CXM editor-in-chief Marija Pavlović talks to Iain Shorthose – customer experience director of international support services and construction group Interserve – about how customer experience is driving his company’s future strategy.
CXM: Hello Iain, can you please by explaining to our readers what Interserve does and why customer experience is such an important part of your business?
Iain Shorthose: Interserve is probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of! We’re one of the world’s largest support services and construction groups, with annual revenues of around £3.6 billion. The business is multi-national, listed on the FTSE, and is growing all the time – especially the support services part of the business, which is my main area of focus.
Support services covers a vast range of areas, from facilities management and security to maintenance and catering, but essentially it is our job to manage, maintain and improve our customers’ properties and assets. Some of our work is for the public sector – working with central government departments, local authorities, etc – but the growth area for us is in the private sector, which now accounts for around 50 per cent of our business. This sees us working with major corporate customers from big retail operators to large occupiers such as professional services firms, technology businesses, retailers and pharmaceutical companies.
Facilities management and support services is what we do, but we are a people business at heart. Our people, our customers’ people and the quality of the relationships between them define whether we succeed or fail. Capabilities and compliance are no longer enough to win and retain business; customers are looking for someone that’s easy to do business with, who understands their operation, and who can use this knowledge to add value where it matters most.
We also need to remember that we really have two customers: the organisation that has employed us and also that organisation’s customers and employees i.e. the people who use the facilities we manage every single day. The customer experience for us is never just about those who pay our bills but about every one of that organisation’s stakeholders.
Ours is an increasingly commoditised industry, driven largely by price. So for Interserve, we see the customer experience as an opportunity to differentiate; to be seen not just for the things we do, but how we go about doing them. That is hugely important for the long-term success of our business and is why we’re putting a great deal of time and resource into getting the customer experience right.
CXM: What is your background and what have you learned from your career so far about the world of customer experience?
IS: I came from an operational background, working as a service engineer for a major energy company. I started my career in a directly customer-facing role so I understood the importance of getting service right – and the negative effect when you get it wrong!
I then moved into various executive roles: first in business development, then in operational management, before going into marketing and focusing on developing and implementing customer propositions.
Through all of this I began to recognise that while companies spend much time and a great deal of money developing ‘value propositions’ and ‘mission statements’ and discussing how they want customers to perceive them, there are very few who truly understand how these strategic concepts translate into day-to-day operations. They don’t realise that it’s not just about putting something down on a piece of paper and thinking the job is done – the real work comes in putting the systems and culture in place that enables your people to actually deliver against this proposition, day in, day out.
The key words for me are ‘predictable’ and ‘repeatable’. In a service-based company, your employees and your customers are your greatest assets; I want our people to believe that they can deliver the same quality of service time and again, and for our customers to have the utmost confidence that this will be the case. For me, the concept of customer experience ties all of this together.
It’s about understanding everything from a company’s overarching brand and business strategy, to the way the company communicates to the market, right down to the second-by-second experience the customer has when he or she walks into a store or picks up the phone to place an order. If you can bring all of these elements into alignment, you are on the right track.
One other point worth making is that the customer experience is an excellent barometer for general commercial performance. Where customers are dissatisfied, you will usually find that your cost-to-serve is higher. Not only that, but your people will also often be frustrated and disengaged, which leads to further problems. So there is a very clear commercial rationale for better understanding the customer experience – it’s not fluffy marketing stuff that people sometimes assume.
CXM: How would you define ‘customer experience’?
IS: The customer experience is all about taking your brand DNA and making it live and breathe throughout the organisation. You have your brand proposition, you have your business strategy; the customer experience is how you deliver the brand promise on a daily basis, to the customers that matter the most to you. Otherwise your values, your vision, your mission statement – they are all just pieces of paper.
Customer experience is also not a ‘fire and forget’ thing. It is a continuous loop – you should be measuring and evaluating how you are performing in terms of your customers’ experience of your business, and feeding that back into your wider strategy. So it delivers the strategy, but also informs it.
I’d also stress that the customer experience cannot be left to chance; it must be proactively designed. For too many companies, the customer experience is defined by the person they deal with, or it’s a legacy thing (i.e. it’s just evolved that way over many years of doing business). In the modern business world, this isn’t something you can leave to chance. You wouldn’t build a building without the architect’s drawings, and you can’t expect to develop a strong customer experience without putting some structure behind it first.
Last but not least, it’s important to remIain Shorthoseember that the customer experience is not a purely functional thing (did they deliver the service on time and on budget, or did the product work?). There is an emotional aspect to any experience. That could be frustration at being passed from pillar to post when trying to rectify an issue, or a feeling of confidence at dealing with an expert and competent sales person. This emotional side is often forgotten, especially in the B2B world – but it remains a crucial part of the customer experience. For Interserve, the customer experience is about being at our best when it matters most. If we get it right, we earn the trust and confidence of our customers and establish ourselves as a partner of choice, which is where every service-based company wants to get to.
CXM: I feel that we need more global consensus about what makes a great customer experience. Do you agree?
IS: We certainly need more people who understand the concept of customer experience and are able to implement it. There are many out there who throw the term around, but few who really know how to drive it through an organisation at every level and at every customer touch point.
Do we need consensus specifically about what makes a great experience? Outside the broad acknowledgement that a great customer experience is the mix of meeting a customer’s rational and emotional needs, to be honest, I’m not sure we do – or if that’s even possible. What a customer will consider to be a ‘great experience’ will change depending on industry sector, geographical location, by service, from company to company – there are simply too many variables to consider.
There are more people engaging in this debate and there are increasingly tools and approaches out there that can help companies to deliver consistent customer experiences, for example customer journey mapping. But can we define what a great customer experience is for every single organisation – I’m not sure we can.
CXM: So what are the big future trends we’re seeing in the customer experience realm?
IS: There are three that are big on our agenda at the moment. The first is self service, which is becoming increasingly prominent across many industries now. Customers, both B2B and B2C, are expecting to do much more themselves – low touch, less clicks, and intuitive. They still want human interaction in certain circumstances – for example when resolving issues – but generally they are recognising that they can and want to do more themselves, often through online and digital tools. From a customer experience perspective, it is about understanding the balance between self service and direct interaction and aligning your service accordingly.
Pre-emptive resolution is another big trend for the next few years – in other words, predicting customer requests and issues before they happen. Using data in the right way, it’s possible to forecast what usually happens in a certain scenario and prepare the service to respond before it happens; streamlining the customer process, reducing costs, and demonstrating excellent service to the customer. As data and connectivity continue to proliferate this will become an increasingly important part of the customer experience.
Finally, looking specifically at the office environment, we are seeing a growing focus on the way in which employees experience the workplace around them. With productivity top of the agenda for many companies, more and more is being invested in creating working environments that contribute to employee engagement, wellbeing and performance.
CXM: The concept of the workplace experience is interesting. To you, what defines a great workplace experience, and how does that impact on a company’s employees?
IS: For me, a great workplace is one which reflects the culture and nature of the wider business. Company culture is a key driver in both recruitment and retention, and has a clear impact on performance – so it’s important that the workplace aligns with that culture.
Of courses, it’s not just employees that matter. When it comes to customers, partners and other stakeholders, your office environment is an outward manifestation of a company’s brand and values. The quality of their experience will have an impact on how they view your company.
Ultimately, the customer experience and the workplace experience are two sides of the same coin. It’s all about ensuring that the messages that you want to convey to your key audiences – whether that’s customers, or employees, or partners – are done so correctly, consistently and effectively. This cannot be just a veneer; it needs to run through your entire business and be imbued into every single touch point across your operation.
Companies today are still able to win business based on competence and price alone. But I believe you will never retain business unless the customer experience has been positive. Businesses are looking at their commercial relationships in a different way now, always asking themselves ‘where is the added value?’ – customer experience is about finding those opportunities to add value and differentiate.
The work I’m doing is a big investment, but it’s the key to the future of our business – the return will certainly be worth the investment.
Iain Shorthose, director of customer experience, Interserve
Iain Shorthose joined international support services and construction group Interserve as director of customer experience in November 2015 following a 15-year career developing customer experience and growth strategies for companies across a range of industry sectors.
Iain began his career at British Gas as a service engineer, where he got front-line experience of the importance of positive customer service. Having moved into an executive role in 2001, Iain spent six years working in marketing and business development before moving into his first customer experience role as head of brand customer experience for British Gas Business.
Since leaving British Gas in 2007, Iain has held board-level customer experience roles in companies ranging from FTSE listed energy firms to private consultancies across a range of sectors – latterly as global customer experience lead for market leading electronics distributor Premier Farnell.