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What impact first impressions have and why getting them right is important for UK PLC

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You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression, says the old adage. It’s a well-known maxim, but familiarity does not mean organisations can afford to dismiss the underlying sentiment. In the context of customer service, without creating a good impression at the outset, the businesses that make up UK plc could risk damaged reputation and market share.

With 70 per cent of the UK’s workforce employed in customer related roles it is clear that “getting it right first time” is vital. Yet, according to the latest “UK Customer Satisfaction Index“, that doesn’t happen in as many as one in every four interactions. Business leaders should be raising this within the boardroom because there is a clear gap between employee capability and service expectation. If this gap is ignored it will have serious ramifications for long-term business performance.

To understand why, you only need examine government data published at the beginning of 2016. It suggested one in three job applicants lacked the appropriate customer handling skills to gain employment in their chosen job in 2015. In addition, of those already in the labour market, 36 per cent failed to improve performance due to inappropriate training. Given the UK’s reliance on its service industries and the proportion of employees in customer related roles, this doesn’t make for good reading.

What’s more, the very nature of customer service is shifting, with all organisations impacted more easily on the immediacy of customer feedback. Thanks in large part to the explosion of social media this can be critical and is often constructive – but knowing how to respond is a vital skill. If organisations don’t get it right trust levels can fall. From a strategic perspective this is not something to dismiss: our data shows a 44 per cent drop in customer trust if they score organisations eight out of ten for satisfaction, compared to scores of nine out of ten.

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In short, being good is no longer good enough and the onus is on the business leaders to review the skills development platforms they have in place to move from “good to great”. Given the higher stakes, it’s clear that more needs to be done to better engage with customers and forge meaningful relationships with them, as opposed to purely transactional ones. That is why creating a good first impression acts as a crucial starting point on which to build a sustainable, long-term, relationship.

But, how can we create and develop a workforce that has the necessary skills to achieve the highest standards of customer service, particularly in an environment in which customer priorities are changing? Recognition of customer service as a key component in an organisation’s culture would be a good start. It may be tempting to focus on those individuals employed within a badged “customer service department”, but the reality is that everyone in an organisation should have, and should exhibit, these skills. I know of two CEOs, who regularly respond to customer emails or calls. It may be easier to delegate to others but by adopting this approach they are clearly stating that customer service is vital from the top, down.

Of course, investment in training and development is not a short-term solution. The skills have to be developed to match needs now and in the future. And they shouldn’t be restricted to those in the front-line. Customer service isn’t, after all, just about conversations, it’s about deciding the strategic intent and direction.

According to research conducted by the Institute of Customer Service, UK consumers identified three factors which most affect their decisions to repurchase from and recommend an organisation – these being employee attitude, behaviour and competence. The research also showed these factors are more important to customers than they were five years ago.

Giving employees the opportunity to develop customer focused behaviours is a necessary step for any organisation with a long term vision and strategy. In a time of political, economic, social and technological change, it’s vital that UK PLC improves its relationship with its customer base or face long term decline. What’s more, developing and meeting shortfalls in customer service skills in the UK economy is an essential part of ensuring we are competitive on the global stage.

Conversations with customer service representatives are usually pretty bland, or even painful if you’re trying to resolve a problem. As it turns out, this isn’t always the case – so we rounded up the best examples of when a brand turned a customer complaint into one of the most unforgettable experiences.

Jo Causon is CEO of the Institute of Customer Service.

Image: Shutterstock

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