Part 2 – Acceleration at the speed of Right

The times they are a’changin – Bob Dylan.

In part one of this blog I shamelessly took some credit for the positive changes that some companies had achieved during the Covid-19 pandemic, by suggesting that they had borrowed a few ideas from my Four Principles of Customer Experience, Culture, Communication, Commitment and Community. However, a few years before Covid-19 ruined our social life, and made Zoom robots out of many of us, Robert Colville in his book, The Great Acceleration, was clearly more than a little clairvoyant when he gave his view of how and why life was accelerating, and how to cling onto the last carriage of the train as it left the station.

He talked about it from three main perspectives:

  1. The impact on our brains and bodies
  2. Our social and romantic life
  3. Technology

It’s no surprise that Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on the effect that all three of these have had on all of us, and from both my personal experience and those I’ve seen with various organisations, they’ve been regular topics of focus for the companies that have navigated the pandemic reasonably successfully. This focus has been influential in driving the four key elements that I mentioned in part one in helping these companies accelerate at the speed of right. Now I’m taking a deeper dive into how these pace setters have used these elements to fuel their organisational engines to take both their customers and their employees on the ride of their lives and conversely how the laggards ran out of petrol and were left by the side of the road inhaling exhaust fumes.

  1. Getting closer to Customers – Building and retaining their trust

Building and retaining trust isn’t a one-time exercise baked into a slick advertising slogan run by the PR department. And many businesses think a lame, meaningless apology on Twitter, usually beginning with the words, “we take customer service very seriously,”  (oh sure!) will do the job after they kept customers on hold for several hours as they try to get a refund or retribution. Like many of the best things in life, it’s a continuous and consistent effort. The Edelman Trust Barometer has been demonstrating how trust in both businesses and governments has been falling off a cliff for a number of years and the pandemic has only amplified and accelerated this.

Companies that recognised that customers were under emotional and financial stress and made allowances in positive ways have shown that fairness, compassion, and understanding are the best and only ways to a customer’s heart – and their wallet!  But communicating with passengers, customers or guests is very much dependent on a company having an open and honest communication policy that builds trust and provides reinforcement for employees to act with integrity and compassion in those critical moments of truth that can define a great customer experience.

It’s a Slippery Slope:
During the pandemic and even before, as noted by Edelman, many businesses scored “nul points” on the trust exam, and in fact many used this as a reason or an excuse to deliver even worse service. We’ve all heard or experienced the appalling treatment handed out by many in the travel industry, especially the airlines, package holiday providers and rental car companies, who used the great British public as their corporate bank and decided that we were the best free money plan to come along in many years as they trousered our deposits and refused requests for refunds. One company Teletext Travel has just been ordered by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to repay over £7 million in outstanding refunds and I guess we should be grateful that someone is looking out for us, as many companies seem to have misplaced their moral compass during the pandemic, assuming that they ever had one. But, even as we hung on the phone for hours, grew ever more frustrated with many unanswered emails, there were some organisations that stood out. Thanks to my colleague Ian Williams from Skiline, who shared this good news story from the slopes.

Companies such as Inghams and Le Ski understood their market and their customers.  They knew that their customers were primarily skiers and that they would want to ski again and that they would be patient as long as they knew from the outset what their options would be.  They told their customers that once the snow melted, “we will look at rebooking you into something for next season (as you’re skiers and you’ll want to ski) or we’ll give you a refund as soon as we are able to do so” (this required clawing as much money back as they could from their suppliers and then methodically going through and refunding each customer).  Announcing their intentions early took all the stress out of the situation for their clients.  This has built a strong bond between them and their customers which meant they gained the customer’s patience whilst refunds were provided and ultimately their repeat business now the market has returned.

As these companies found out, it wasn’t just refunding or rebooking that helped them keep their customers’ trust, it was the proactivity, speed, and honesty with which they responded which made all the difference. 

  1. Nurturing Employee Engagement

As lockdown took hold most companies were faced with either furloughing employees or quickly and effectively moving to a remote, working from home (WFH) model. For many this meant having some critical conversations that clearly showed that they were concerned with their employees’ wellbeing, as well as their customers Engaged, and trusted employees naturally want to help and find it easy to locate their ‘inner customer’ where they store their reserves of empathy and understanding. But how do you achieve and maintain engagement and trust with employees? There may be some clues from New Zealander Owen Eastwood, who has worked with many leading sporting and other organisations including the England football team, South African Cricket and NATO. In a recent Times interview with Matt Dickinson, he talks about his belief that the best leaders unite their teams, “their tribes”, by connecting them to a bigger story than their own personal ambitions.

Eastwood’s premise, set out in a new book, Belonging: The Ancient Code of Togetherness, is that any tribe of humans — from cavemen hunting antelope to a modern sports team in pursuit of success — needs its leaders to find a unifying cause.

While the biggest unifying cause was the pandemic, when it came to employee engagement, there were a number of equally important components that brought employees, their customers, and the business together. The companies that came through the pandemic with some credit, provided their customers with choices, imbued their employees with a sense of belonging and gave them permission to engage with customers on an emotional and personal level. The organisations that I found really stood out in this area are Timpson, Richer Sounds and Virgin Media Ireland. But, it will come as no surprise to those of you who know these companies well, that this has been their operating model for a long while and not a hastily crafted marketing wheeze. I particularly remember the words of Michael McCarthy from Virgin Media Ireland when I spoke to him at EBM’s Future of the Contact Centre Conference. His key mantra is “Make it easy for our people to make it easy for our customers” Nuff said!

  1. Crossing the Digital Divide – Reach for the cloud

Despite the fact that Digital Transformation and Omni-Channel communications have apparently had their hands up vying for attention for more than a few years, many businesses ignored the requests, or at best deployed separate solutions that didn’t integrate and treated each other like strangers. The pandemic has definitely changed that – at least for some. And those organisations that heeded the call have found that they could swiftly deploy native, fully integrated, multi- functional cloud solutions. This was also a critical element in ensuring that colleagues could work from home effectively, safely, and securely, without compromising performance or service.

I was once again fortunate to hear EBM conference speaker Claire Caroll of the Co-op, as she shared their three main themes of Anything, Anywhere, Brilliantly, that allowed them to handle any customer inquiry, for any line of business, swiftly and effectively. But at the heart of that was their ability, ably supported by their implementation partner, to move very quickly to a cloud-based infrastructure, for both self-service and assisted service, maintaining business continuity and keeping people safe via remote working. The feedback from customers and colleagues was overwhelmingly positive and the platform is now firmly in place and has totally transformed ways of working while at the same time delivering memorable customer experience and strong employee engagement. 

  1. Developing Cross Functional Collaboration

Many companies reverted to working from Home (WFH) very quickly and while this may have negatively impacted face to face employee interactions, in many cases, notwithstanding Zoom fatigue, it actually allowed cross-functional collaboration (CFC) to really come into its own. Businesses have found that CFC can really drive an organisation to operate as a single cohesive unit guided by a business-wide view of the customer experience; an organisation where internal structures and silos are not allowed to impede delivery of a seamless end-to-end experience and where the first instinct of departments, teams and individuals is to connect and collaborate. CFC has Agile methodology to thank (or to blame!) for some of its more endearing features. One of the companies that really benefited from CFC has been BUPA where daily stand ups were put in place right across the business to do everything to ensure that people were up and running from home and could help their customers. They gathered representatives from all teams so that they could collaborate and continue to provide an exceptional service to their customers. this included lending individuals to areas of high demand and training them up quickly and virtually. A win for both colleagues and the company.

Holland and Barrett is another organisation that really earned their CFC spurs by creating a hybrid virtual team that moved them away from the silos that often naturally occur with different geographic groups, and now both the in-store team and the contact centre colleagues really understand how they can support and promote each other. This has meant more visibility across the business, enhancements, and positive changes to training, as each group learnt more about each other via these virtual collaboration sessions. And, a bonus feature that has emerged is that when you’re not physically together it’s meant that more creativity and innovation is both necessary and desirable.

CFC isn’t new, but as with the main theme of this blog, businesses are evolving to find new and different ways to make it a way of life. When done systematically, intelligently, and inclusively, with a committed and organizationally supported cross-functional team, you can win customers’ hearts and minds and enjoy the reputational and financial benefits that accrue.

In part one I quoted Charles Darwin, and name checked Yogi Berra, to reflect the constant changes that we experience in life. And as I sought a creative ending for this epistle, I decided to lean on that well-worn and slightly subjective phrase much beloved by football managers and other sport’s personalities, “to try to take some positives from the pandemic.”

One of those positives is that I believe the end may be in sight for rail privatisation and those appalling train companies who for years have made our daily commute a nightmare and ruined more than one life, and for whom I trust there will be no new normal!

The defence rests m’lud!