Five lessons in customer service from John Lewis
Get it right - follow the example of the high street's undisputed king of customer care
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John Lewis is the business world's equivalent of Stephen Fry:
quintessentially English, universally loved, and infallible in the
eyes of almost everyone. Already this year, it has won the Which?
Best Online Retailer 2010 and been voted Britain's Favourite
Retailer 2010. Its perfectly on-brand 91-second advert has created sentimental
ripples in the national papers as well as in homes
everywhere, reaffirming its place as a love-brand.
And it had a much-lauded documentary made about it a few months
back called Inside John Lewis - that warranted
nothing less than three hour-long episodes of prime BBC2 viewing
All these accolades are driven by one recurring theme: John
Lewis gives customer service that consistently outshines its
Luckily for you, customer service is the one thing you can do
that massively differentiates you from rivals small and big,
without costing you a penny. Want to know how to follow John
Lewis's golden example? Read on.
1. Make staff care about customer service
None of the 70,000 people who work at John Lewis is an employee
- they're all 'partners', who jointly own the business. (It's
officially called the John Lewis Partnership.) They get a profit
share based on how much profit is generated by the business as a
whole, so they all feel really involved and really
This encourages them to give dazzling service because they feel
such a sense of ownership for the business. The documentary had no
shortage of beaming employees extolling John Lewis's virtues and
radiating pride. The partnership scheme makes them feel valued,
which makes them happy. And happy staff equal good staff. As executive chairman Charlie Mayfield puts it:
"We're based on the notion that if we treat our partners well, it
will lead to good customer service." Hear, hear.
Follow John Lewis's example by: giving your staff
shares or tying bonuses to the achievement of the whole business to
make them proud of where they work, and happy to work hard for
2. Teach protocol - but empower staff to make decisions
New members of staff at John Lewis are sent on mass customer
service training days before their first day. After that, there's
ongoing training for employees to make sure everyone's giving the
same brilliant service. Want the short-cut to all that insight?
Mark the words of the chirpy new recruit trainer who sums up John's
six founding principles of customer service thus: "Be honest; give respect; recognise
others; show enterprise; work together; achieve more."
The 'showing enterprise' point is interesting, because it's not
all about playing by the rule book. Partners are encouraged to make
customer service decisions themselves on-the-spot. This means that
that most despicable of retail irks - having to wait for ages while
the person you've complained to fetches their manager - is neatly
Allowing employees to think for themselves also gives them a
sense of responsibility - which, as a rule of thumb, they tend to
want to live up to.
Follow John Lewis's example by: teaching staff how
to deal with queries and complaints, then stepping back and letting
them make decisions for themselves wherever possible. Also, invest
in proper training for your people and don't be shy about sharing
your vision and expectations.
3. Make sure front-line staff feedback on what customers
Victoria Simpson, development manager for customer service at
John Lewis, recommends talking to customer-facing staff
regularly and getting them involved in improving the way things are
done. "They have insights no one else can form." Partners ask
customers what they want and what they think, and record results.
Then, they act on it. "It's tempting to feel that once the
information has been gathered, the job is done," Simpson says. "But your processes and culture
need to be altered as a result."
Follow John Lewis's example by: getting
customer-facing staff to find out what customers are feeling, then
using results to improve your service.
4. Be exceptional
Every now and then, some rare occurrence happens that lets a
business take one of two paths: be ordinary, or be extraordinary.
When a deluge of snow blanketed the country in December 2009, a
certain John Lewis in Buckinghamshire realised that closing its
doors as normal and sending customers into the blizzard would be
callous. Instead, it decided to host an impromptu mass sleepover.
It made up its beds and let more than 100 people stay the night,
laying on food for everyone and opening up toys for the kids to
Now, opportunities like this don't come along all the time. But
because of lesson number two, the John Lewis partners could decide
for themselves to make the most of happenstance. And they got a
good PR kick out of it too (check out this video from the BBC) - not to mention a lot
of happy customers to spread the word in their community.
That's not to say you can't be exceptional day-to-day. The
expertise of John Lewis's in-store staff is one of the business'
strongest selling points. "If you don't know your stuff," one
partner confides in the documentary, "the customers can see
straight through it." These partners are the walking talking
encyclopaedias of their niches - and that fosters a sense of
authority and trustworthiness that customers can't resist.
Follow John Lewis's example by: making sure your
team know your products inside-out and embracing every opportunity
you can to bend over backwards for customers.
5. Maintain customer service levels online
Selling online isn't an excuse to let standards slip. Quite the
opposite. It's much more difficult to retain any of the personal
touch of offline service, so you need to work even harder to make
sure online customers still feel listened to.
John Lewis has an impressive and user-friendly website, sure.
But more importantly, it makes sure its customers can contact a
real person as soon as they want to. It offers phone numbers and
the names and addresses of its customer service manager and head of
It also works hard to make sure online customers don't feel
short-changed. "The crucial part of service online is the
last mile," MD Andy Street explains in the documentary. "We have to
bring the service into online." He does this by making delivery
options perfectly tailored to customers' wants and by making sure
the standards of expertise are carried through onto the website. So
the site has loads of handy podcasts and advice guides.
Follow John Lewis's example by: making sure that
when customers shop online they feel they have a real person
on-hand to help if needed, and that your brand values are carried
over onto your website.
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