Getting closer to the customer

In two short articles, Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay offer some advice on getting closer to your customer. Part one exploring the gap between customers and service providers.

Every organisation depends for its long term future on forging successful lasting relationships with those whom it serves, its customers and a constant review of those relationships are vital.

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Often there is an uncomfortable gap between what customers want and what organisations provide. Many of you will have experience of ringing a GP surgery, waiting for ages to get through and then speaking to a frosty receptionist.

The receptionist is unhelpful and blocking, but feels unrepentant – in her mind she reasons she is doing her job protecting the doctors so that they in turn can do a good job and the patient, the customer, has to understand that.

As a patient, on your part, you feel the receptionist is not doing her job, which is servicing their patients properly. The problem? It is all too easy for the receptionist to feel their top priority must be following process and rules of the surgery – in this instance, the doctors take priority – and the patient takes second place.

Another possibly familiar example: a legal specialist is an important link in a chain to process house purchase contracts for clients who are buying or selling residential properties.

When a client calls to hurry up the process in case the whole chain collapses, the specialist replies very briskly that these things take as long as they take. He firmly stresses that he certainly can’t cut any corners and his workload of other cases is high.

The client explodes in frustration – everything depends on a quick resolution. The specialist shrugs and puts the phone down.

In both cases, the client perceives the service organisation as obstructive, cold and deaf to their needs and concerns. How do you change this situation to become customer friendly?

What underlies these situations is not easily rectified and whilst most organisations have a mantra that ‘the customer is king’ in practice, customer focus often comes down to changing individuals and their attitudes and behaviours. This change needs energy and targeted intervention, based on some key principles.

As experienced L&D professionals working in customer situations, we have given a lot of thought to developing and maintaining customer closeness and have drawn up some key principles of developing customer focus. There are some key fundamental principles for developing customer focus:

  • Telling employees that the customer is important, even repeatedly, will have little effect on its own.
  • Deeds not words are important: people watch what significant people like their leaders do as well as what they say.
  • People need to understand why customers are important to them personally.
  • Developed skills are required to handle customer situations successfully, but attitudes are equally or more important.
  • Regular customer feedback helps build insight.
  • Many successful customer improvement methods place the employee firmly in the customer’s shoes by the use of highly experiential and action-oriented methods.

Targeted interventions

Customer journey mapping

One method that we have seen been successfully used in an increasing number of organisations is looking at the journey the customer takes in interacting with your product and service from both a rational and emotional point of view.

This is based on research from the Nobel prize-winning psychologist Danny Kahneman who mapped the customer experience journey on an emotion curve. He argues that customers will remember their experiences by whatever the ‘peak’ in their experience was (whether high or low) and by the ending.

If there was a high point at some point during the experience, and you make it a great ending, it will be remembered as an overall positive experience.

For example, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) have mapped out the customer journey and focused on the key touch points for the customer from 24 hours prior to flight to collecting their bags.

Their customer insight showed that customers wanted an automated service, but wanted a person nearby if needed. So SAS provided assistance at all automated check-ins. Staff added on ‘chat’ to make the experience memorable. (Their customer survey showed that customers who were greeted with a friendly smile and hello easily forgot the interaction.

By adding a more memorable conversation, the airline saw a significant increase in customer satisfaction scores.) To encourage conversation staff wear badges that encourage customer comment (‘You had me at hello’, ‘Today I’m on fire!’) – obviously the type of comment will vary by context.

By mapping out the customer experience in each part of the journey, organisations can identify effort points and minimise or eliminate them. An effort point is a point in the journey where the customer has to make too big an effort to move through that step – to such an extent that they may choose not to bother! Examples of effort points in your business might be long queues or complicated admin that the customer has to complete.

There tends to be three basic things you can focus on to reduce the effort required from the customer:

1.       Reducing the time on the task

2.       Making the transaction more convenient

3.       Making things simpler.

If effort points are not addressed they can cause dissatisfaction amongst customers which could lead to defection. Insurance company Aviva makes substantial use of customer effort minimising techniques too.

Teams visualise the customer experience and how it feels to be a customer. In some cases customers are filmed to help bring the experience to life and so that managers and staff can see the unintended consequences of their actions.

Customer safaris

We encourage work teams to go on ‘customer safaris’: find opportunities for members of teams to spend time at the customer sharp end by going out and observing first-hand how customers interact with the product and services the organisation provides.

This, of course, involves a lot of setting up but this should not deter you – direct examples are often much more vivid and lasting. Other people in the organisation will want to hear what has been observed, so provide opportunities for other people to hear what the safari hunters found out.  

Sometimes bringing customers into the building in person or making a video brings the customer message to life. In addition, actors can be well-briefed to mirror real-life customer experiences in role play and selected front-line staff can describe their experiences in customer vignettes

Part two in this series looks at customer insights and involving team in your solutions.

About the author

Sarah Cook is managing director of The Stairway Consultancy and Steve Macaulay is an associate of Cranfield School of Management’s Centre for Customised Executive Development.  Sarah can be contacted by email on and Steve on


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