You may have read of our recent efforts to define the strongest parts of what makes CSG what it is. After much discussion, we arrived at four distinct elements, what we like to call our ‘brand pillars’ because, together, they hold up everything that CSG does.
With this in mind, we’ve decided to dedicate an entire blogpost to each of the four pillars and first up – arguably in order of importance – is ‘Customer Service’. You may think the way a company treats its customers and responds to them is quite an obvious contributor to their success but if it’s so obvious, why is it that so many of us experience poor service so frequently? What, then, makes it such an indelible part of what CSG does – and why are we so proud of it?
With CSG operating across such a broad range of customer types, the ways in which we’re able provide excellent service can also vary enormously. For example, in the case of our biggest accounts, with huge volumes involved and clarity of purpose vital, the levels of service we promise are often written into our contracts and tenders. Perhaps a more acid test of our ability to offer an unbeatable level of service is in the business-to-consumer (B2C) environment, where we’re usually asked to react quickly to very specific requests by a wide range of consumers, often with very different levels of expectation.
With that in mind, perhaps the best person to ask is Dean Hough, our Telesales Manager, responsible for providing a fast, professional response to all our domestic and small business sewage collection services. He’s the man who’s there to ensure a very specific flavour of ‘CS’ is present within CSG. A veteran of a number of call centres throughout his career, he’s now charged with the task of keeping our B2C customers happy, every time they contact us. How do his objectives here differ from other places he’s worked at?
“You could say it’s essentially the same requirement: handling calls efficiently in order to make sales but in reality, it’s nothing like anything I’ve ever done before” he says, with disarming candidness. “We tend to have a very distinct type of customer with very specific requirements, which are a world away from those of most call centre-based businesses. For that reason, it would be totally wrong for us simply to copy the techniques of even the most successful call centres. Everything we do has to be right for CSG and the customers we’re here to serve.
It’s true that, due to the vagaries of demographics, our base of domestic sewage customers (owners of houses with septic tanks) tend to be, on average, much older than a standard cross-section of the community. Similarly, such properties tend to be rather more remote than usual and that can uniquely influence the conversation with the customer.
“We’ll generally take maybe five calls a day in which we’re just asked for advice about the customer’s system, its upkeep or when it was last emptied. There’s not always an obvious path to ‘convert’ the call into a sale so we don’t necessarily push the conversation in that direction. It’s important that we help when we’re asked but it’s enough that we’re happy to leave it at that and only ‘make the sale’ when the customer is ready. That sort of thinking would be inconceivable in other industries I’ve worked in, like software or insurance, but what they would feel is right for them isn’t necessarily right for CSG and our customers.”
That’s not to say we ignore the influences of so-called ‘best practice’ of the whole call centre sector. Unsurprisingly, there are areas of Dean’s experience that have been incorporated and tailored to the way CSG deliver service to customers.
“Like any professional organisation, we still have processes and targets but we always ensure they’re done in a completely different tone, with a much lighter touch than the more hardened, clinical style that most people would associate with telephone-based customer contact. We’re very aware that to some of our customers, a call to our sales team may be their only conversation that day.
“Our team come from a variety of backgrounds, not necessarily just sales. We find a good grounding within the waste industry helps to foster an understanding of and therefore competence in a subject in which they’re being asked to provide assistance. On top of that, before anyone ever takes a call, we provide a fair amount of training and even arrange for them to spend time out on the road, accompanying our tanker drivers on their rounds. We’ve long known that if you’ve seen at first hand the day-to-day issues that can create problems, it’s much easier to give the right advice when, for example, access to a septic tank is difficult. It’s pretty simple, really – you have a better appreciation of what can go wrong if you’ve already seen it in action. The more appreciation my team has, the less assumption there is – and usually, assumptions lead to problems.”
It’s fair to say that even the briefest look at CSG’s history will show that customer service has always been a strong part of our culture and ethos. As the person charged with upholding, even improving that long-standing commitment, does he find it a daunting prospect?
“I wouldn’t say so. I don’t feel under any extra pressure just because CSG’s standards are already so high. I’m a perfectionist so it’s more the case that my aims and CSG’s are exactly the same. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to admit that we’re not perfect (yet) and there’s lots of things I’d like to do to keep improving. I think the fact that CSG is still a family-owned business is a huge reason for its focus on customer service and I’d say that, while it might be easier for me to suggest lots of easier improvements to a less customer-focused business, the flip side is that I’d expect to find it harder to get the backing I’d need to make those improvements. Here at CSG, that very strong existing focus means that there’s also a much greater willingness to support me in this role – and I find that very motivating.”
Customer service seems a simple enough concept but it’s one that frequently seems to find itself complicated and distorted to meet the eye of the beholder. What’s the simplest way to define good service, in order to ensure that it can always be assured?
“I think, at its heart, customer service is really a question of empathy – the ability to know what the other person ultimately wants – in some cases, even before they do. Of course, people are all different so it’s difficult to demonstrate empathy until you know enough about the person, their personality, what situation they’re in, what’s motivating them at that moment. Even that’s pretty meaningless if there’s nothing you can do with that insight so it’s necessary not to be too governed by hard and fast rules. Experienced people are always an asset, as is diversity within the team, increasing the ability to view a situation from more than one angle.”
What about internally? Isn’t there a danger that very existence of a team specialising in customer service can have the adverse effect of implying to the rest of the company that it’s a consideration they can then more easily ignore?
“Whenever we need to take corrective action, we know we need to show empathy not just to the paying customer but also to our internal customers – all the colleagues who rely on each other in order to get the job done well. Ultimately, we’re all on the same side, trying to achieve the same goal so if something has gone wrong and needs to be put right; failure is failure and we have to take ownership of that. That sort of terrible side-effect doesn’t happen when there’s good communication and everyone is dealing with each other in the way they would expect to be dealt with. We often say we’re ‘Working together for you’ and it’s not just a strapline – we really are.”
In the end, for all the well-intentioned ideas, the refusal to limit to ‘wrap-up’ time (the amount of time spent talking at the end of a call, after the sale) or the removal of counter-productive individual incentives, numbers will still prove the success of the strategy. Customer retention rates, longevity, average life-time value are all longer-term measures of customer behaviour that almost define the very point of offering an unbeatable ability to meet and exceed expectations, consistently. Customer service is not really about what it achieves today but what it continues to enable in future. In an era where we’re used to demanding and delivering instant gratification, it’s worth remembering that its true value is one that arrives very steadily, over time.