By Alex Evans, Editorial Director of the National Business Awards

Consumer champions ranging from Watchdog to Which? have long bemoaned the lack of customer empathy from British businesses; but a new service culture is emerging.

Just as retailers have created leisure environments to keep browsing a ‘live’ experience, B2B providers are now working more collaboratively so clients see them as an extension of their business. Complaints are now opportunities to create testimonials around satisfaction and going one step beyond.

Finalists across all categories of the National Business Awards demonstrated the impact of customer service excellence on commercial success, proving that it must play a key part in any growth strategy.

“What was particularly compelling about this year’s finalists was the work they had done to understand their customers,” remarked Steve Pateman, Executive Director of Corporate, Commercial & Business Banking at Santander Corporate Banking, sponsor and judge of SME of the Year.

“They all had very high Net Promoter Scores and had adapted their proposition based on customer feedback. I was really struck by the engagement and these finalists seem more in touch than in recent years. It’s certainly easier to gauge customer satisfaction these days and one of my fellow judges was checking Twitter and Facebook to see what customers were saying about each finalist.”

Virtual word of mouth

The rise of social media, and the realisation that virtual word of mouth can either create or kill business, has compelled organisations of all types to invest in customer or citizen experience -whether it’s a charity, a government dept or a plc.

But with the standard rising across the board, what is an award-winning example of customer focus? For judges of the Huawei Customer Focus Award, it’s the approach adopted by Ovo Energy — a new gas and electricity supplier that has grown quickly by offering consumers cheaper, greener and simpler energy.

“In a very competitive category, Ovo is introducing what can only be called a trail blazing approach that is placing the customer at the centre of its decision-making processes,” commented Dominic Swords, Senior Business Economist at Henley Business School and Co-Chair of Judging for the National Business Awards.

“There is a simplicity about the model with customer insight and needs influencing what they do and how they do it throughout the business: from call centre to the CEO’s desk. Judges felt that Ovo are disrupting the industry and are setting new standards for customer service in the sector.”

This was music to the ears of panel judge Jo Causon, CEO of the Institute of Customer Service (ICS). A firm believer that customer service excellence will not only help organisations ride out the recession but can also help them to drive the recovery, Jo has campaigned to push customer service excellence higher up the agenda for UK plc.

“Over 75% of this country’s GDP comes from service related industries and we need to exploit our customer service expertise by making the country the go-to destination for service,” says Jo.

“To do that we need to develop the skills of individuals, who in turn will enable the organisations for whom they work to be more efficient, and more able to cut waste — to be more agile and responsive to the global marketplace with its ever more demanding customers and consumers.”

And it’s not just about engaging external customers - it’s about engaging internal clients as well. “Our own research proves that staff who are able to satisfy the needs of customers, who are customer focused and properly trained and supported, have a higher level of engagement,” adds Jo.

“As such Institute research indicates a 24% higher net profit margin and an additional 71% higher profit per employee.”

Make 2012 the year of the customer and it will be a good year for your business. If you have achieved customer service excellence, find out if it’s worthy of national recognition in 2012 by submitting an entry for the Huawei Customer Focus Award. Find out more at www.nationalbusinessawards.co.uk

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