Last month, at a breakfast in Sydney, we heard from some of the best customer service teams in Australia – winners of the 2017 Australian Service Excellence Awards. They shared what they believe to be the fundamentals of award-winning customer service, the initiatives they’re putting in place to improve the customer experience and how they’ve overcome challenges in tackling change.

Throughout the morning, I had the opportunity to pick the brains of the four panellists:

  • Nicole McCarthy, Manager of the Contact Centre at Sydney Water – winner of Best of the Best and Service Excellence in a Medium Contact Centre Awards.

  • Kelly Marr, Manager – Value Generation – Operations at American Express – winner of Service Excellence in a Large Contact Centre Award.

  • Anthony Saunders, National Customer Experience Manager at AMP Capital – winner of Service Excellence for a Medium Business Award (for Pacific Fair).

  • James Doyle, Director Customer Experience at Stryker – Service Champion for Customer Service Project of the Year for Customer Impact.

Here’s some of the key themes discussed:

1. Building a strong team is step one


All four panelists agreed that recruiting a strong team of passionate people is the foundation of great customer service.

“It’s a pivotal point that you have to get right, before you can take many steps forward,” said Doyle.

Testament to this, Sydney Water is investing heavily in the recruitment of its service team, employing a rigorous, multiple-stage process that includes personality profiling, assessment centres and involves a number of employees. The strategy is paying off, with exceptionally low turnover and a contact centre atmosphere that an Awards judge described as “electric”.

At American Express, Marr explained, they don’t necessarily look for recruits from a service background. For them, the ability to have a great, engaging conversation with a customer is the most desirable attribute.

“You want people who actually have an innate desire to help someone else,” said Marr.

2. Continuous training and coaching is vital


The task of building a strong customer service team doesn’t end at the hiring stage – ongoing training and coaching is critical.

“There's a huge investment in coaching in our organisation,” said Marr. “Every customer care professional gets four and a half hours of coaching a month, with either their team leader or a coach.”

While Sydney Water believes its extensive coaching program contributed to its Award win. McCarthy explained they have a dedicated performance capabilities specialist, and frontline staff get a 1:1 coaching session with them every 4–6 weeks.

“The specialist’s role is to improve soft skills, and work with individuals on their emotional intelligence. This helps them have more engaging conversations with customers, and also with each other.”

3. Keeping service agents engaged


Everyone agreed that happy, empowered and engaged agents are key ingredients to award-winning customer service.

James Doyle explained that Stryker’s approach to keeping employees engaged is a little different to the norm.

“We are a talent and strengths based organisation, and our focus is making people exceptional at what they are naturally good at,” he said. “We look for people with talent and who are a great cultural fit for our organisation.”

At American Express, engagement comes to life through an internal group called ‘Employee Voice’, who are tasked with creating rich experiences for their peers, such as delivering fresh fruit and water to everyone’s desks, or providing talks with leaders from across the business. The peer group is also a safe environment where employees can provide feedback, which is fed back to management.

For Sydney Water, being a state-owned entity, there isn’t much leeway in financial incentives that can be offered, so the management team have taken a creative approach to employee engagement.

McCarthy said the design of their contact centre plays a big role, with purposely low partitions that encourage conversation and interaction. There’s also an engagement team in place, whose job is to create “fun with purpose” – they mark birthdays and other fun occasions such as Halloween with costumes and celebrations.

4. Overcoming challenges to change


A key challenge in delivering a consistent customer experience for AMP Capital, whose retail division owns 24 shopping centres around Australia, is the majority of its frontline staff are contractors – cleaners, security or maintenance staff – and traditionally task-orientated in nature.

“We had to find something that was going to engage our teams to deliver on customer experience,” said Saunders.

AMP Capital’s recognition and rewards program ‘Inspiring Moments’ was born, which also defines the company’s service model with 14 tailored modules.

“Some of our teams have been with us for over 20 years,” said Saunders. “To get cultural change in that environment takes a lot of effort. But it’s incredibly rewarding when you achieve it – many of our contractors went from task-oriented to customer experience-focused”

Anouche Newman, CSIA CEO, confirmed the program must be working – the Awards judges were, she said, “made to feel like rock stars in a shopping centre”.

5. Putting the customer at the centre


For American Express, language plays a big role in defining its customer-centric culture. For one, it doesn’t have a call centre, it’s a customer care centre; and its employees aren’t service agents or reps, but customer care professionals.

While AMP Capital attributes a customer-centric culture to the business’s ability to successfully navigate an incredibly disruptive period of trading when its flagship shopping centre, Pacific Fair on the Gold Coast, recently underwent a $700 million redevelopment.

Sydney Water has formalised its approach to customer-centricity through its strategic roadmap ‘Lifestream Journey’, and commenced customer journey mapping to identify pain point processes in its service delivery and are using human centred design to fix them.

In addition, Sydney Water has a Customer Experience Council that provides frontline staff a pathway to suggest ideas that could improve the customer experience. The council is run by senior leaders from around the business, who oversee what projects are given the green light.

“This is a great way of promoting change within the business, because quite often a change incorporates many business units working together, including the frontline service professional who submitted the original change suggestion” said McCarthy. 

6. CX transformation projects should start with the customer


A manufacturer of medical devices and equipment, Stryker received its recognition in the awards for its Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) Project – an initiative that transformed the service experience of ordering replacement stock for patients. A process that traditionally was quite labour intensive.

By partnering with its biggest customer, Ramsay Healthcare, Stryker used EDI technology to enable a nurse in theatre to scan a barcode to create an order in the Stryker warehouse, without anybody touching it.

“The key to the success of the EDI project was working together with our customers to deliver value,” Doyle said. “The EDI project saves our customers time which they can spend caring for patients and ultimately making healthcare better.”

The key to getting executive sponsorship in the end was customer-centricity, which aligned the project with something meaningful to the wider business.

7. Proactive customer service


McCarthy acknowledged that, to date, Sydney Water had managed its water and wastewater network in quite a reactive manner, but there were initiatives in place to change this.

“We're going to be placing sensors on our networks, which will help us predict when a main might be close to bursting or wastewater network might overflow,” said McCarthy. This will enable Sydney Water to pivot to a proactive brand of service, where it can message customers alerting them to a problem and providing an estimated time for repair.

8. Service is about generating customer value


“Customers call us because they want something solved. But we actually believe they want more than that, they just don't always know it,” said Marr.

Marr asserted that it’s service’s responsibility to generate value for the customer, which might in fact generate revenue for the business.

“We’re making a huge investment in taking a transaction, and turning it into a meaningful interaction. One that's educational, informative and adds value to the customer’s life.

“Our customer care professionals are encouraged to, and coached to, have conversations where they peel back the layers. They address that transactional need, but they also find out what’s important to the person they’re speaking to. They’re coached to look for an opportunity to potentially share a relevant service or benefit, or perhaps even a different product.”

Learn how the world’s top-performing customer service teams are revolutionising the service industry, download the State of Service report.