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Customer service

Everyone in the organisation is either directly or indirectly involved with customer service. It is very important that world class, professional, high standard customer service is provided in order to develop, maintain and grow customer relationships to achieve strategic objectives and provide a platform for organisational sustainability and potential expansion.

This guide highlights the risks involved in offering good customer service to help you to plan and conduct your review effectively. 

What is customer service?
Why is good customer service important?
Serving the customer
Customer service risks and responses
What can internal audit do? 

What is customer service?

Organisations often use a variety of terms when referring to the service they provide to customers:

  • customer service
  • customer satisfaction
  • customer experience
  • customer expectations 

The Institute of Customer Service provides the following useful definitions:

'Customer service is the sum total of what an organisation does to meet customer expectations and produce customer satisfaction.

Customer satisfaction is the feeling that a customer gets, when he or she is happy with the customer service that has been provided.

Customer experience is what a customer feels, and remembers, about the customer service that he or she has received.

Customer expectations are what people think should happen, and how they think they should be treated, when asking for, or receiving customer service.' 

Customer service

For customer service to be good, it must result in a customer who remembered feeling satisfied with the service provided.

Good customer service is about giving the customer what they want, promptly, politely, professionally and right first time. It is about delivering a high quality, product or service in a friendly, approachable and efficient manner.

In order to do this of course the organisation must first understand what the customer expects of them. It is therefore important that there is adequate customer engagement and consultation. Where things do go wrong the organisation needs to understand why.

This can also be done through conducting root cause analysis of customer complaints and incidents. 

Why is good customer service important?

All organisations have customers, internal and external. Without them the organisation would not exist. For the private sector, customers provide much needed income that enables profit and sustainability.

Income is also a driver for the public sector but this is likely to be secondary to the regulatory requirements and reputational considerations integral with the provision of services such education, housing, health care etc.

Poor customer service can have disastrous effects upon the organisation's reputation, which may threaten its existence. Whilst excellent customer service will create a competitive advantage that will enhance the organisation's standing, providing a platform for growth and development.

Good customer service can also reduce costs, maximise income and potential expanison of organisations. It minimises the time needed for handling customer complaints and re-work. This is likely to result in increased customer satisfaction leading to enhanced reputation, increased demand of services and products, repeat custom, customer recommendations and ultimately increased revenue.

The Institute of Customer Service produced a report in July 2014, UKCSI Customer Satisfaction Index:  The State of Customer Satisfaction in the UK.  The main findings from this were:

  • Customer satisfaction levels have fallen, the third consecutive decline, currently 76.3 (out of 100), 1.9 points below the January 2013 peak.
  • There has been a drop in most sectors, 13 out of 14, only Utilities has risen by 0.4 points.
  • Relatively few organisations are raising satisfaction levels, from the 197 surveyed only 28 increased their score by at least 1 point compared to July 2013.
  • On average older customers are more satisfied than younger ones, the average score for those 65+ was 80.3 compared to 72.5 of the 18-24 age group.
  • Customer service builds trust, and drives loyalty, recommendations and in the retail food sector sales.

A further report on Customer Services in the UK: Key trends for 2015 the Institute identified eight key trends in customer services for the year ahead as follows:

  1. Lack of customer focus hits brands and performance.
  2. Customers’ expectations of convenience and speed will rise.
  3. Customers expect co-creation (customers increasingly expect to influence the way oganisations deal with them and want to see proof of their influence).
  4. Service agility is critical to success.
  5. Collaboration delivers benefits for organisations and customers (more than one provider is often involved in the customer end-to-end service experience e.g. delivery services).
  6. Personalisation:  people make the difference (conduct of staff is a critical factor driving customer satisfaction and buying decisions.
  7. Measurement becomes broader (and more emotional).
  8. Service rises up the business agenda.

Apart from the business benefits of providing good customer service there are also regulations such as 'Treating Customers Fairly' (TCF) which all firms regulated by the Financial Services Authority (FCA) have to support.

The six consumer outcomes explain what the Financial Conduct Authority want TCF to achieve for consumers.

Outcome 1: Consumers can be confident that they are dealing with firms where the fair treatment of customers is central to the corporate culture.

Outcome 2: Products and services marketed and sold in the retail market are designed to meet the needs of identified consumer groups and are targeted accordingly.

Outcome 3: Consumers are provided with clear information and are kept appropriately informed before, during and after the point of sale.

Outcome 4: Where consumers receive advice, the advice is suitable and takes account of their circumstances.

Outcome 5: Consumers are provided with products that perform as firms have led them to expect, and the associated service is of an acceptable standard and as they have been led to expect.

Outcome 6: Consumers do not face unreasonable post-sale barriers imposed by firms to change product, switch provider, submit a claim or make a complaint.

From a public service perspective there are scrutiny and accountability mechanisms in place, for example, the Public Accounts Committee, in addition to public sector organisations implementing good governance principles in terms of oversight boards and committees.

Surveys, trends and regulations tell us that the profile and expectations around good customer continue to rise. Organisation must maintain existing standards and develop a culture of continuous improvement with the customer satisfaction at the forefront of everyday activities.

It should be engrained in business as usual not an additional extra at the end of a project. Internal audit can support a customer focused culture by providing assurance that policies and procedures are not only working but also that people live the values and demonstrate expected behaviour.

Serving the customer

Everyone in the organisation is either directly or indirectly involved with customer service. People either help customers directly or provide support functions to colleagues (internal customers) who do interact with customers.

Today's customers have an unprecedented number of ways with which to interact with an organisation, including the social media – facebook, LinkedIn, internet, Twitter, telephone, email, text messages, television, letter, and face to face.

Customers can make a complaint in writing, or return goods in person. Whatever form the interaction takes, people expect good customer service. It is therefore important that all customer journeys are mapped with expected service levels defined and agreed.  Complaints procedures should be documented with roles, responsibilities and key performance indicators clearly defined and assigned. 

Complaints procedures should be properly embedded throughout the organisation/businesses.  Complaints systems and processes should be linked to incident systems and an integral part of an organisations risk management processes. Customers should be well aware of how to make a complaint, raise a concern or provide feedback.

There are a variety of actions that an organisation can develop and implement to ensure that there is adequate focus on delivering high quality, excellent customer service across all customer journeys. A two part article by highlights Eight Steps to Superior Customer Experiences:

1. Establish a knowledge foundation

There are two essentials you need in your knowledge foundation:

  • Information about your company that your customer needs to know.
  • Information about your customers that your employees need to know. 

2. Empower your customers

Empower your customers to self-serve at their convenience, through their communication channel of choice.

3. Empower frontline employees

Treat and empower your employees like you do your customers. Give them access to the right knowledge at their fingertips.

4. Offer multi-channel choice

Provide your customers with interaction options across many channels and use your common knowledge foundation to provide consistency and efficiency.

5. Listen to your customers

Learn what your customers are thinking and act on it.

6. Design seamless customer experiences

Your customers shouldn't be able to notice handoffs between departments.

7. Engage customers proactively

Communicate with your customers with personal and relevant interactions.

8. Measure and improve continuously

Evaluate, baseline, identify… and adapt to your customers. 

Customer service risks and responses

1. Customer requirements are not factored into the design of customer service propositions.

Potential impact

  • Loss of business, unnecessary costs arising from back ended workarounds etc.

Possible response

  • Customer communication channels in place e.g. surveys, product/service trials etc.
  • Mechanisms in place for feeding back key messages to product/service development teams.
  • Listen to your customers and engage customers proactively.

2. A lack of awareness within the organisation as to how well it serves the customer.

Potential impact

  • Potential improvements to customer experience are not identified leading to increased customer dissatisfaction and a loss of potential revenue.

Possible response

  • Customer service/satisfaction/loyalty measures.
  • Improvement plans in place to address identified weaknesses.
  • Measure and improve continuously.

3. Lack of senior management commitment to customer service.

Potential impact

  • Staff perceive that customer service is of secondary importance adversely affecting their behaviour and the customer experience -customers reduce in number.

Possible response

  • Senior management sign off of a customer charter, group/business unit scorecard, customer service measures, investment in customer service training.
  • Empower frontline employees.

4. Failure to meet customer promises.

Potential impact

  • Increase in complaints, damage to reputation and additional costs from rectifying the failures.

Possible response

  • Root cause analysis of complaints.
  • Measurement of deliverables regularly monitored and logged.
  • Action plans in place to improve the delivery of service objectives.
  • Jeopardy management of queues to avoid failure.
  • Service level agreements.
  • Quality of work checks.
  • Empower frontline employees.
  • Design seamless customer experiences.
  • Measure and improve continuously.

5. Failure to manage customer expectations.

Potential impact

  • Business processes and/or products and/or services not aligned to customer requirements leading to customer dissatisfaction and loss of repeat business.

Possible response

  • Customer engagement and consultation.
  • Establish a knowledge foundation and engage customers proactively.

6. Unclear or overcomplicated customer standards and procedures.

Potential impact

  • Inconsistencies in the calibre of the customer experience leading to dissatisfaction and loss of new/repeat business.

Possible response

  • Call centre scripts that clearly explain the process and the length of time it should take.
  • Customer literature in plain English, mapped to customer journeys and linked to KPIs.
  • Establish a knowledge foundation.
  • Establish other forms of quality management.

7. Organisation's systems have inadequate functionality to serve customers.

Potential impact

  • Loss of business to the company. Customers find it difficult to do business with the organisation.
  • Poor customer service if systems crash due to lack of resilience.
  • Unnecessary costs arising from duplicate handling of data etc.

Possible response

  • Systems mapped to customer journeys.
  • Full audit trail available of activity on customer accounts.
  • Service level agreements with IT department and/or software providers.
  • Credible and tested business continuity plans.
  • Design seamless customer experiences.
  • Empower your customers.
  • Offer multi-channel choice.

8. Failure to capture customer feedback and resolve customer issues and complaints when things go wrong.

Potential impact

  • Loss of business, increased complaints, damage to brand and additional costs from rectifying the failures.

Possible response

  • Documented end to end customer intelligence plan that records assesses and acts on customer feedback.
  • Documented end to end process for handling complaints visible to employees and customers.
  • KPIs in place to measure the achievement of complaint objectives.
  • Root cause analysis programme in place to tackle repetitive issues and drive continuous improvement.
  • Measure and improve continuously.
  • Listen to your customers.

9. Fraud within customer services e.g. abuse of loyalty programmes such as applying promotional credits to friends and family not entitled to them.

Potential impact

  • Financial loss to the company. Reputational damage to brand and ability to win new business if fraudulent behaviour becomes public knowledge.

Possible response

  • Audit trail of changes made to customer data by employees.
  • Exception reports that highlight abnormal usage patterns of customers.
  • Segregation of duties between data entry and approval. 

What can internal audit do?

We said earlier that excellent customer service is essential to the organisation no matter what sector the organisation operates in and that one way or another everyone has a part to play in customer service.

This means that customer service is a prime candidate for the annual internal audit plan.

As ever, the decision to allocate time to the various activities and procedures associated with customer services depends on the criticality of customer service risks compared to other strategic risks.

As with all internal audit plans it is important to coordinate work with other assurance providers and avoid duplication of effort where reliance can be placed on their work.

Internal audit can provide assurance over the controls operating within the organisation that impact upon customer service and the organisational exposure to risk through conducting engagements. This can be done in number of way ways:

  1. Review of business/organisation objectives, requirements and needs.
  2. Reviewing strategic planning and review processes.
  3. Undertake a SWOT analysis.
  4. Ascertain customer policy, procedures in place and dissemination across the organisation/business.
  5. Provide assurance that roles, responsibilities and key performance indicators have been assigned including oversight responsibilities and reporting mechanisms.
  6. Ascertain that the organisation/business has a customer database or repository with integration/update from related systems e.g. complaints, incidents, risk management etc.
  7. By specifically reviewing the identification, analysis and management of specific customer service risks across the organisation. This would include application of the organisation's risk management process and reporting mechanism.
  8. Through the execution of specific customer service centred audit engagements that look at processes and procedures such as customer satisfaction surveys or customer complaint/incident handling.
  9. Through the execution of audit engagements in customer facing operational areas like call centres or retail outlets.
  10. Incorporating aspects of customer service in several internal audit engagements to build an overall opinion.
  11. Provide a workshop to develop customer care and service skills.

When deciding upon which approach or mix of approaches to adopt a number of factors should be considered.

Are specific organisation wide customer service functions in place to measure customer satisfaction and handle customer complaints?

  • If the answer is yes then it may be appropriate to conduct specific organisation wide customer service centred audits.
  • If the answer is no and such activities are embedded within operational areas like call centres or service hubs then it may be more appropriate to conduct audits of these activities. 

When conducting such audits key elements of customer service such as complaint handling and customer measurement should be included within the scope.

When conducting any audit regardless of topic there should be some consideration of what impact any key risks materialising may have upon the customer. For example when conducting an audit of human resources you may consider the impact upon the customer of a breakdown in industrial relations with employees.

Set out below are a number of key areas of customer service where internal audit can provide assurance together with examples of questions and ideas.

Customer measurement

  • Are customer service measures/KPIs linked to what is important to customers as expressed in surveys and focus groups?
  • Is a representative sample of the population (customers and products) chosen for customer satisfaction surveys?
  • Are customer service measures accurately captured and reported?
  • Are the results of customer service measures reported to senior management, and acted upon?
  • Analytical review of measures - is there an improving trend in performance? Are there spikes in performance (at year end when bonuses are paid)?

Customer expectations

  • Are customer requirements built into product development user stories?
  • Are customer requirements captured within service level agreements?
  • Does appropriate customer engagement take place?
  • Are customer service measures/KPIs linked to what is important to customers as expressed in surveys and focus groups?

Customer promises

  • Are employees sufficiently involved in the formulation of service objectives?
  • Are customer promises capable of delivery with current infrastructure?
  • Have employees received adequate training?
  • Analytical review of last 12 months performance results to identify trends and weaker areas of service.

Customer service standards and procedures

  • Is customer literature accessible in the mediums that customers use to contact the organisation?
  • Have call centre advisors received adequate training? Is the effectiveness of customer service training monitored and continuously improved?
  • Appropriateness of customer charter i.e. clear and concise.
  • Do employees have quick and easy access to the information they need to respond to customer enquiries?

Customer service systems

  • Are systems that support the service of customers mapped to customer journeys to avoid unnecessary handoffs?
  • What channels are available for the customer to do business with you? How is a consistent level of service achieved across multiple channels?
  • Are the service level agreements with external service providers enforceable?
  • Has the business continuity plan been tested and refined if necessary?

Customer complaints

  • What mechanisms ensure all customer complaints are captured and acted upon?
  • How are customer complaints defined?
  • Does the organisation report on complaint volumes and investigate the root causes of complaints?

External resources

The Institute of Customer Service is the independent, professional membership body for customer service. The ICS offer research, publications and a number of case studies that are available to the general public.

The Financial Conduct Authority regulate the financial services industry in the UK. Their aim is to protect consumers, ensure the industry remains stable and promote healthy competition between financial services providers.

The UK Government wants services for all that are efficient, effective, excellent, equitable and empowering and the Cabinet office have set up a service excellence website that includes standards, case studies and other resources

ICMI provides resources, training and consultancy for the development of contact centres.

Eight steps to great customer experience part 1

Eight steps to great customer experience part 2

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Content reviewed: 26 October 2017