What is your business good at?
A focus on the basics can help some companies stand out by providing great customer service. The way you provide that service will make or break your business in the long term, but it’s not the only essential part of how you affect your customers and whether they stay with you.
The part which is more fundamentally important than customer service is something which has become a bit unfashionable in recent years – operations, or the actual day to day running of your core activity.
Since the 1980s, businesses have broadened the number of disciplines in the typical organisation structure. The rise of accountants was followed by an increased emphasis on marketing, a more central role for IT, and more recently a higher profile for HR. All of these specialisms have important parts to play in a business, and without them, many businesses would simply fail to compete, before probably failing as a business.
The skilled professionals working in these specialist departments all provide vital support services – but that’s the point, they are support services. Essential, often high-profile, usually high quality in the best companies, but they are mostly one step removed from the essential contact point with the lifeblood of a business – the customers. That contact point is shared by the front-line functions: customer service, sales and operations.
Look at the composition of the average board in a typical SME, and you’ll notice there’s broad representation from all of the major functions, which is as it should be. But in many board discussions I’ve heard, the conversation is mostly weighted towards finance, sales and HR risks – often in that order – with any discussion of what a business actually does being relegated to a specialist section of detailed capacity scores, throughput measures, utilisation percentages, and similar grinding statistics. No wonder the operations functions have become a bit unloved in recent years. But unless the operations function excels at what it does, the business will eventually fail. To excel, they need all of the support functions to be obsessively focussed on the objectives of operations, customer service and sales, and not necessarily on their own objectives.
But, even with great support, smart use of technology, and first class impressions for customers, if the operations function is not performing, customers will still leave in droves. As I discovered, when I left as a customer of one business recently. My car needed a service. I didn’t know that, but the car dealership did, from their smart IT system. So, their system sent me a text message to remind me, telling me they had made a booking, and someone would telephone me to confirm it was convenient. They duly called, ten minutes later. Impressive. The experience at the servicing reception continued the high quality theme; the staff knew my name already, offered real coffee, and a comfortable and glossy waiting area. All very good customer service so far. My car would be ready later that day, the efficient administrator told me, and I could call to collect it at 5:00 p.m. But, at 4:45 p.m., the Operations Manager passed a message to the Customer Service people, asking them to call me to tell me they had not even started to look at my car, and I could not have it back. The worst part of this is it had happened in exactly the same way, six months earlier, which I mentioned when the dealership’s feedback co-ordinator called me then. Wow. How to lose a customer in one easy step. Even with great customer service, good IT systems, and well-trained staff, this was one business which was simply not good at what it was supposed to be in business for.