Reflections: Learnings from my Journey (2: Riette le Roux)

I will never forget when I just joined the newly formed Standard Bank South Africa HR Shared Services Centre (SSC), our then Head of Shared Services gave each of the managers a book to inspire us for what was to come.  The book she gave me was entitled Success One Day at a Time by John C. Maxwell and one of the stories that made a huge impression on me was called "The Race at Sunrise, an African Parable".  It goes like this: "Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows that it must run faster than the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows that it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death… It does not matter if you are a lion or a gazelle, when the sun comes up, you had better be running."

Running: that is what we do everyday on the plains of Customer Service, no matter where in the world you may be. In the SSC environment especially, due to the complex relationships and dynamics of partners vs. customers, we end up some days being the lion and more than often reduced to the role of gazelle. Nevertheless, with eyes open it’s possible to pick up some vital learnings along the way...

  • It is easy to get despondent about customer centricity within the context of a shared service centre.  As we know SSCs make sense in terms of corporate objectives, but that individualised service is a continuous challenge due to the nature of the beast.  Economies of scale are gained through standardisation and that in itself creates problems with partners that have particular service needs that fall outside the "factory mold".
  • A one-dimensional customer value-proposition of cost-cutting only is not an optimum philosophy for inspiring SSC partner relationships. Customers within the SSC environment are asking for a more holistic approach in terms of engagement and service provision from their SSC.  This calls for a substantial time investment in terms of profiling your various customer bases, to establish the best engagement strategy to reach them and create communication channels accordingly.  It asks for an investment in terms of, not only internal staff training, but also up-skilling your customer on how to engage with the centre in order to maximise their interaction and service experience.  These are essentials not only for outsourced SSCs but also in-sourced centres.
  • Getting customer service right is not a finger-snap away!  But there are some quick wins to be had from developing and verbalizing your SSC customer value proposition.  This will mean that everyone on the floor understands that your SSC brand and customer reputation is in the hands of each and every staff member and that they are all responsible for customer service to the level that was agreed.  This means the breaking down of managerial silos within the SSC in order for Relationship Optimisation (a marketing and communication area), Performance Optimisation (HR functions) and all SSC Operational areas to work together through metrics, KRAs on individuals performance contracts, leadership philosophy, recruitment as well as reward and recognition to enforce the "we are a brand only through our people" approach.
  • Getting back to the basics on customer service is called for once again.  Do not run a survey if you are not willing to listen to what your customer is telling you.  If the customer is giving you feedback that you perceive as unfair or ill informed, then the buck stops with you – up-skill them!  If the feedback is around improvements to be made, then make your changes, up-skill your staff appropriately to support these changes and make sure that you communicate your actions in "full colour" to your customers.  This is the only way that customers will experience that you are listening to them and that you are responsive to their needs.
  • Determine what are the customer service rules of the countries that you operate in. In Africa it goes like this: "If I do not have a connection with you, I cannot trust you as a business partner."  If you don’t know what your emotional contract with your customers is, how can you decide on the most effective ways to engage with them?
  • In Africa it is said that it takes a village to raise a child. I think we are also waking up to the fact that it takes the whole shared service centre to raise the bar on customer service.

My message to you as an ambassador for customer service within the SSC environment is: good customer service is much more than lip service and a couple of "Customer is King" posters. It is consistently being seen as doing the right thing, at the right time, on time. A tall order to say the least!  But that is why we are all running...  running on the customer service plains.  Sometimes we will be the lion, other times the gazelle. All that I’m asking is: when the sun rises, start running!

About the Author

Riette Le Roux is Manager, Relationship Optimization, PeopleServe (HR Shared Service Center) for Standard Bank. A graduate of the University of Free State, she joined Standard Bank as a Senior Recruitment Consultant following two years in London in the recruitment industry. Following significant (and award-winning) success she moved up the ladder within PeopleServe and now forms part of the SSC’s senior management group.