Providing excellent customer service isn’t easy. It comes down to developing a culture of putting the customer first including making decisions that allow organisations to anticipate, plan and respond to customer needs and market changes with the best service possible.

One current example of an organisation undertaking a ‘customer first’ focus as a key part of their strategy is the NZ Transport Agency, an organisation BRS has worked with a lot. Recently the Transport Agency has undergone a transformation of its strategy and culture with a key emphasis on putting the customer at the centre of everything. The Transport Agency says its new customer focus recognises that its role is no longer just about aggregate and asphalt, widening one section of road or building a new one. Rather, it’s about treating the transport system as a whole system to tackle issues like congestion, population growth and reliable, safe journeys.

Its transformation is driven in part by changes to the way vehicles are powered and vehicle ownership itself, multi-modal travel methods and also by accelerating changes to digital technology and its effects on the way people travel. It’s all about communication, smartphones and tablets and the information they give to make people more mobile and put them in charge of planning their own journeys and travel options.

The expectations of people around transport choices has risen significantly in the last couple of years. People want faster, easier and more personalised transport choices. Digital technology has put us on the cusp of a transport revolution in a rapidly changing world and our traditional ways of thinking and acting need to change too. The Transport Agency’s transformation will have a big impact on the way it works in the future with contractors, consultants and other vital partners like local government.

But taking it another step, and in talking with people from other organisations about outstanding customer service and putting the customer first, the key attributes include:

  • Understand who your customer is. Just like the Transport Agency we need to understand who our customers are, whoever they might be and whatever that might mean. What are their ‘drivers’ and what do they care about? What industries do they operate in and what are their potential business goals? Who is the customer’s customer? Developing any solid customer-focussed strategy must start with understanding these types of questions.
  • Manage expectations. This is a tough one. We want to please our customers but what I’ve learned is, it’s worse to say you are going to do something then have to go back and explain why you didn’t do it. It’s important to be mindful of what we promise and what we can realistically deliver. We need to be optimistic about what might be possible while at the same time balancing that with what’s realistic and achievable.
  • Listen. It can be hard to stop talking and actively listen to what’s being expressed, especially when it’s not what you were expecting to hear or would like to hear. Stepping back, listening and taking a bigger picture perspective is essential. Often issues can’t be resolved straight away but taking time to listen will help in working through the possible solutions effectively.
  • Solve problems. Things may not always work out the way we first anticipated. This may be due to lack of knowledge, lack of effort, or it simply didn’t pan out this time around. If we can work with the customer to identify and understand the true nature of a situation or problem, or better still, their future needs, we can work together to deliver excellent solutions.
  • Be flexible. Being flexible and responding quickly if the plan changes is crucial. Sometimes we can be too rigid in the hope of sorting an issue out or forming a decision quickly. Taking time to gather all the information, thinking about things from a range of perspectives and being willing to change the plan if the plan needs to be changed, is key.

Putting the customer first may sound easy but it is often harder to do for large organisations and project teams. We can be easily overwhelmed with processes, policies, projects and initiatives as well as letting our own personal views and biases get in the way. All these things can stop us from truly understanding the customer or taking a ‘customer first’ approach. The test of everything should be what does the customer need. Asking questions help us get to the heart of why we exist and what we need to focus on to add value and remain relevant, sustainable and successful. For example, the Transport Agency’s focus to provide their customers with safe, reliable and affordable transport options, not simply roads and highways.