Listening – The Secret Lost Art


Paul Cooper argues that if we want to provide great customer service we all need to start listening to our employees.

I worked for a major motor manufacturer for many years. It was a great career. What I learned was that the employees cared far more passionately about the quality of the cars we made, their features and faults, than outside customers, and were very happy to tell anyone that listened their ideas for improvements, etc.

The problem was that frequently no one really listened or remembered we were users and customers.

So how does all this come about?

After all, the idea of quality circles, staff and customer focus groups, etc. has been with us for decades hasn’t it?

Well, I have a theory. You see, the problem is that boardrooms are more and more obsessed with both the short-term view and the quick fix. Many of them have embraced almost every good (and a few bad) management tools and ideas over the years, from TQM to 6 Sigma and many more, but they also have so much to do that they don’t check whether these initiatives are still actually happening – and in many case they aren’t.

As a result, every one of them is giving the impression to staff that these long-term ideas and benefits are just a temporary phenomenon and if you keep your head down they’ll go away.

In recent years I have been amazed, and somewhat pleased, to hear so many very large organisations talk about “going back to basics”, and “getting the basics right” before they move into more sophisticated areas.

However, one does have to ask – how long have they been around? Decades. And they haven’t got the basics right? Well, no, actually. Too busy doing the other things? No, not really. It’s just that the basics were either so beneath the board’s attention that they didn’t seem to matter, or they had been ordered by them, top-down, a while ago, so surely they must still be working. Well, they aren’t. And why?

Well, certainly it was NOT because the orders had been passed down to the “least important people” and they screwed up. It was mainly because these key people in the organisation – those who are customer facing – were never considered important in the first place, and therefore never truly involved.

And whose fault is that?

I have had an excellent relationship with my bank for some 35 years. I know everyone can’t say this but maybe I’ve been lucky. I’ve heard loads of horror stories about other banks, and loads about my own, from other people over the years.

In recent months I have been using a telling example in my speeches at seminars and conferences about organisations’ lack of interest in loyalty.

In the last 18 months I have changed many things about my life, for a number of reasons, rarely financial – house insurance, mortgage, car insurance, travel insurance, credit cards, airline loyalty card, car, mobile phone supplier, etc.

Despite the wonders of modern CRM, in not ONE case has the organisation from whom I moved called me up and asked why I left them!

Maybe they just don’t care, of course. Maybe I’m a bad customer or a credit risk. I think not. Surely if the boards of these organisations knew this they’d be worried?

Since I have left, some of them have of course continued to send the unsolicited junk mail they churn out, not realising that I was a customer anyway, and then not realising that I wasn’t. Actually that’s a very good way to help me justify my decision to change, though do I have the confidence that the new organisations are any better?

And yet how much evidence is there in the market that keeping existing customers is the road to financial success? Loads! It takes about 10 times as much to gain a new customer than it does to keep an old one, we are told, and loyal customers are the best advocates and disciples you can have. Word of mouth is as strong as your best sales force.

They say that in some supermarkets staff are trained to picture a customer with a big balloon over their head representing lifetime value. Well, in rough terms, for my family and I that would be about £400,000 minimum in our local supermarket, not counting the knock-on effect on friends and family as they set up their own homes.  [It seems high but this is £150 per week for 50 years – Editor].

Much as our local supermarket staff are very good, somehow I don’t think they are seeing these balloons. But I also don’t think it’s their fault. Logic dictates that they don’t know who I am.

Management thinking has probably moved on – let’s try something else, etc. We still have the basic conundrum that the more I spend in a shopping trip the more I have to wait in a queue. But if I buy a small amount of stuff I get fast-tracked. What about a REAL loyalty card that blasts out in trumpets and “£400,000 over here – don’t let him leave dissatisfied!”

In many cases the more important the customer (if you measure it in financial terms), the worse he/she is treated. All linked to “company policy”.

A photo of Paul Cooper

Paul Cooper

But was any of it the fault of those “least important people” we mentioned at the start? No, in fact the opposite.

They, to a person, knew how stupid the rule was, and thought worse of their company for it.

I suppose the one satisfaction one can have as a customer is the old adage – if you’re happy with something you probably tell around 3-4 people. If you’re unhappy you tell 12 or more, and with social media you can tell thousands.

Think on.
Paul Cooper is a Director of Customer Plus

Author: Jo Robinson

Published On: 1st Dec 2010 - Last modified: 23rd Jun 2017
Read more about - Customer Service Strategy, , , ,

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1 Comment
  • I absolutely agree.

    Listening to customers is incredibly important as they can tell you a lot about how your business is performing in the market and provide an amazing level of insight into what it is about your product (or service) that makes customers stay with you (or even why they have left you).

    I would also say that listening to front-line, customer facing, staff is important too as they are the people who spend their day listening to customer comments / complaints and can spot ‘problems’ early on.

    Myles 2 Dec at 12:48