Interview: Jo Causon of The Institute of Customer Service
Retailers have generally fared well during Covid-19 in delivering decent levels of customer satisfaction but care has to be taken that this does not fall away as the industry grabbles with myriad post-Covid-19 challenges.
Jo Causon, chief executive of The Institute of Customer Service (ICS), says: “Customers had more problems than they’ve ever had and retail broadly held up well – with satisfaction levels static or improved over the past 12 months. Supermarkets have done well as they’ve been there for customers. They got a good press and responded well. Their online presence also helped things.”
Early Covid-19 success
This resulted in retailers taking seven of the top 10 places in the UK customer satisfaction index including John Lewis & Partners, Marks & Spencer, Amazon, Pets At Home and Aldi. These retailers undoubtedly benefited from customers being especially tolerant in the early stages of lockdown when they were grateful for any help.
But Causon says this changed in the summer when “there were expectations that things needed to return to normal”. “Satisfaction fell and customers suggested organisations were simply blaming everything on Covid-19. Clearly there were real challenges with stock supply and availability.”
These issues contributed to unacceptable abuse from customers that affected employees on the frontline and led the ICS to launch its ‘Service with Respect’ campaign in June. Causon says research has shown abuse, intolerance and hostility to customer service professionals across contact centres, delivery and in shops has increased.
“This has played out in retail recently when customers have been asked to wear masks. As a society we are more anxious and frustrated. The abuse we are seeing is across the full range. It got worse and it’s not just because of Covid-19. We’re calling for a change in the law,” she says.
However, Causon is keen to highlight that the situation is polarised: “There is the other side of this abuse with people recognising customer service people have helped keep the lights on and are a vital part of the economy. Consumers are mindful of the service element where organisations have helped them – giving advice and being more human. It’s a mixed picture and there are lessons to be learnt.”
The human element has certainly had the spotlight shone on it during Covid-19 and retailers should embrace this. “In surveys customers will talk about the functional things as being important with retailers but the things that make a difference relate to how the retailer makes them feel,” says Causon.
Driving up employee engagement
This is just as important for a retailer’s employees as it is for its customers because these softer, more emotional, elements are a vital component in engendering greater employee engagement. And this is crucial to the success of all retailers.
The ICS research shows a 1% increase in employee engagement results in a 0.4% increase in customer satisfaction. This fuels greater economic success, according to the ICS, which has found that organisations with an above average customer satisfaction level across a five-to-eight year period enjoy revenues 4.9% higher and profitability 10% higher than other companies.
According to Causon, there are a number of factors that lead to greater employee satisfaction, which include: extending greater levels of trust to employees; an organisation that cares about its customers; greater collaboration; having confidence in the strategy; being empowered, with less bureaucracy; strong vision and values; and a company that is doing the right thing.
Focusing on purpose
The latter leads into the area of purpose and Causon suggests companies need greater clarity of purpose: “Covid-19 has shown us we need to be more responsive with the need for a clarity of purpose. If this is the case then people feel more connected and know what to do.”
Fundamental to this is effective communication to employees and this will become increasingly important as hybrid working likely becomes more prevalent in the workplace. “With flexible working how do companies maintain a world where colleagues are connected? For a significant number of people today, they are in the same boat [working from home] but we’ll move to a situation where that’s not the case. Companies need to work hard to keep staff connected. It brings lots of challenges and businesses need to be creative in how they manage multiple ways of working,” says Causon.
For now she suggests retailers need to pause and consider what has been learnt from the period of Covid-19: “What to keep, what’s been hard and they don’t want to keep, and what they need to do going forward.”
Words by Glynn Davis
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