The experience a customer has can be a key differentiator between them buying from an organisation or turning to a competitor. It also impacts on a customer’s perception of the whole company and whether they will return in the future. However, excellent customer service is not that common.

Consumers are often greeted with mediocre, bland or just ‘OK’ service. As Leland and Bailey say in their book, Customer Service for Dummies, ‘it is never crowded along the extra mile!’

Why is this so? In 2012, Steve Newland and Anouska Chisholm at East Coast worked with The Occupational Psychology Centre (The OPC) to help understand what makes excellent customer service and what needs to happen to help deliver East Coast’s vision of the best customer service.

East Coast’s vision is ‘to provide the best possible journey experience for East Coast customers and to be a great place to work’ – meaning the best customer service and nothing less.

Psychologists are able to use their expertise in human emotions and motivations to help understand what good customer service looks and feels like for a customer, and what an employee needs to do to help a customer ‘feel special’. So we set out to clarify what behaviours East Coast employees need to demonstrate to achieve this.

Is it just how smart the employees are, making eye contact or simply wearing a name badge?

We interviewed more than 160 customers who had just purchased tickets from a travel consultant in the Travel Centre at King’s Cross. They were asked 14 key questions about the service they received, ranging from, ‘Did the travel consultant make a pleasant parting comment?’ through to, ‘Were they well groomed?’ They were also asked the key question, ‘Did the travel consultant make you feel special?’

Uncovering the key to what makes customers feel ‘special’

Interestingly and perhaps surprisingly, three main predictors emerged of whether or not the customer felt special. These were, ‘greeting the customer with a smile’, ‘saying thank you’ at the end of the interaction’ and ‘making a pleasant parting comment’.

It appears that how an employee opens and closes an interaction plays a key role in whether a customer feels special or not. First impressions are therefore key. The psychology behind this informs us that we tend to buy things from people we like.

Goleman1 found that in the first few milliseconds of our perceiving something we decide whether we like it or not. So an employee greeting a customer with a smile enhances the likelihood of the employee simply being liked – it provides a positive impression. The closeness of the interaction leaves a lasting impression and this is what the customer remembers too.

However the research showed that customers still need the basics to be satisfied – they need friendly, polite and competent staff. But we now know some of the key behaviours that differentiate just ‘OK’ service from ‘special’. From the research we also found that almost 80 per cent of East Coast travel consultants said ‘thank you’ at the end of the interaction, meaning they are well on their way to providing the best possible journey experience.

Continuous development of staff crucial to best customer service

The story doesn’t end there though. Providing the best customer service is centred around customer service employees being motivated to provide excellent service.

Employees are the face of an organisation, a fact that stems from and encapsulates the whole employee lifecycle. The journey begins at selection of customer service employees – are they the best person for the job? Can they demonstrate the motivation to provide excellent customer service? More importantly, does the selection process look at and assess these key factors. This must then be fed through into the training – are trainees given the knowledge and tools to provide the best customer service? A common error in many companies is to stop the journey there.

However, an extra but critical step is needed. The continuous development of staff is crucial to ensure they are motivated and able to provide excellent service.

A customer service ethos and culture embedded through the company is also key. This involves the managers treating their staff as customers. At King’s Cross, East Coast managers have taken an important step to embrace this. Working with the OPC they also undertook some employee engagement workshops with their Travel Centre consultants. The workshops were run by psychologists without East Coast managers being present and gave employees the opportunity to identify key changes that needed to happen to deliver the best possible journey experience for East Coast customers.

In addition, the workshops gave employees the space to voice their needs and concerns, to give feedback on their managers’ performance and identify what those managers needed to do for the travel consultants to create ‘a great place to work’. This was powerful stuff and it was about treating employees as customers and helping to create that internal customer ethos. This will help accelerate the change in East Coast.

The norm rather than the exception

The journey East Coast is making to enhance the customer experience is making headway.

Data taken from the National Passenger Survey (Autumn 2012) confirms that 83 per cent of East Coast passengers reported a good or satisfactory experience of the attitudes and helpfulness of their station staff, a significant and steady improvement on results from spring 2012 and 2011. It is obviously working, given the national result was 72 per cent.

The research we have undertaken with East Coast provides an important insight into how customer service standards on our railway can be raised and quite simply so.

This new found knowledge, coupled with the will and motivation of all concerned, will help us to accelerate our journey towards the best customer service.

When this happens ‘going the extra mile’ for customers will become the norm rather than the exception.

Daniel Jay Goleman, psychologist and author of international bestseller, Emotional Intelligence.
For more information contact Ashley Monckton and Dr Stephen Fletcher at The OPC