Opinion

Regaining that human touch: How SMEs can do it better

5 min read

27 October 2015

If the customer is always right, why do so many businesses get it wrong? It comes down to the fact that many have lost the human touch, according to Anne Marie Forsyth, CEO of the professional body for customer service, CCA Global.

“The well-known Swiss hotelier César Ritz knew a thing or two about the customer and building strong relationships that lead to satisfaction and loyalty,” said Forsyth. “He coined the phrase ‘the customer is never wrong’. In the late nineteenth century, the slogan quickly gained currency, epitomising excellent customer service.”

She accepts that not every consumer is always honest, fair and reasonable. But if we assume that the majority are, then why are so many brands, big and small, still struggling to get customer service right?

“The biggest reason for the disconnect between customers and business is erosion of trust,” she argued. “As consumers, we’re becoming numb to horror stories in almost every sector of our daily lives, from banking and utilities scandals to, most recently, the unedifying spectacle of global car maker VW fiddling its emissions.” The hacking of TalkTalk is the latest example.

Big companies are often failing here but smaller ones don’t have to, she believes. Where larger companies have retained customers, this has been because of the positive relationships established between employees and those customers – something that SMEs can and should find easier.

“It’s speaking in person or on the phone to ‘someone like me’ that’s reassured the many – a world away from the misdemeanours of CEOs and unknown non-executives,” commented Forsyth. Smaller companies need to build on the closer, more intimate relationships they have with customers. But staff have to buy into the company ethos and really believe in what it’s doing, she went on to say.

“Employee engagement is where small businesses can steal a march,” say urged. “If your staff are happy, then quid pro quo your customers are more likely to be happy. Everyone doing a job is unique to your business and wants to feel valued. The culture in some big organisations is just plain wrong.”

Where customers are made to feel “more like one of the ugly sisters than Cinderella”, it’s usually because they don’t build a proper connection with that customer and develop understanding. 

“Empathy is often the missing ingredient. But it’s essential in so many of today’s situations from explaining complex new pension regulations and dealing with changes in benefits from the budget, to reassuring passengers about travel following terrorist attacks. Yet the pursuit of empathy in organisations large or small needs to start at the top. Again SMEs can win here using their often closer, more personal relationships with customers.”

Helping staff to develop this empathy requires focus and investment, but can we really expect it to flourish on the frontline, though, when employees’ needs aren’t being met? Or what about where customer experiences aren’t a priority for other departments in the supply chain, she asked.

With customer service as in every other area of business life the digital revolution is having a profound effect.   

“All businesses, whether a team of four or 20,000 strong, are having to change the way they communicate to survive,” explained Forsyth. “The advent of digital and social media has massively fragmented the customer service space. And the fact sentiment – positive or negative – can travel at light speeds has made it arguably more important these days than marketing.”

SMEs like big business need to ensure customers can always contact them, she added.

“Feedback is vital and social media can be a good way of gathering intelligence, particularly if you’re an SME with limited resources. However, recent research shows that people still want to communicate in person, by phone or email. So we’re back to that elusive ‘human touch’. 

“Not all customers want to do everything by themselves through remote, robotic channels. Many customers still want to communicate with a real person.”

This is where small business owners may be at an advantage, believes Forsyth, because unlike big companies, many don’t have the luxury of huge banks of data to analyse and evaluate. “They can directly treat each case individually with a qualitative analysis of why the customer may be delighted or indeed irritated.”

Customers will become more demanding, more diverse and better able to make their feeling about a company known on social media – adding to the challenge for SMEs. 

However, Forsyth concluded: “If we never lose sight of Cezar’s sentiments, we won’t go far wrong.”