How can brands ensure excellent customer service in an increasingly digital world?

Brands need to think from the inside-out. Of course they need to talk and listen to their customers, but they should also talk and listen to their employees because they will know where the issues are. 

They know what customers really want because the chances are, they’ve been interacting more with customers than the people who are in senior and leadership positions. So, brands need to tap into the existing intelligence they’ve got within their organisation.

How do you think brands have adapted their customer service experience during the COVID-19 crisis, and do you think this could have a knock-on effect on their customer service focus going forward? 

Some brands have adapted brilliantly during COVID-19. For example, some of the supermarkets pivoted so quickly. They increased their online delivery slots, their recruitment of delivery staff, and had special early morning openings for NHS staff and key workers. They managed to change their service so quickly to keep up with changes in demand. 

Another great example is Virgin Atlantic who are now flying a lot of cargo flights. Also, whenever they have asked their crew to do things that weren’t part of their normal duties pre-pandemic, they have made sure their staff feel completely comfortable with what they’re asking, and this has given confidence to customers as well. It’s really important to put people first. 

None of us really know what the future holds and how slowly or quickly we’re going to come out of this phase. But for me, if your people don’t feel confident about what you’re asking them to do, your customers won’t either. So, again, it’s so important to get that ‘inside-out’ approach right.

How have consumer habits and customer service evolved during the pandemic and what changes are here to stay? 

Undoubtedly the move to digital service has accelerated because of the pandemic, and the growth of home delivery is apparent. Certainly, if you look at the number of vans up and down my road each day, it’s incredibly apparent!

In terms of the move to self-service, it’s important to note that self-service doesn’t mean lower service. One of the trends I believe is here to stay is that consumers will continue to be happy doing things themselves in lots of cases, but it’s incumbent upon the organisation to make that super easy for them.

I think sometimes there’s a tendency to think, ‘let’s just offload that onto the customer’. But unless the customer can see real value in that, i.e. because it’s a quicker, easier process or they’re more in control of the process, they’re going to push back. 

So, I think home delivery and self-service are here to stay. But that doesn’t necessarily mean organisations can just wipe their hands and say, ‘okay customer, over to you’.

Do businesses do enough to ensure customers become loyal brand advocates or are they too focused on sales rather than retention? 

That’s such a good question at the moment, because I think many organisations, both business to consumer brands and business to business brands, are getting very nervous about the bottom line at the moment. This is when leaders have to hold their nerve and believe in customer loyalty and long-term retention of customers, as opposed to getting pulled into the tactics and mindset of ‘we need to get more sales in, and we need to get them now’.

My observation is that as a consumer, it’s really obvious who’s panicking and going for the sale now, and consumers aren’t daft – they can really see that. At the moment there’s a mix of that, and I think some of the best-loved organisations are sticking to their guns and really trying to build customer loyalty through customer experience.

If you go for broke and go for revenue now it shows, and it’s quite hard to then flip that and try to rebuild customer loyalty.

Top three tips on excellent customer service? 

As you might expect, my first tip is around the importance of leadership. There’s a lot talked about leadership and positive leadership. My belief is that leadership, particularly now, needs to be optimistic and ethical. Both those things really matter in terms of the customer experience, but also the employee experience inside the organisation. 

My second thought is, when I was at Virgin Atlantic, we built our service mantra based on ‘brilliant basics and magic touches’. I think that now, more than ever, particularly with the move to digital service, customers expect the basics to be brilliant and smooth. But also, still want to be wowed by some unexpected magic touches or magical moments. 

That leads to my third point, which is that those magic touches don’t have to cost the Earth. They can be really low in cost, but high in value. I’m sure we can all think of lots and lots of examples of those magic touches, and my hunch is they probably don’t cost the Earth!

To summarise, my tips are, optimistic and ethical leadership, brilliant basics, and magic touches, and find those low-cost, high-value moments for customers.

As the head of London Olympics 2012 customer experience, what went well and what can smaller organisations learn from such large-scale success? 

I think sometimes people look at the Olympics and think, ‘wow, you must have had all the resources going’. Well, we were as budget-tied as everybody else!

I suppose the thing that I really took out of it, that I think organisations, large or small, can also benefit from, is the importance of leadership. When I think about leadership, I don’t think of the people at the very top of the organisation, but I think about our volunteer team leaders who were on the front line if you like.

They did two things brilliantly well. Firstly, we asked them to try not to get sucked into the task, so all the emails, reports, etc… but walk around the venues, chat to our volunteers, ask their names, and ask if they’ve got any brilliant ideas about how we could improve. 

When I meet volunteers now, they say, ‘I really remember that. I remember being made to feel like my opinion and contribution really mattered’. 

The second thing I think we did well was our recognition and reward. Now, that was not high in cost. We gave people small pin badges that were made of plastic, but because they were given with a really authentic ‘thank you’, people were so proud of those little plastic badges, as I still am of my plastic badges. But more than that, we said thank you.

I think leaders sometimes think they say thank you more than they actually do. So, the thing I would take out of the Olympics is that it’s all about that optimistic and ethical leadership – it comes back to that.

As an authoritative figure on business management who successfully managed over 70,000 volunteers at the Olympics, what qualities constitutes a good leader and what advice would you give companies wanting to improve their own management strategy? 

I mean you could start reading now and keep reading for the rest of your life, books about leadership, with people giving you their views on what makes great leadership.

Listening to the people around me has always worked for me, and not feeling as though you have a monopoly on all the best ideas. I think great leaders are really happy to be challenged because usually, out of challenge and discussion comes a better idea than your initial thoughts. 

The other thing that’s worked really brilliantly for me, and I’ve really enjoyed, is spending time with the people right at the front of the organisation, who work with customers. That’s how you learn what’s really going on, not what you read in reports and not what perhaps people like to tell you but walking around with your little notebook and just picking up on key things that are really going on. So, listening and spending time at the heart of the organisation, I think that really helps to make great leaders.

What has been the highlight of your career?

I’ve been very lucky and have had some really fun jobs, but the highlight of my career was undoubtedly at the Olympic closing ceremony.  I remember standing with about 20 of our volunteers, just in one of the gantries of the Olympic Stadium in London. We watched the closing ceremony which was phenomenal. And then Seb Coe stood up and he thanked the athletes, the officials, and the VIPs – lots of thank you’s. And finally, he said, ‘I’d like to thank our volunteer games makers’, and without any planning or orchestration, 85,000 people in that stadium stood up and cheered without stopping for eight and a half minutes.

Everyone I was standing with were in floods of tears because they knew they’d done the best work of their lives and they were being paid nothing. I allowed myself a little moment of pride. Just to see that reaction, it was phenomenal, and that’s right up there as my highlight!

If you could give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be? 

I didn’t go to university, I was a little bit naughty at school.  I started my career at British Airways, right at the bottom. I learned that actually listening to people, enjoying working with people, getting people together – that is hugely valuable.  So instead of thinking, ‘I haven’t got a degree, I haven’t got very good qualifications’, I started to have a little bit of confidence that maybe those what we now call ‘soft skills’, actually really matter. 

I don’t think they’re soft at all. I think they’re really important, hard skills, that really matter – I wish I could tell my younger self that.  Actually, what I really enjoy now is coaching and mentoring young people to give them faith in that, because now more than ever, business needs those skills. So, it would be, have confidence in your behavior skills.” 


Linda Moir is part of a range of leadership speakers available to book via The Motivational Speakers Agency.

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