Customer service. Everyone's talking about it, yet as far as many
customers are concerned, there's too much talk and not enough
In a recent Royal Mail survey, 96 per cent of respondents said being
treated professionally in communications by businesses was important,
but only 64 per cent felt this was actually happening.
For some, the benefits of improving the level of service they provide is
being realised. Olympus, for one, has commissioned Stepping Stones, a
specialist HR consultancy, to oversee a complete market research project
to help it improve relationships with all its customers across all its
The majority of consumers, however, still seem dissatisfied with the
service levels they are experiencing. So when it makes obvious sense for
businesses to keep customers happy by providing them with a good
service, why are so many of them still complaining?
Alistair Welham, marketing director of Mercedes-Benz Direct, which sells
new and used Mercedes direct to consumers, puts a lot of this down to
customers demanding more in return for their money and the data they are
asked to provide. "Customer expectations have risen," he says. "We
expect organisations to get our names right and banks to know exactly
what accounts we have. But the crucial thing we crave is to be treated
as a human being, which is the one element we don't get."
All the panelists agree that the problem is more to do with how customer
service is perceived by organisations and the different actions they
take to solve it. Kath Ginn, senior data planning consultant at Rapier,
an agency specialising in technology companies, says: "Too many firms
still see customer service as cost."
Of course, doing it properly with all the necessary resources in place,
such as trained staff and the technology to even pre-screen calls
according to caller location data, is an expensive business. "A lot of
our clients talk about call-avoidance strategy," says Welham. "That way
it's much cheaper."
Neville Upton, CEO of call centre solutions specialist Listening
Company, agrees. "Businesses need to treat contact offices as a profit
centre, a chance to understand the customer and to connect with them.
This matters not only in terms of customer lifetime value, but also true
cost of acquisition."
Acquisition versus retention
Five per cent of the UK population is employed in call centres.
According to the panel though, in these potentially recessional times
their main focus is beginning to change. Often call centre staff are
phoning up and acquiring new customers rather than focusing on
retention. Michelle Henderson, head of direct marketing at Carphone
Warehouse, says this is because companies face a constant battle for
market share, and to win this, they have to go out there and get new
So with tough times ahead, is there a danger that existing customers
will continue to be overlooked in favour of wooing new ones? "Firms
spend a disproportionate amount on acquisition compared to looking after
existing customers," says Upton. Ginn believes this is because
acquisition activity is much easier to understand and evaluate than
retention strategies, which get bogged down among active, dormant or
simply vanished customers that have records but will never return:
"There's a fear of moving spend away from acquisition to retention, even
in this climate. With acquisition marketers know what they're going to
Where spend is allocated depends on how firms want to treat customers,
says Ash Tailor, corporate relations manager at Lever Faberge UK, part
of Unilever. He believes people buying its premium products, like
Persil, shouldn't be given any better value of service or call than a
Surf user: "It's the opposite of screening. Each customer is equated
with the same value. We don't expect to get more money from one
particular customer calling us."
Unilever doesn't specifically use the data it receives to
compartmentalise callers. In its simplest form, it provides a service.
It receives calls from people asking how to wash red wines stains out
from carpets to people actually offering advice on stain removal. If
enough similar calls are noticed, tip-filled booklets are produced for
consumers. Tailor believes a mistake many organisations make is to
regard all calls from customers as a sales opportunity. He says it
should be more a two-way process for the customer and the company to get
to know each other better: "Our centres are there to give that
one-to-one service to every customer. We can leave it up to the ad
agencies or other channels to target them. We don't want to be seen as
Offering this kind of service is crucial for good customer service, and
Dan Douglass, managing director of direct marketing agency DP&A,
applauds Lever Faberge's approach: "It's value-added, which is part of
the 3Rs rubric - Remember me, Recognise me, Reward me. The value-added
in terms of this type of interaction is vital."
Carphone Warehouse is attempting to do the same thing. It launched its
direct marketing department only last February, charged with targeting
specific groups of people with more focused messaging and overall brand
reinforcement. Henderson explains: "We're trying to establish a means
where we can add value and find a reason to speak to the customer,
rather than going to them with a blatant message. It's about adding
value and being innovative in our customer service."
The company sends every new customer a welcome pack with an incentivised
questionnaire in a bid to find out what customers are thinking and how
they feel about the service they're getting. "Every customer is treated
the same," says Henderson. "It's worthwhile spending time and money on
this ethos because these are the customers that are going to bring us
But not every company can go to these depths in terms of customer
service, and where this is the case, Douglass believes mass
customisation can work just as well. He praises e-tailer Amazon. It
recommends products based on a customer's previous choices through
intelligent software. "Amazon does great customer service," says
Douglass. "All it does is recommend books and CDs of a similar genre.
People know how it's done, but it makes them feel understood. It's an
illusion, a form of mass customisation, but you accept it."
The question is, should all customers be treated the same in the name of
good customer service? Welham believes the answer is yes, but says many
firms don't treat people equally. He has noticed this in the motor
industry, especially at the top-end where companies tend to prioritise
according to status.
He also believes firms need to be aware of the risks associated with
this form of selection: "Considering the way people can interact,
influence and network these days," he reasons, "it is wrong to assume
that any one customer is less influential than another."
There are nods of agreement around the room, and even more at Welham's
next point: "We all understand what good customer service is, but when
we come to work in customer service, we seem to take our awareness hat
Asking for information
One obvious way to get to grips with what customers want is to ask them.
But all too often though, companies are reluctant to do so. "People are
often afraid to ask the customer for information," explains
"They say the customer won't give that to us, but if you don't ask,
you'll never know."
Welham believes customers are much keener to share information about
themselves these days: "With the preference services and the Data
Protection Act, people are realising that the environment is being
regulated. Therefore there's almost a willingness to share a certain
amount of data to get the right sort of response from whoever they're
But keen as they may be, the common criticism is that call centre
advisors are still inadequately trained and unprepared to deal with
customer queries and requests. Upton blames it on unworkable systems: "A
lot of the time it's not their fault they can't deliver customer
service," he says. "It's often the way they've been set up. They're not
empowered and don't have the right system."
Inadequate training, he adds, also contributes to the high turnover of
staff, a fact which blights call centres. This, too, has a negative
effect on customer service levels.
Because of the Lever Faberge UK approach, staff do stick around long
term. 'We need advisors who are going to be there not only for six weeks
during their summer break, but for years. We need that experience," says
The trouble is, not every organisation shares these feelings. Upton
explains: "We work with lots of clients. Some want six or ten-week
training, while others ask if they can get away with half a day. Some
talk about call avoidance while, at the other end of the scale, some say
they want to talk to everyone. It depends on their ethos and
Still, those businesses which do take service by the scruff of the neck
can learn a lot from their customers. Why? Because customers are
themselves becoming more savvy about what they want. Offering
value-added customer service is increasingly important.
Importance of customers
So what do our panelists think really improves customer service levels?
Welham believes it is crucial to reinforce how important customers are.
"I love the story about how one company's payslips has the words 'direct
from the customer' printed on them, so every time they got paid they
realised where the money was coming from." Carphone Warehouse does
something similar: "On the back of our business cards, we've got a list
of golden rules, such as 'we're in business because of the customer',"
At Lever Faberge, Tailor says it's not just about training call centre
staff to deal with customers. Emphasis must also be placed on helping
brand managers understand the customer. "All our brand managers spend
time in a call centre so they find out exactly what people are
thinking," he says. "That's key for inspiration in the call centre and
within the rest of the organisation."
The emphasis from all our experts was clear: listen to what customers
have to say and offer them a value-added service. And you can't do this
without investing in customer services staff, both in terms of training
As Welham sums up: "I applaud those business leaders who actually go
into work and spend time with their staff, listening to what customers
have to say. That's the only way of really understanding customers."
Marketing Direct is pleased that our Think Tank is in association with
QAS, the addressing systems specialists. For more information contact
David Pope on 0207 498 7777
THE PANELIST LINE-UP
Dan Douglass managing director and executive creative director, DP&A
One of the founders of agency DP&A in 1991, Douglass was part of the
team that helped launch the Goldfish credit card. Previously he worked
with the KLP Group's main agency, KLP International and as copywriter
and creative director of its direct arm, KLP Direct.
Kath Ginn senior data planning consultant, Rapier
Ginn joined Rapier from data analysis consultancy Macon, where she was
director of marketing. Before that she spent five years at First Direct,
where she led the development of its customer marketing strategy.
Ash Tailor corporate relations manager, Lever Faberge UK
Tailor manages the press office for the UK, developing marketing and
advertising campaigns for major product launches.
Alistair Welham marketing director, Mercedes-Benz Direct
Welham started his career at the Bristol & West Building Society in 1991
where he became marketing director. In 2000, he joined Lex Autosales,
which was taken over by Mercedes-Benz to launch Mercedes-Benz Direct. He
is also a member of the Royal Mail Media Forum.
Neville Upton CEO, Listening Company
Upton trained as a chartered accountant with Coopers & Lybrand. At
Listening Company he works with clients on financial modelling, call
centre analysis, the business context for a call centre, pricing and
Michelle Henderson head of direct marketing, Carphone Warehouse
Henderson joined Carphone Warehouse earlier this year as its first head
of direct marketing. Previously she was customer development marketing
manager at NTL.
THINK TANK: WE'D LIKE TO HEAR FROM YOU
We are interested in hearing your ideas for issues to discuss in Think
Tank. If there is a subject you think deserves an airing, please contact
Holly Acland, editor, Marketing Direct, 174 Hammersmith Road, London W6
7JP. Tel 020 8267 4234 Fax 020 8267 4192. Email: