GUEST BLOG: Leon co-founder John Vincent on why the customer isn't always right

Customers and clients are not an unimportant part of a business. Before I share some thoughts on how to stay client-focused, it's worth pointing out some important caveats to what otherwise might seem like a non-contestable idea:

For many businesses the sourcing and supply chain are much more important than the customer. In fact I would go so far as to say that customer service is almost irrelevant to them. These would include upstream oil companies, mining firms and agricultural commodities who are selling into a marketplace with spot pricing.

For these guys, what is critical is extracting those resources from the ground more cheaply than the price they can get for them. The same might be true of certain types of technology and drug firms where what matters is the protected IP or technology.

Forget the old cliche: The customer is king

You may be surprised to hear that I am against the concept "the customer is king". Why? The answers might appear pedantic but they are important in my experience.

  • First, you are breeding values that say that human beings who give you cash are more important than others. I don't think that is a good basis for community.
  • Second it sends out the wrong message to your people: "Someone who gives me money is more important than the person who has got up at 5am to come and serve those customers."
  • Being too customer focused can literally bankrupt certain businesses. We bought a Scotch whiskey business: a big part was bottling own label whiskey for UK supermarkets and distributors across the world. The problem was that in a bid to be 'customer focused' the sales people had allowed every customer to specify their own particular bottle shapes. "We can do whatever you want. You're the customer". The proliferation of bottle shapes and sizes caused massive issues with buying, with stock management, and massively slowed the running of the manufacturing lines. We had to retrain the salespeople to say 'No', to standardise the bottle shapes and to tell the customer to take it or leave it. Of course that helped us give the customer a lower price.

You cannot please all customers

Trying to do so could lead to the company's undoing. Many potential customers are more trouble than they are worth. They will cost you more to win and serve than their value to you. So choose your customers carefully and learn to spot good customers. (Remembering that from a human perspective, no customer is more important than a non-customer).

A downturn often forces companies to address this. For example the UK wine and spirits distribution companies who serve the independent bars and pubs and restaurants in UK are all looking to REDUCE revenues by dropping customers who are too expensive to serve or who pay too late.

Having said that, of course for some businesses, especially service businesses and financial services businesses, customer loyalty is key.

So how do you create a customer service culture in those businesses where it is key and where they know which customers are economically important?

The rules of great customer service

1) You need to role-model customer focused behaviour as the leader. Your teams will see you in action and consciously and unconsciously mirror your behaviour. Talk about customers as if they are listening - in warm terms. If your people hear you denegrating customers internally you will find that poor service will soon follow.

2) You need to hire people who like people. Not sometimes but always. you will need to say no to most candidates. It is possible to make a smiley person unsmiley through bad culture but not an unsmiley person smiley through a good culture.

3) Find creative ways of training and embedding a customer service culture. At Leon we often ask new teams to create big pieces of artwork that express how they like to be treated and their best and worst experiences as customers. Get them to cut out magazines and get some paint brushes out.

4) Be very specific about what behaviour you expect from your people. At Leon we explain for example the importance of what we call "a big welcome" which should include a smile. We don't always achieve it but hopefully more often than not.

5) Align the incentives of the front line teams. Make sure they are rewarded financially and non-financially for good service. To do that you might have a mystery shopper or some informal or formal ways of getting feedback. In fast food the teams look forward to hearing the results from and views of the mystery shopper. Partly because they get a bonus when it is good.

6) Keep a story book of all the great customer service stories in your business. Make heroes of great team members and tell the story of how they went out of their way to help a customer.

7) Give your people the information they need. All the culture and smiley intent can be undone if you don't give them the tools and info to serve and look confident in front of a customer. Give them fact sheets, an intranet, anything that gives them what they need to know.

8) And finally use whatever legal ways you can to lose the bad apples who you've hired by mistake.

I am sure there are lots of other good ideas that readers will contribute and I look forward to reading them.

John Vincent founded healthy fast food chain Leon with Henry Dimbleby in 2004. He is this week's guest mentor on the Brother Business Ambitions campaign, taking questions on branding, marketing and customer service.

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