· Features

How customer-centric is your organisation?

Here’s a theory that’s going to have the letters flooding in: the rate of change in society is moving at such a lick that the pace of development in human learning can’t keep up.

In other words, our world is changing faster than the attitudes of the people in it and this can cause employees - or businesses - to become set in their ways, leading to neglect of the needs and wants of their customers.

That, at least, is according to Christopher Bones (pictured), professor of creativity & leadership at Manchester Business School and founder of Good Growth, a consultancy that combines analytics with experience in organisation change.

Bones believes this lack of learning development can mean employers are becoming caught up in their own agendas, rather than understanding the needs of their customers.

"Three things have struck me," he says. "The bigger the organisation, the less immediate the priorities of the customer become. Second, the problem is compounded by the fact businesses are internally driven and this may or may not be driven by the priorities of customers. And, third, there are lots of approximations of customer service, but these are only measuring things that attribute to customer insight.

"Take three industries: banks, mobile phones and the NHS. Customer satisfaction with banks is low, but they would argue they work hard to put the customer first. Customer satisfaction with mobile phone providers is low, but the market is growing. And finally, customer satisfaction with the health service is low, but medical staff put the needs of the patients first." Bones' colleague and co-founder of Good Growth, James Hammersley, adds: "Mobile phone providers are growing, but they focus on benchmarking against competitors. On the other hand, Amazon [which accounts for a third of total e-commerce in the US] didn't spend millions investing in a search engine, because it was customer-centric enough to understand that is not what its customers wanted."

The challenge here for HR professionals is to build an organisation capable of accepting the realities of what customers want.

Bones explains: "HR should build structures, cultures and attitudes in organisations that can allow them to adopt new agendas, rather than focusing on an internal agenda of remuneration and career advancement.

"HR has to be more interested in the customer - and not self-serving. Businesses have a number of customers as well as traditional stakeholders and these can include employees. Engaged customers buy three times as much as others - and the only way to have engaged customers is by having engaged staff."

Mary Jane Flanagan, training director at Learnpurple, adds: "If you put the customer first, your teams will deliver - all training and development should focus on the customer at the heart.

"All HR processes should feed into securing customer satisfaction. Disney makes a point of treating its staff exactly the same way as its customers - so they will be happier, making it easier to deliver to the customers. It's a sense of belonging, right down to cleaners, who will clean harder. In short, the buck stops with HR."

But are HRDs rising to the challenge? Bones shared his findings with some high-profile HR directors at the HR Leaders Club in November, where Andy Leaver, general manager of sponsor Workday's business in Europe, added: "There are many ways organisations can look at how they make customers the centre of their universe and 'organise their organisation' and deploy talent around that."

Club member Deborah Baker, people director at Sky, an organisation with 10 million subscriber, explains: "The customer is paramount and for all organisations to be successful, you have to absolutely understand what the customer wants and absolutely give a proposition that is appealing to the customer.

"For us, it is not just about telling this to the people at the 'front end' selling subscriptions or engineers going into people's homes. It is about every single person in the organisation understanding how to help the customer. HR has a hugely important role. We invited customers to talk to our people department about what they like about Sky, what problems they have and their views on the competition. This way, we can see what the challenges are in other parts of the business."

But customer service in the public sector has a completely different feeling. Anne Gibson, head of HR and organisational development at Norfolk County Council and president of the Public Sector People Managers' Association, explains: "We employ a wide spectrum, including social workers, trading standards officers, teachers, doctors, nurses - it is a huge range and those professionals are all rooted in their own professional cultures and values.

"But when you think about the public service reform, it involves shifting the expectations of the public sector and what the workforce's expectation is of what they will deliver to the public - what comes first? The chicken or the egg?

"It's like in supermarkets, when you queue for groceries in a traditional queue or use self service - was it our idea to do it first or was it theirs?

"It is very much the same thing - some public sector staff don't choose their customers and that's just the nature of the public sector."

But at the other end of the scale entirely, perception-wise at any rate, estate agents don't have a glowing reputation when it comes to good customer service. Andy Brown, head of HR at Hamptons International, has set out to reverse that view. "Customer service is very high on our agenda," he explains. "We are aware of the stigma associated with estate agents and we are passionate about bucking the trend. We consider customer service in our recruitment, interview guides, career pathways and remuneration, with staff bonuses directly linked to feedback from both vendors and prospective buyers and tenants.


"Our HR department treats staff as its customers and the same principles of feedback applies to them, so we align them to the customer service agenda. Happy employees lead to engaged customers."

How customer-centric is your organisation?

Consultants Christopher Bones and James Hammersley believe if an organisation can honestly answer 'yes' to the following five questions, it is customer-centric. The HR function may not be responsible for implementation, but it does need to be aware the business is taking these customer-centric measures seriously:

1 Is your business asking the question: why aren't prospects converting now and getting answers back that present a value associated with the number of lost customers?

2 Is your business presenting senior management with ideas for change gleaned from customer insight, each with a proven, tested, revenue value?

3 Is your business working on ideas that involve changing what is said to customers to identify what maximises purchase impact?

4 Is your business 'split testing' everything (with a roadmap for regular testing), so innovation becomes far less risky and more accepted? ['Split testing' is a web technique for identifying the most effective web pages]

5 Is your business asking for simple and fast reporting and change processes in online and offline marketing communications?