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Q&A: Danielle Sones, Managing Director, ABa Quality Monitoring Ltd

ABa is a leading UK CX measurement agency, with a diverse client portfolio, predominantly working within Retail, Leisure & Hospitality and Financial Services. Danielle has more… View Article


Q&A: Danielle Sones, Managing Director, ABa Quality Monitoring Ltd

ABa is a leading UK CX measurement agency, with a diverse client portfolio, predominantly working within Retail, Leisure & Hospitality and Financial Services. Danielle has more than 20 years’ experience inspiring customer service excellence across a wide range of consumer industries, by creating CX measurement & quality assurance programmes that drive business improvement.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I first joined ABa in September 2000 in a part-time capacity whilst completing my BA and MA degrees at Manchester University. Having initially joined the business for a 1-year business internship, my role evolved; having been primarily working client-side, I then became an internal business consultant for ABa. This involved improving internal processes, implementing best practice across the different teams, and driving efficiency across the business. More recently, I’ve taken on the shared role of Managing Director (with Kate Jacobson, Company Owner), but I remain actively involved in supporting the strategic vision of individual client programmes.

What does your company do? / What is your USP?

We help our clients to measure, understand and improve their customer experience & customer service offer.

We are a leading UK CX measurement agency, with a diverse client portfolio, predominantly working within Retail, Leisure & Hospitality and Financial Services. Established in 1990, we have extensive experience of design, implementation & management of effective CX measurement programmes.

We create CX measurement programmes from the ground up, shaping each programme to deliver against its primary objectives.

We offer all types of CX measurement tools (Mystery Shopping, C-SAT, VOC, colleague training etc), and specialise in operationally focused mystery shopping programmes that drive positive change by engaging and supporting the frontline teams that are delivering service.

We build long-lasting partnerships with our clients helping to improve their CX, drive customer loyalty and increase revenue.

What’s special about your approach?

For us, it’s all about the people. Our field teams, our client partnerships, our colleagues, and of course the frontline service teams.

We hand-pick our field force and use professional Mystery Shoppers & Auditors. We don’t prescribe to the ‘fastest finger first’ approach when allocating our clients’ assessments – we pick the best profile fit from our Assessor pool and typically work in smaller, focused teams. We create long-lasting, professional, rewarding relationships with our Assessors. This means offering support in-the field, and working together to provide accurate, insightful, and detailed reports that allow businesses to fully understand and improve their customer experience.

Rather than being viewed as a supplier or third party, we work hard to get to know our client’s business and become their expert customer. We become an extension of an organisation’s operations or compliance teams, and we are passionate about building positive engagement with their frontline service teams.

What advantage does it add?

With each one of our clients, we aim to become a trusted partner, providing credible data that meets all stakeholder needs.

We build bespoke programmes that help clients understand what is happening across every customer touchpoint.

Our Mystery Shopping programmes help to both embed the service strategy that the other CX research tools (C-SAT, VOC) have shaped and provide a vehicle of communication with frontline service teams, reinforcing the behaviours that are expected. Using professional Mystery Shoppers to carry out pre-determined customer missions generates robust data on the everyday CX on which strategic decisions can be made, allowing businesses to be proactive rather than reactive to their customer’s needs.

Our programmes are a proven tool in improving the customer experience. This in turn leads to increased customer loyalty, strengthens brand image, and increases revenue.

How does a product/service implementation actually look like and how do you measure success?

CX measurement programmes come in lots of different shapes and sizes – there is no one size fits all. Our innovative in-house Tech Team design, build & manage bespoke solutions that meets the primary research objectives; these objectives need to be listed in priority order, so the overriding goal is not lost. For example, measuring the impact of training, measuring compliance to promotions or topical events, or placing service front & centre within the organisation – each of the objectives require a different approach.

Some clients come to us with a very clear idea of what they want, or think they want, but first and foremost we must understand what they want to achieve and then we work together to shape a project that meets their individual requirements.

What does success look like?

For us, success is long lasting rewarding partnerships, where we can engage and support service teams to continuously improve the customer experience, and where we can delight in the success of our clients.

For our clients, success lies in embedding customer centricity and a service led culture, and in driving an awareness of and adherence to their service strategy across their brand. This, in turn, leads to improved customer loyalty & retention, increased revenue, and, of course, ROI.

How are retailers using your systems to gain competitive advantage and what does best practice look like? Can you share a case study with us?

We know from experience, and our data, that operationally focused Mystery Shopping programmes that provide a regular drumbeat of feedback and engage the frontline service teams lead to increased sales. As an example, one of our Luxury Retails clients that has a weekly MS programme in place shared, “Over the last 6 years, service & standards have seen a consistent improvement and sales have grown 34% over that time”.

What challenges and opportunities do you see in UK retail for 2024 / What challenges are retailers facing in 2024?

Perhaps unsurprisingly we see a key impact on the sector and our industry as being AI. Our view is that we need to adapt to this wave of change, embrace these tools, and use them to empower people – both for our clients at every level from Board-level leaders to critical frontline colleagues, and in our own business. The key role of technology, particularly AI and automation, has started to move beyond the chatbot online, and the self-scanning till in-store. The focus on AI and automation is causing huge questions in the wider world. In retail, it’s creating the potential to skew service away from people. Of course, technology can be an enormous support across the pressured frontline of customer engagement: but we need more than machines. We need a blend of the best that technology and people can collaborate to deliver.

The post-pandemic swing towards ecommerce, has now partly swung back. Many brands now deliver ‘omnichannel’ experiences, where ecommerce thrives, but the ‘bricks and mortar’ store is still the heart of customer engagement. Now, around 70% of people still shop in physical stores – more than in pre-pandemic times.

In an omnichannel engagement, the key is the ability to deliver different kinds of personalised engagement at different moments in the customer journey. High automation and proactive, AI-enabled chat and suggestions make online experiences fast and easy, as they need to be. But in the store, still the foundation of the retail experience, no matter how digital our tools and processes get, engagement must be ‘human’. By which I mean, simply, about people talking to people.

How will you address these challenges and turn them into successes?

By working with clients to place a laser focus on exceptional customer service delivery and continuously improving the customer experience against a rapidly changing commercial landscape.

However much we technologise the shopping experience, I don’t think we will ever remove the need for people to have the direct, human experience of face-to-face discussion, and of the ability to change and be proactive, in the moment, to respond to customer needs. Beyond this, direct engagement is key not only to happier customers who feel valued, but also to more fulfilled employees who in turn are more effective, experienced, and empathetic for customers. Which of course, creates greater retention and efficiency for the brand.

We will continue to help our clients embed a service led culture, valuing experiences that prioritise consumer choice and human engagement.

What is on the horizon for you as a company?

The next phase of our business strategy and client engagement is simple. We’re going to continue to engage with leaders who want to improve and transform their customer experience and service, and create meaningful, long-term relationships with them. We’re going to do this purposefully, consciously, and wholeheartedly and take that spirit of genuine passion and obsession with service into every new partnership.

Any final thoughts?

We are passionate about improving the whole customer experience, by engaging, supporting, rewarding & recognising the employees who deliver it, and keeping people at the heart of everything we do.

To find out how ABa can help your retail operation, visit them online here or connect with them here.


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