“Hey customer, are you talkin’ to me?”

October 19, 2010

A relentless focus on customer experience has guided the rise and rise of Apple to the point where it is now poised to become  (by market capitalisation) the most valuable company in the world. According to CEO Steve Jobs: “You have got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology – not the other way round.” The marriage of an enjoyable user experience with a series of sleek, super-desirable products has turbo-charged the fortunes of Apple over the last decade, which is today worth north of US$274 billion.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Travis Bickle needed work on his telephone manner.

I could not help comparing Jobs’ words with my recent experience as a customer of Sky. (Rest assured, I do not intend to risk extreme somnolence in my kind readers by detailing my many calls to Sky’s customer care team, their inability to resolve the issue or even offer a satisfactory explanation of why the matter was taking so long). But the problems with customer service begin, in my view, with the disconnect between what companies promise and what they deliver. This is what Sky says about itself…

Because we never forget that Sky is a choice, we put customers first and work hard to earn their trust. We make our products affordable so millions can join in. And we back it all up with a commitment to exceptional customer service.

‘Working hard’, ‘trust’, ‘putting customers first’ and ‘a commitment to exceptional customer service’. Such platitudes are the hyperbolic furniture of web welcome pages and marketing materials of most modern companies. Unfortunately, they can ring hollow when set against a disappointing customer experience.

The sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the terms “emotional labour” to describe how employees working in face-to-face roles (Hochschild considered flight attendants) or in contact centre settings are required to cultivate a warm and empathetic persona which is intended to create a positive emotional state in the customer. Such employees should “speak as if you are smiling” and to ‘act’ out an engaged, cheerful and helpful manner. They are expected to do so while remaining thoroughly professional at all times. Sociologists distinguish between ‘surface acting’ (the affectation of empathy) and so-called ‘deep acting’, which uses techniques similar to those employed by method actors, such as Robert De Niro, and is more emotionally draining.

I do not know whether Sky customer service people employ surface or deep acting techniques but, whichever it is, they failed comprehensively to evoke a positive emotional state in this caller. But at least I will know to remain polite at all times should I ever have need to call in the future. You really don’t want to make Travis Bickle angry.

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Integrity must be the new message from the top, says Sants

October 13, 2010

At the risk of infuriating Andrew Marr, I intend to commit my thoughts to a blog on the subject of corporate ethics. No, this is not my rumination on a firm with headquarters in Chelmsford, but on the thorny issue of business integrity.

Gekko says that greed is good and now it's legal

Gordon Gekko is back in British filmhouses in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps with Michael Douglas reprising the role of the unprincipled slash and burn moneyman.

In the new film we see an unrepentant Gekko in the days of boom before the recent banking bust celebrating the fact that “greed is good and now it seems it’s legal”. According to the film’s director Oliver Stone, individuals like Gekko have passed their date stamp, sharp suited dinosaurs who have been replaced by the major banks and the hedge funds: “They are the big players now…the money’s too big.”

With impeccable timing, in the same week of the film’s UK release, Hector Sants, chief executive of the Financial Services Authority, addressed the issue of corporate culture and ethics in a Mansion House conference speech, and how in the banking industry a company’s value system was critical in shaping the behaviours and judgments of its people.

Management, he said, had a critical role in determining the culture of an organisation and setting the direction and tone of a company so that employees made the right decisions. He then posed some questions that should be asked about ones firm:

  • Do management model good behaviour, i.e. make their values ‘live’?
  • Do management articulate a clearly understandable strategy?
  • Do management offer guidance and training to assist in good decision-making – for example, on ensuring the fair treatment of customers and effective risk management?
  • Do management incentivise good behaviour and deter poor behaviour and how?
  • Do management encourage the required diversity to facilitate challenge to ‘group-think’?
  • Do management articulate their vision of the right culture? (Linking the brand of the institution and its culture)

These questions should not be asked as part of a box-ticking exercise; the company culture must “ring true and be consistent with what the firm does”.

This is not always the case, he said. Some of the causes of the recent crisis were rooted in the behaviours of firms and organisational cultures. And, worryingly, some senior managers had evidently failed to learn the lessons and were repeating their mistakes as if in defiance of Einstein’s definition of insanity (doing the same thing again and again in expectation of a different result).

Companies that fail to act with integrity and to ensure good behaviour is part of the lifeblood of their organisation face regulation, he warned. He could have added that they might also find themselves the subject of Mr Stone’s next cinematic opus.