As we celebrate the first 10 years of the ICS, thoughts automatically turn to the future. Will customer service continue to be a major factor in determining organisations' success and what changes in service delivery can we expect during the next decade? Don Hales provides some answers.

Service leaders: preparing for the new challenges

The answer to the first question must be a resounding 'yes'. The greater expectations of today's customer will certainly not diminish and, in an increasingly commodity-driven world where products and services can be replicated in days, customer service can only rise in continuing importance. The pressure on those responsible for delivering service is also set to intensify in the coming years.

It is generally accepted that, for many organisations, customer service will, increasingly, be the only sustainable edge. Equally, without exception, customer service is essential to reducing costs, increasing resources and sustaining profitability.

This, in turn, should lead to a greater awareness of the importance of customer delight and more resources being made available to those responsible for looking after an organisation's most important asset - the customer base.

One question requiring answers is whether leaders of customer service divisions are sufficiently prepared to accept the increased responsibility that these new challenges will bring. That is why I've linked up with a leading research company to develop a competency framework for customer service directors.

Parallel with IT profession

Although I spend most of my business life working on customer service and related events the inspiration for this stemmed from another programme, The British Computer Society (BCS) IT Awards.

Through my association with the BCS, I became aware of a similar project in the IT world, led by Glowinkowski International, aimed initially at Chief Information Officers (typically an organisation's senior IT person).

The IT project, CIO Competency and Qualifications Framework, was initiated because it was felt within technology circles that in most organisations the top IT voice was not heard sufficiently loudly, especially at Board level. The aim, then, was to establish what excellence in a CIO looked like to improve standards as part of the drive for stronger representation at Board level.

The parallels with customer service and its strengthening voice at Board level were particularly strong. Seeing the IT project develop, and its acceptance by IT professionals, it was a natural progression to work with Glowinkowski on a similar project for customer service leaders.

Glowinkowski International is an established research and leadership development consultancy with a long history of helping organisations improve their performance in both the private and public sectors.

The purpose of working with Glowinkowski is to develop a behavioural competency framework for senior service leaders, including customer service directors, customer relations directors and heads of departments.

ICS Companion Member David Physick, who heads the project at Glowinkowski, emphasises that organisations bring clarity to the term 'competency' by defining it as "characteristic behaviours associated with organisational success".

The research being undertaken has two strands, one quantitative and the other qualitative.

Quantitative research

This comprises two questionnaires distributed to 200 customer service leaders. The first asks leaders to consider their preferred behaviours, for example, ideally, what would be their 'natural' operational style? The second asks them to consider the relative importance of delivered or actual behaviours.

Preferred and actual behaviours are different. Organisations pay for delivered not preferred behaviours. Sometimes the two are congruent. Other times preferred behaviours are inappropriate and an alternative is needed. If this research can define these appropriate behaviours, clear development strategies can be pursued, resulting in enhanced individual and corporate performance.

Enhanced service leads to sustainable business. It is competitively advantageous to acquire this capability and it needs to start at the top with those accountable for service performance.

Initial responses to this aspect of the research are already identifying some critical behaviours of outstanding customer service leaders; namely, they:

  • study service beyond their own sector boundary

  • invest time, effort and energy communicating with customers - they approach them instead of waiting for customers to come forward when they are dissatisfied

  • position themselves to take part in setting organisational strategy, a cornerstone of which is service excellence

  • apply learning from service failure to improve processes and practice to prevent recurrence; they do not just 'fix the problem'

  • � understand the value associated with service, enabling them to quantify the costs and benefits when seeking investment for improvements

  • are tenacious yet flexible; they press hard to gain acceptance for their thinking about service but retain an open mind to the fast changing dynamics of customer requirements

  • are committed to the development of staff, including themselves, to improve service.

Qualitative research

The second research phase is qualitative and will form a series of focus groups for customer service leaders that are being held at various locations around the UK early in 2007. These groups should stimulate lively debate, contribute greatly to the final report and, ultimately, help to improve service standards generally.

    If you are interested in taking part in this research Don Hales at: [email protected] or call: 07850 874120

Source: ChinaStones -

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