Killing off bad customer service

Adam Bernstein
Friday, October 22, 2021

A tough print market, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, means that keeping your clients happy – and coming back for more – is more important then ever.

Back in 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote what is now a rather famous book, How to win friends and influence people. An accidental hit, it only came into being after a publishing firm executive at Simon & Schuster took one of Carnegie’s courses and felt that the content was ripe for publishing. Revised in 1981, it has now sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.

At the book’s heart is the theory that treating people well – in effect, how we all want to be treated – leads to personal and by extension, commercial, success.

Of course, there are a myriad of books on customer service, but the best example of overt customer centric service that this author has seen is that of an independent home goods and electronics retailer in the US – Chicago-based ABT Electronics. In an age of online, it occupies 42,000sqm of retail space with a new 40,000sqm warehouse on a 280,000sqm site where customers fight for parking. It wins countless awards and one of the reasons for this is its service philosophy which is typified by signs placed inside the ‘shop’ which, plainly written, say: “The answer to any reasonable question is ‘yes’.”

Customer service is so important

While the world of retail has woken up to the importance of good customer service the matter most definitely also applies to print. And Darren Coxon, managing director, Pensord Group is already on side.

In his view, customer service is a “top priority” and follows from so much of the sector being commoditised by buyers. As he says, “you’d expect relationships to be purely transactional, but we are proud of our business and understand that publishing and print is complex”. It’s this understanding that he says drives the company to make sure it “supports clients with good communication, understanding their needs and delivering to expectation”. 

He adds: “The minute we accept that we are a commodity is the minute we will lose some long-term existing relationships because we will no longer be different and will no longer provide the value that our clients see and feel.”

And Sam Neal, CEO of the Geoff Neal Group, agrees. He too views customer service as the “number-one priority” and notes, that “everyone in my business will tell you that I talk about this all of the time”. To him, offering good customer service is not complicated – it “revolves around the simple interpersonal skills we all use daily, executed well and consistently. Always imagine you are going to receive the message you are about to deliver – if you like and believe in what you are about to say then the chances are the intended recipient will too.”

Worryingly, and print won’t be the only sector to have noticed this, technology has made building great relationships harder. As Neal has seen, “technology has stopped so many face-to-face meetings. I miss the days when there was a proper hand over of artwork with the print buyer, designer and account director”. 

“The level of detail that was communicated in that meeting was huge in ensuring that projects got off to a really good start and the client felt that we had really listened.” 

He says that he is not a technophobe but says that “the value of being face to face to build relationships, which is vital to offering great customer service, cannot be forgotten.”

Jo Causon, CEO of the Institute of Customer Service, takes a macro perspective to the subject. She says, referring to the institute’s latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) which surveys 10,000 consumers every six months, “that there are a number of things that organisations typically get wrong”.

“We’ve found that record numbers of customers experienced a problem with an organisation. At the same time, satisfaction with complaint handling is at its highest ever level. This suggests we have got better at dealing with issues when they happen, but worse at preventing them at source,” she says. 

As far as she is concerned, getting things right first time is essential.And she makes the point by looking at the impact of service on profitability. The institute wrote, in its Customer Service Dividend Report in 2017, that average EBITDA was 24.7% for organisations with higher than sector-average customer satisfaction for their sector versus 14.5% for those with lower than sector-average customer satisfaction.

Knowing the faults

Man is fallible and so for firms to thrive means garnering an understanding that they and their staff are imperfect. On this Coxon believes that Pensord has its priorities right. He says that “we look to add value even if it means taking the conversation way beyond our core activities. We want to make us easy to do business with and take away pain points – it’s key to a good strong relationship”.

In fact, Coxon seems to delight in using problems as an opportunity to keep customers happy: “We understand that problems occur and... often how you respond is how you are measured ethically.” He adds that he firmly believes companies get what they deserve in terms of customers – “we have great customers who act and think like we do”.

Pragmatically, Neal considers that customers are the lifeblood of any business and explains what he means: “We could be the best or fastest printer in history, but without clients we would not exist. We are a service business. We just happen to serve ‘print’ – and hopefully very well. We exist to serve.” It’s quite telling that Neal says that he would say the same if he owned a restaurant or a taxi service because “people really remember a good or bad customer experience”.

But are customers always right? Coxon thinks so, and states that he’s never had a problem with a client thinking they are right or that he is wrong. On the contrary, he says that “if a customer believes he is right, and we are wrong then they are right. It’s what they believe”. For him, the issue is whether a customer is being unreasonable and “if they are, then you are entitled to reason with them”.

Overall, though, Coxon says that while Pensord has done well because it has streamlined many client processes and methods, it sometimes has to adapt and then let the relationship evolve through good client management and communication.

The impact of coronavirus

Firms, do (or should do) plan to the nth degree, but situations can come along and derail ordinarily good processes. Covid-19 is one such example and some have used it as a shield to hide deficiencies. In fact, Causon says that, according to the institute’s Index, almost a quarter of customers believe some organisations have abused Covid to their own benefit. She adds: “Customers have been understanding up to a point, but many are starting to view the Covid as an excuse for poor service, rather than a legitimate reason for delays, staff shortages and the like.”

In Causon’s mind, “good, proactive communication is important, and so is treating staff and supplier partners well to drive greater engagement and commitment”. Experience has taught her that those that live by this philosophy – “and have done the right thing more broadly through the challenges of the pandemic will have built trust that should result in additional loyalty and goodwill when it’s really needed”.

It is clear that Covid has affected print – but not equally. When asked of the impacts of Covid on his business, Neal responded with just one word – that there have been “none”. Pensord, on the other hand, as Coxon tells, has seen Covid lead “to reduced staffing at times and often short notice and an affected supply chain and short notice disruption in manufacturing. We’ve always had pride in never going late but recently had to manage significant lateness due to Covid impacts.” But this is where Pensord’s previous good character has come to the company’s aid as “it is where the emotional bank account comes in”. Coxon’s advice is very clear and very logical – “always make sure you are in credit with a client with promises, and service and so when you are the one needing flexibility you have deposits that you can draw down on”.

Part of this means good communication and in today’s ‘always on’ world, he’s says that this is especially important. He takes the line that while “from a day-to-day perspective it is still expected that account managers are only contactable between certain hours, business owners and directors should always be contactable 24/7 so that really important issues can be handled”.

Neal wouldn’t disagree. He also recognises that customers need to be able to contact key people in a business when they need to. “That doesn’t mean,” he says, “that they will contact you out-of-hours, but they do need to know it is possible. This is all down to relationship and effective communication.” He says that being a 24-hour manufacturer “we have agreed communication channels internally and so we are comfortable offering this level of service”.

And as for the Institute, Causon notes while there has been a sizeable shift to digital in many strands of life and across all different age demographics, she thinks that firms could do more and maybe deploy more technology. That said, she says that it’s important that they “get the technology right, make the transactional aspects efficient and frictionless, and enable self-service if the customer wants it”.

One option she refers to is the deployment of chatbots “which are increasing in sophistication as there is definitely a part for AI to play here”. Nevertheless, she says that the basics are still important, and firms should make it easy to contact a real human, remembering that it is important that the customer has the option of choosing to speak to someone where an issue is complicated or more personal.

Price is obviously an important part of the equation when choosing a supplier. Even so, it’s clear that it’s not the only determining factor – Causon highlights that “the UKCSI demonstrates that a significant number of customers are prepared to pay more for better service”.

The passage of time

Customer service isn’t something that just apparates; it takes time to be engrained within a business. Coxon puts this point well when he says that “you can’t switch on a customer service-first approach, you have to grow it – it has to become part of your company’s DNA”. He continues: “We put in many hard yards building this 10 or 15 years ago and now we just keep making sure that ethically we do the right thing.” Pensord, he says, aims to stay honest and make the right calls. It uses KPIs to measure elements such as estimate timing, invoice timing, on time in full, complaints and complaint resolution.” As he says, “if you measure these things they tend to improve”.

Causon thinks that those firms that illustrate best practice “really listen to their customers and aim to instil a positive culture of continuous improvement”. And she too is a fan of comparative measurement and improvement, noting that “we work with members to benchmark their satisfaction levels against other organisations both within and outside their sector”. As she sees it, this helps them identify what they are doing well along with how they should invest in service for the best return.

And for those wanting to improve their offering the Institute can provide guidance. But as Causon says, “it’s about taking expertise from people who have been through the same challenges you are facing, and that’s not just a theoretical exercise”. She adds that each piece of research the institute publishes comes with a set of practical recommendations with tangible actions.

Measuring key elements of the business, including service, is important to Neal also. His firm has, he says, written a charter that covers all aspects of customer service across all its business areas. He says that it “was written by people from across the business and has been adopted and signed by everyone in the business. The ambitions are for all staff to see the value in their role and their direct impact they have on the client’s customer experience.”

As he explains, the charter was about getting under the skin of customer service, what it is and why it matters. And it came about when he was discussing with others “the times we had experienced poor customer service and how it made us feel and act. It was about agreeing and then maintaining our set of standards. Once set and everyone bought in to why we could all work in the same way and deliver consistently.” The underlying ethos of the charter is to build and shape teamwork so staff work for each other and understand how a happy client has benefits for all in the company – “simply,” says Neal, “our aim is to deliver great quality work and world class customer service.”

With a nod to the measurements (of KPIs) that Coxon noted earlier, Neal says that the company often takes a long hard look at itself, and “evaluates what we feel and experience as good customer service, and we put that into practice. And when we get it wrong, we analyse, and we learn. Continuous improvement. Never sitting still. Relentless in our own pursuit of perfection.”

Of course, any measurements taken in isolation are rather like statistics; they can be used to prove anything. This is why Causon says that it’s important to have a basket of measurements – “over-reliance on a single metric can lead to unintended consequences”. She says that organisations should contrast external perceptions of their service with the internal understanding of what is being provided.

Taking the debate in a slightly different direction, Coxon thinks about how else to fix customer service in the minds of a business and its staff. He says that to do well in service (rather than in pure cash terms), staff need a vested interest in the firm and should provide what customers truly want. He explains that it irks him “that there are print managers with no skin in the game making more profit on a print job than a print company with millions invested in plant and machinery and tens of people employed. But how did that come about? It’s not the print manager’s fault they are providing services that many print companies missed.”

Ultimately though, in Causon’s view, printers should design services with customers at the centre and at the same time, “understand their evolving needs and align the whole business behind a coherent service strategy”. She says this can be achieved through a combination of internal and external surveys, research into topics such as sustainability – a major consideration within the print industry – and trust.

She also advises detailing what customer service means to the business, identifying key parts of the process and where it can all go wrong. In more depth, she suggests “measuring success in delivery, identifying areas to address and taking action to improve continuously”.

This also means not forgetting that employees are part of the process – they should be trained and developed accordingly. Not just on the technical skills required to do their job, but also the softer skills which will help them deal with challenging situations, understand the different needs of customers, and cope with pressure.

In summary

Every business sector has its gold standard players with stellar reputations to maintain who put the customer first. Every sector will also have those that are best not discussed in polite company – firms that Coxon says “stack it high, sell it cheap and offer ‘tough’ as the response when something goes wrong”.

But while he says that “you still come across rogues who give print companies a bad name, I think that’s becoming less and less the case.” Nevertheless, he says that print needs to value itself and its products and expertise more but worries that “we are often too quick to sell ourselves cheap and in doing so, devalue the whole proposition”.

So, it’s perfectly clear that firms that last the distance tend to be those that offer the best possible service in tandem with price and quality. 


© MA Business Limited 2021. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .