What’s the difference between sales and service? Nothing.

Call centreWhen a customer expresses a need, then a failure to sell to that need is a failure of service. Thinking about sales as a service opens the door to genuine alignment of customer experience.

A long time ago, I spoke to someone who helped set up the contact centre for a new retail bank.  He explained that the philosophy of this bank was different from any other than in operation in the UK. Its aim was to help customers and give them a good experience.

I was intrigued when he explained that for the contact centre this meant not distinguishing between sales and service. The same agents handled all customer queries, including selling new products to the customer .

“Surely,” I said, “this has to compromise the customer experience?  When I, as a customer, need help, if agents try to sell me stuff when I call I will get annoyed very quickly.”

“Not at all,” he said. “Our agents are bonused on customer retention and advocacy, not sales.”

I said, “So won’t that mean, instead, that your agents won’t sell to customers for fear of hacking them off? Won’t that damage your revenues?”

He smiled. “Just the opposite. We train our agents to understand that their role is to help customers with their needs as much as they can. Each customer who calls us needs help – or else they wouldn’t pick up the phone. Most of these needs we can help directly: make a payment, check a transaction and so forth. But sometimes a customer’s need can only be helped with a new product.

“For example,” he continued, “a customer might want a better return on the surplus money sitting in their zero-interest current account. The best way we can help them is to explain the kinds of additional services we can offer such as savings accounts, bonds or ISAs. We then give them a chance to buy.

“If we don’t have this sales conversation, we will have had a customer with a need and we have not helped. That failure to sell is a failure of service.”

This philosophy seems to have worked. From its founding, this bank has balanced solid customer and revenue growth with a reputation as the UK bank with the most satisfied customers.

This principle seems to me to lie at the heart of the term ‘customer-centric’.  It connects sales and service with the same goal: helping the customer.

It means that agents have to believe that what they are selling is of genuine value to the customer: as they have to service the customer afterwards, there is no incentive to sell them a pup. And it properly positions sales as part of a positive customer experience – which is as it should be.

For those of us who are striving in our organisations to make things better for customers, this story poses two challenges.

First, how is the way we sell genuinely part of a joined-up philosophy of customer service – or are sales ‘pushed’ on customers regardless of value?

As for the second challenge? Customers now have many more channels for service. These include email, chat, forums, web sites, mobile or social media.

This challenge, it seems to me, is not the technology. Nor is it the need to design for the interactions we might have with customers (and which customers might have with us) (and with each other).

It is instead to do with how well, when trying to give customers a consistent, seamless, multi-channel experience, we apply a key principle:

How do we make sure that every customer touch point adds value to the customer, helps them with their needs and, yes, sells to them as part of the service?

As my friend with his contact centre showed, if we can meet this challenge and begin with this principle, the results, for our customers, and for our business, can be phenomenal.

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