Why are we doing this?

2017-07-08 |  Neil Sharp

When I first started work it was for a fantastic, market leading and well respected financial services (FS) company. I went straight from college to work in their Pensions Administration department. This wasn’t my chosen career path! I fell into the job during the late summer as I toyed with doing a degree or getting a bit of money under my belt. I didn’t leave for 11 years.

On the face of it this all sounds a bit dull. In fact, it really wasn’t. I learned so much about customer service, about looking after the end-to-end experience and perhaps most importantly about how to constantly improve the way we did things, both for the sake of our customers and frontline staff – those trying to do a good job, often despite the organisation’s best endeavours to prevent us from doing just that.

Looking back it was a great place to learn. I can honestly say that those early years of learning not only taught me most of the basics of customer experience but also set me up for an exciting a varied career.

There was however a problem.

At the FS company, most of what I learned was on the job. This is fine in some respects, however had I not worked with some great, caring and passionate people, I may not have accidentally learned a great deal. More importantly still, there was absolutely no clear communication of purpose from the organisation that made any sense to us on the front line. There were a lot of rather vacuous corporate statements pushed around and there was a great deal of money being spent on internal messaging from HR (it was so long ago it was actually called “Personnel”). However, it frankly meant nothing to us for the simple reason that it didn’t properly relate to what we actually did, day in and day out. I spent the first 18 months of my career having virtually no idea why the company really existed or why I was being asked to do what I did for 40 hours a week.

The statement “we are here to help our customers live positive, happier and more fulfilled lives” sounds amazing. But when you are trying to calm a customer who is rightly unhappy that you have once again taken too much money from their account this month, the essence of the message just doesn’t connect with the day to day work that many people do all day.

We try to start any customer experience project by looking at the purpose of a company, expressing it simply and in language that could genuinely be understood by an 8 or 80 year old. It’s harder than it sounds. We then try to connect this to what people deal with when having conversations with angry customers who just want the company to get the basics right or when ploughing through mundane but critical tasks to keep a department working.

A company purpose which is clear and compelling sets the scene for everything. Just as importantly, a departmental purpose, aligned to the overall company purpose, which is established and customised for each area that contributes to the customer experience (directly or indirectly) is also fundamental.

The importance of this to me is heartfelt and can be brought to life by a short story.

One morning I received a call from the spouse of a very famous TV presenter who was also a rather articulate “consumerist”. The reason for the call was that I had handled the annual renewal contribution on their pension and, for the third year running, I had made a fundamental mistake. It was a complex process and the mistake meant a lot of re-work for them, for the company and had some quite serious implications from a tax perspective. I was mortified and frankly terrified! My colleagues thought it was rather amusing that I was going to be named and shamed on telly for my incompetence. I didn’t find it funny.

The spouse was also a celebrity which added a certain amount of adrenaline to the situation. Luckily, they were more intent on resolving the situation than tarnishing the brand name or trashing my early stage career. During the call, we worked out what we needed to do and then they said this (I’m sure this is virtually word for word despite the passage of time):

“Neil, in future I expect you to get this right. Surely you are there too make it easy for us as your customers and to give us confidence that we are saving with the right company”

Thunderbolt moment! That was why we were there in our department. We did a load of “stuff” but ultimately, that was our PURPOSE. It took a customer to point it out to me and it changed everything.

I shall never forget that moment and I share the story openly, not because it is slightly amusing but because it illustrates that if you sit and think about it, a purpose can be and should be remarkably simple to convey. Without that clarity, little of what you do makes sense. When it’s right, you can really start to prioritise and focus on what’s important.