Guest post – Communication, Engagement and Excellent Customer Service

For my third guest post this week, I’ve asked internal comms specialist Kevin Ruck to weigh in on the link between good internal communications, employee engagement and customer service. Kevin Ruck, who is a founding director of PR Academy, initiated and designed the internal comms qualifications accredited by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Kevin is a regular speaker and author on all aspects of internal comms. He can and should be followed on Twitter at @AcademyKev. Over to you Kevin!

Guest post – Communication, Engagement and Excellent Customer Service 

As exceptional levels of customer service become more commonplace and enable organisations to thrive in challenging times, poor and mediocre service are increasingly noticeable. And in this ‘age of outrage’ customers are likely be more inclined to call out poor service in a very public way.

So how can organisations find ways to ensure that customers love what they do? In this post, I reflect on my own experience as a customer service manager and consider how internal communication might be one way to underpin a customer service oriented culture.

I spent many years early in my career dealing with complaints about poor telephone service in the UK. This was back in the 1980s when most telephone exchanges were mechanical (not digital like today) and the state of the line plant was fairly poor, resulting in lengthy delays to repairs and ongoing problems. Anyone remember crossed lines?

Dealing with people who complain is a very demanding job. No organisation will always get everything right, but it’s how customers are treated when things go wrong that matters. Even back then we realised that turning round a dissatisfied customer could be very beneficial for business. This often entailed doing something unexpected or behaving in a way that showed that you really cared.

I ran a great customer service team and we had to resolve some pretty tough problems. However, Shep Hyken, a US speaker and author says that ‘Customer service is not a department, it’s a philosophy’. And he’s right. But if this is true, it begs the question ‘what is a philosophy of great customer service like?’ In an article for the Huffington Post, Doug Sandler provides five tips. These include:

  • Respond quickly on social media
  • Anticipate what customers want
  • Be honest and have a perspective
  • Take responsibility and own up to any errors you or your company has made
  • Be positive and listen

All good points. I also like the example of British company, Brilliant Bikes, who state that ‘We look for ways to help cyclists get more from their bike. If a customer turns up at the shop early, we open early. When someone phones, they get a human’. This exemplifies a sense of purpose within the business that is translated into customer service.

So, how can all organisations get these approaches embedded into what they do?

This is a tough question. One that many academics and CEOs have grappled with for many years. I’m not going to provide a personal five point listicle in this post. That would imply that there’s a simple solution which patently there isn’t, otherwise excellent customer service would be ubiquitous.  Instead, I will set out how two broad principles for internal communication are important for a strong customer service culture.

In my PhD research, I found that internal communication that is focused on keeping employees informed and employee voice is likely to lead to higher levels of organisational engagement, including what employees do to help the organisation succeed. Good internal communication is a strong enabler of an organisational culture that leads to engagement. And there’s little doubt that engagement and customer service are connected – as reviewed in an Engage for Success report in the UK. Organisations that adopt what I’ve called an AVID model of good internal communication practice (see below) are likely to develop a culture whereby employees trust senior managers and feel a strong sense of belonging. Feeling informed, feeling that it’s safe to voice opinions that are treated seriously and feeling that senior managers care about everyone makes employees feel valued. And this can, in turn, enable employees to bring their whole self to the work that they do – including the service provided to customers.

One employee said to me that she could tell when a senior manager was listening to her when she noticed that he ‘was smiling but not with his eyes’. In the same way customers can tell when an employee genuinely cares for you as a customer.

An AVID model of good internal communication

The AVID internal communication engagement model

The AVID internal communication engagement model

Some CEOs, such as Vineet Nayar at HCL Technologies, go as far as to say that the best way to provide great customer service is to put employees first. As Nayar explains, ‘The first thing that you need to do is create an environment of trust where the employees believe what you are saying and are willing to follow you wherever you are going’.

This focus on employees is also highlighted in a new approach to leadership, known as ‘responsible leadership’ which incorporates four dimensions; sustainability and the environment, risk analysis, care for employees and monitoring of subcontractors (italics added).

So, great customer service can be generated through responsible leadership, communication and engagement. It requires systemic approaches to communication where senior managers take their communication role seriously. That’s why it is hard to achieve. But get it right and organisations will thrive in a 21st century service centred economy.

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