I have been a passionate advocate for investing in customer service and leveraging the knowledge and insights of front line employees and customer service representatives for my entire business career. This passion comes from several experiences:

  1. As a consultant at Bain & Company,
  2. As the Founder and CEO for eight years of The Loyalty Group, which created the AIR MILES Reward Program, and
  3. As a consumer who all too often experiences bad customer service, but who also takes the time to recognize and reward extraordinary service.

I was a consultant/manager/partner at Bain & Company from 1984-1990. In addition to the requisite cost reduction and strategy cases, a lot of my work focused on two areas:

  • Understanding customers’ most important buying criteria and measuring their assessment of the performance of our client’s and competitors’ products for each criteria.
  • Analysing the economic impact of increasing customer loyalty (I was fortunate to be at Bain when Fred Reichheld was doing the work that lead to his first book, The Loyalty Effect).

Whenever we started working with a new client, I spent the requisite time with C-level executives to make sure we understood their view of the company’s business models, strategic challenges and opportunities. Then, as soon as I could, I would get to the front line employees who were making the products on the shop floor or answering the phones in the call centers or dealing on the front lines of a retail chain. I knew these employees would be not only a great source of data to help identify the company’s challenges and their root causes, but also a rich vein of ideas for addressing these issues and identifying new opportunities. At many clients, they were also dying to offer their insights and ideas because no one from the C-Level group ever asked them.

At the time, I always thought it was odd that a client would pay me to get ideas from their employees instead of doing it themselves, but I was glad to have the income from doing so! I vowed that when I had my own business (or was a CEO), I would find a way to be constantly seeking out the insights, ideas and advice and counsel of those on the front line. As CEO of the Loyalty Group, I had the chance to keep my promise and the last Friday of every month asked five customer service representative to join me in a conference room for pizza and soda. I asked them four questions:

  1. What do you like best about working at Loyalty?
  2. If you had a magic wand, and could change one thing about the AIR MILES program that would increase the program’s value to our Collectors, what would it be?
  3. If you had a magic wand, and could change one thing about the company that would make it a better and more energizing place to work, what would it be?
  4. What else do I need to know?

I led The Loyalty Group for almost nine years and only missed three monthly CSR lunches. I did everything I could do to make these meetings for two reasons:

1) No matter how busy we were dealing with the multiple crises and opportunities that continually rise up at a fast growth start-up, I always returned to my office after a CSR lunch new ideas and insights.  I never doubted that the 90 minutes with these front line employees was a great use of my time.

2) I also wanted to re-inforce to our CSR’s how important they were to our business success. I believe front line employees can make or break most businesses, but in a points based coalition loyalty program like AIR MILES, they are even more critical. Service is more important in this business model for at least two reasons: (a) AIR MILES does not control the interaction at the point of sale when a Collector needs to pull out their card to earn points on a purchase; we could influence that interaction, but those front line employees worked for the Sponsor and not Loyalty, (b) Collectors only called our service center for one of three reasons: to join, because they had a question or a problem, or to redeem their points for a reward. These are business critical moments of truth, particularly the redemption call. We knew that if our Collectors had a bad experience redeeming the points they had spent months or years collecting, they would stop shopping at our Sponsors and the virtuous cycle of Collector Value to Sponsor Value to Shareholder Value would come to an end. The customer touch point that we controlled had to be a very positive experience.

In addition to the monthly lunches, I made sure the CSR offices were always on a higher floor than mine and if at all possible, I walked through the service center on my way into or out of the office. These actions helped me learn the CSR’s names and also made them comfortable telling me if we had a problem or they came up with a new idea.

Finally, as a consumer, I am continually amazed at the poor level of service at many companies and will detail them in posts throughout the year. I will also write about the positive experiences I have including a recent one where extraordinary customer service turned a blown tire into an almost pleasant experience.

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