Focus on… customer service

Jamie Oliver may be the very public face of Sainsbury’s but, if the supermarket chain’s latest initiative is anything to go by, its 100,000 customer-facing workers will be the ones who determine whether the retailer continues its recovery or loses out to its rivals.

In September, the chain unveiled a 10m rebranding exercise – ‘Try Something New Today’ – as the next stage of its three-year ‘Make Sainsbury’s Great Again’ programme. The most interesting aspect for HR is the fact that the campaign is supported by an extensive package of customer service training.

But can something as nebulous as customer service actually be taught? While it has long been recognised that you can be drilled into smiling and saying “have a nice day”, if you don’t have an innate enthusiasm for delighting customers and exceeding expectations, is such training just a waste of money?

Lessons to be learned

Not according to Sainsbury’s customer director Gwyn Burr. “People have to have an aptitude for service,” she says. “But once you have that, there is a lot you can do as an organisation to move it forward.”

Bob Dunn, general manager of customer service at Scottish Water, agrees. “People do have to have the right attitude, but you can then build on the techniques that help you manage customers.”

The organisation has 400 customer service staff and won this year’s National Customer Service Awards, run by Customer Management magazine.

The key is constant, ongoing coaching, Dunn suggests. “Even with the right attitude, if you are not giving people the right technical skills, and if they don’t know how to work the system properly or have to shuffle through papers all the time, then that will reflect badly on the customer experience.”

Over the past three years, this focus has led to a 20% reduction in complaints and a 40% increase in the number of ‘first-pass’ resolutions. Customer satisfaction levels have risen to 95% from 76%, while staff satisfaction levels have also increased, says Dunn.

On-the-job training

Ongoing customer service training is a must, particularly if you are working in a technically fast-moving environment, says John Vickerman, people and property director at mobile phone company 3. Staff need to know about new products, upgrades and technical changes, and be confident they have the right answers.

The company has 2,300 workers split between call centres in Glasgow and Mumbai, India. They all undertake a three- to four-week training programme, which covers areas such as handling calls and dealing with complaints, Vickerman explains. This is then topped up by regular on-the-job training, much of it web- and e-learning based.

“We invest in good selection and recruitment methods,” he adds. “If your raw material is good it makes it much easier.”

Managers also need to be given the right skills. A Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development study this summer found customer service workers who received regular, positive feedback, praise and recognition were more willing to go that extra mile and less likely to leave.

Changing times

As customers become more sophisticated and demanding, so the skills and training you need becomes more important, says Richard Emerson, managing director of learning and development specialist Interaction.

“It is now much more than just smiling and using a customer’s name,” he says. “People do not want a formulaic approach any more. They want to be treated as individuals.”

He cites the example of optician chain Dollond & Aitchison, which began a major customer training programme for its optometrists in December 2003.

They went on a five-day residential course designed to challenge assumptions, increase understanding of customer needs, develop awareness of customer styles and improve skills and behaviours. Within 12 months, the cost of the courses had been recovered through increased sales, and mystery shopper scores were higher for the optometrists who had completed the programme.

Spending the money and giving customer service staff the tools to do a good job can be an important motivational and retention tool in itself – particularly in times of change, says Sainsbury’s Burr.

“Organisations often do service initiatives that just fall flat when it comes to delivery,” she adds. “So you have to engage and motivate your colleagues.”

The key to good customer service 

  • Hire for attitude, but don’t overlook skills.

  • Ensure you give staff the answers they need, particularly in a fast-changing environment.

  • Blend classroom and on-the-job training – constant coaching and e-learning can both work well.

  • Ensure managers have the skills to keep customer-facing staff happy, focused and motivated.

  • Remember that giving staff the tools to do a good job not only benefits the customer, but also makes employees feel more motivated, happy and loyal.

This month in Training Magazine…

Mark Burton, head of learning and development at AstraZeneca UK, talks about his new learning agenda.

Personnel Today’s sister publication, Training Magazine, is a monthly magazine dedicated to keeping you on top of training issues. Subscribe before 11 November and save 50%. Go to, or call 01444 445566. Out on 15 November.

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