In Times Like These, Customer Service Leaders Can Learn A Lot From Gardeners
As we approach the end of the Summer and head into Autumn, here in the Northern hemisphere, many gardeners will be starting to think about getting their gardens ready for the winter and the new growing year.
Part of that will involve them thinking about pruning their plants, shrubs, bushes and trees.
Key questions they will be thinking about include:
Which plants need pruning?
When is the right time to prune? and
How much should I prune?
Pruning is essential to achieve the right shape and balance for a plant and to nurture future growth. If they prune too late, their plants may be more vulnerable to frost damage. If they prune too early, they may interrupt their plant’s growth cycle. Moreover, if they prune too little, it will have a minimal effect. But, if they prune too much or too hard, they could risk stunting the plant’s growth and putting it under undue stress. This, in turn, could elongate its recovery period or, at worst, threaten the plant’s very existence.
Now, at this point, you may be asking what has gardening and pruning got to do with customer service or customer experience (CX).
That’s a fair question.
Let me explain.
Many economies and businesses around the world are facing rising interest rates, spiking inflation, supply chain issues and increased economic and competitive pressures. On the back of these pressures, many are scrutinizing their choices and where they are spending and investing their money.
In times like these, customer service is often one of the first places where companies look to make cuts, given their relatively high headcount and cost base.
However, I would argue that cutting too heavily in the customer service area right now would be a mistake for two main reasons.
Firstly, just because a recession looms does not mean that service and experience are no longer important. In fact, one could argue that service and experience, when times get tough, are more important than ever as customers become ever more discerning about where they spend their money. Jeff Gallino, founder and CTO of CallMiner, agrees and says that “During economic downturns, customers are extra thoughtful about where to invest their money and look for companies that meet their needs/expectations – this makes CX during these times an exponentially important investment.”
Secondly, we must remember that downturns are temporary and, given the tightness in the labor market, cutting headcount in customer service to achieve a short-term financial goal could damage a brand’s ability to serve its customers in the short and longer term. As Nick Webb, the bestselling author and futurist, told me in a recent podcast, “There is a very unusual situation today where there are unemployed people, and there are talented people, but there are no unemployed talented people.” He went on to say that “The biggest challenge right now and for the next 3 to 5 years is going to be staffing. The biggest challenge is not to fill seats but to fill seats with quality people.”
So, if you are a customer service or experience leader, rather than just taking handed-down cuts as diktats, get involved with the conversations about spending and investment choices.
Get in front of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and make your case.
Show them that investing in customer service, or at the very least maintaining the current level of investment, in times like these is a wise choice. To help with that, share with them Accenture’s recent research report called: End-to-Endless Customer Service, which finds that the 20% of companies that now view service as a value center benefit from more than triple the revenue growth of companies still managing service as a cost center.
And finally, enlist the help of your vendors to see how they can help with those conversations with your CFO. According to Gallino, “Many layoff decisions are based on emotions instead of data, which can lead to “knee-jerk” decisions being made when budgets are tight. Vendors can help their customers provide better data to their C-Suite leaders to avoid this.”
Doing that will make you an active participant in the conversations rather than a passive recipient of any changes that need to be made.
However, despite your efforts, you may find that there is no alternative and budgets and headcount have to be reduced.
In that scenario, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can simply cut headcount and other costs and maintain the same service levels.
That doesn’t make sense.
If you have to operate with fewer resources and still want to maintain and improve service and experience levels, you will have to consider doing something different.
Consider this: We know that customers will not only pay for better service or a better experience but will also travel for better service or a better experience. This applies not just to the physical domain but also the digital domain.
Given that, customer service and experience leaders should consider ditching the idea that they should be everywhere their customers are. They should reconfigure their service and support facilities to one that offers support over fewer channels. Great service acts like a magnet and attracts customers, regardless of the channel. And, it’s better to be great at a few rather than average at a lot, right?
This is pruning in action.
So, when faced with having to make cuts to your service and support function, don’t just cut crudely and hope that everything will work out. Prune. Because pruning is about making decisions, getting the most out of what you have, preparing for challenging times, and creating the best conditions for future growth.