ Tom says. ‘Our knowledge management system has a very healthy feedback loop.’ Sky also hosts ‘customer closeness’ events, which might take 10 customers, for example, into a lab, to get their comments on new products that are being developed – or maybe 30 customers in a hotel to talk about their views on what Sky is doing. ‘We have the NPS type things and the regular surveys which generate “verbatims,” but fundamentally it’s better to be in the same room with your customers and show them things that you’re doing digitally and ask them if it works for them and can they find the information simply,’ Tom says.


‘When it comes to some of the more strategic things, we are far better now at bringing all hierarchies of the organisation into the thinking early on. When we design a new product or proposition, customer service is thought about right up front. Customer satisfaction is part of the remuneration scheme at Sky – but it’s more than that, Tom says: ‘We are looking for customer service genes – people who have that in their DNA, who want to become customer service obsessives.’


The best service in the country


This all combines to create a relatively simple aim: ‘We want to offer the best service in the country – irrespective of sector – and we won’t rest until we do that,’ he says. When Sky was deciding what its NPS targets should be, it didn’t take long to find out that the likes of Amazon, Apple, John Lewis and first direct were the stars to aim for. So it was a thrill to hear from a colleague that his wife was at her employer’s management development day where staff were told that Sky was one of the companies, against which hers should benchmark themselves. Gratifying certainly, but Tom is aiming even higher: ‘We want to be the name that’s mentioned first. Fundamentally I want people to ask who provides great customer service? And to immediately think of Sky – irrespective of them being a Sky customer or not.’ His biggest challenge is, he admits, realising that you can’t fix everything at once. ‘You’ve got to find those key nuggets, those key pieces – and then on top of that you’ve got to trust and listen to the front line people who you have the privilege to lead and work with. They know what’s important and you have to try and unlock that.’

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