Honesty is always the most essential element. Even if you are delivering bad news, something that the client doesn’t want to hear, they would rather listen to it from you.
As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Snaith.
Originally a trained CIMA accountant working in the industry, Stephanie formed Gradient in 1997 after running various projects which identified the need for ERP project expertise. During that time she has enjoyed working with a broad cross-section of companies selecting and implementing systems that have resulted in real business benefit. This experience has helped Gradient grow to become one of the UK’s leading ERP consultancies. When she gets any free time she enjoys being with her family, travelling and landscape photography.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
After graduating, I took a succession of jobs, but always where things were a mess. If I was told that the company was really sorry to lose my predecessor then I would run for the hills; whereas, mention of fraud, police investigation, etc, then they got my interest! But a low boredom threshold meant that once I’d fixed all their issues and things were running well, I was looking for my next challenge.
After a few years, I found myself out of work and, as you do, had a meeting with a recruitment agency. Mentioning no names, but the gist of the conversation was that I was un-employable and coming from an agency known to place anyone anywhere (suited or not) I took that as an insult! Their solution was to go self-employed, where my fix and leave approach would actually be desirable — so Gradient was born and 22 years later is still going strong (so maybe they were right!).
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I don’t think I was any different from most people starting out. I registered my new company with Companies House and HMRC, I bought a copy of Sage, set up a new land-line, had business cards printed and some flyers and placed adverts in a couple of directories (sorry but there was a world before the internet and websites!) I had also set up the small spare room (box room really but that was what was available.) So, the world of commerce here I come… well not exactly.
Strangely, the phone didn’t start ringing. It’s important to get out into the world and talk to people. Even if they don’t need your skills, they might know someone who does or might remember meeting you in the future. You need the first couple of projects and then getting more becomes a little easier.
My second takeaway, is not to measure yourselves against other people. There are a limited number of Bill Gates, but a lot more Fred Smiths — “who?” you say, “exactly!” I respond! People who are constantly telling you how busy they are, generally aren’t so don’t look to them but validate yourself against what you want and develop your own measure of success.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I guess this is the point when other interviewees talk about an old boss, a teacher at school, etc. who has been inspirational in their growth and development. But as I thought about this question, I have to be honest that no one person springs to mind. For me, it been a number of people who were briefly involved in my journey who said the right thing at the right time to help me make the next step.
There are also those who, by what they said, made me do the opposite! Being of a somewhat stubborn nature, if I get told I can’t do something or should do something, chances are I will do the opposite! The best example of this was during the recession in the mid-2000s. We had a number of projects go on hold, and I was advised by my accountant at the time, that I should protect myself by making my team redundant, closing down the office and returning to working from home. So, I told everyone their jobs were as secure as mine was, there would be no tap on the shoulder or brown envelope, and that we would invest in a new website and corporate identity. In this way, we were able to keep our heads well above the parapet and work started to come in again. All these years later, with a successful multimillion-pound business, I can say thanks to that accountant, but I’m glad I found a better one!
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
Gradient is a people business — we don’t sell products as such, just services, so without great customer service we would really struggle. At the foundation of everything we do, we have our APEX Framework, where:
We understand what the client is seeking, what their objectives are, how they will measure success, and we Align our approach accordingly. We ensure the client understands what the project will deliver and how, through defined Process steps. As all projects are delivered through people, we need to build relationships with them, so that they are engaged in the project. And finally, if we get everything right and deliver amazing customer service, then we will Xceed their expectations.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
It’s like a lot of things, we know what is good for us or what makes sense, but we don’t always do it. Often people are incentivised — either financially or through the way they are measured — to perform a certain way. If salespeople are purely focused on commission, they will make promises that cannot be fulfilled just to get a signature on a piece of paper. If a call-centre operator only has 30 seconds per call, where is the opportunity to build a relationship that is the basis of good customer experience?
People want to be treated with respect, to understand what is happening, and to have their requirements and objectives satisfied. It’s just human nature.
At Gradient, our focus is on what is in the best interests of our clients, and this might not be what they think they want. Sometimes we need to share our experience with them in order for them to truly understand the reality of their situation, so we can move forward. It’s around managing the Rolls Royce tastes with a Ford Escort budget! Excellent customer experience is when they decide that they’ve always wanted a Ford Escort!
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
The minute you try and force customer service is where it goes wrong — the glib “have a nice day” approach won’t work as it lacks sincerity. When things get tight, businesses often focus on cutting costs, reducing headcount, etc. — but if people are fearful of the future, how can they deliver a good experience to their customers?
Instead, you need to focus on the biggest and most important customers of all — your employees. By developing a strong culture, with an ethical and honest approach, recognising effort, and developing the team, everyone becomes a salesperson for the business. Customer service is not just sales, it’s also in delivery, is a back-office function, and is the responsibility of everyone in the business, no matter their role.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
I’m pleased to say that no, I don’t have a specific story about when we “wowed” a customer as I would hope we do this every time we deliver a project — it should be business as usual. Many of our clients go on to recommend us to other businesses they come into contact with and are always ready to provide a reference and chat with others thinking of using our services.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
Our way of approaching clients and delivering projects, from an honest and ethical position, is something that has been our foundation since the day I started Gradient. We operate in a particularly difficult sector — traffic wardens, tax inspectors, business consultants — the risk is we get tarred with the same brush.
But Gradient strives to be different, to deliver excellent customer service, through our APEX Framework, no matter who in the business the client or potential client is engaging with. 40% turnover growth year on year would suggest we are getting something right.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
I always hate these questions — as sometimes there might only be four and you struggle to think of a fifth, and other times there are six or seven and you have to select. But never mind, here goes. What should any person in leadership consider in order to create excellent customer service:
Firstly — honesty is always the most essential element. Even if you are delivering bad news, something that the client doesn’t want to hear, they would rather listen to it from you. We all make mistakes and errors happen, but these situations also give you an opportunity to exceed expectations if handled right.
We’ve all experienced a time when things have gone wrong. Only recently I had some issues setting up a new pension — nothing serious, just frustrating. A few days later, I was delighted to receive a bouquet of flowers, to say sorry. So an excellent customer service response!
Secondly, reward loyalty. It seems to me many businesses strive hard to win new customers, whilst neglecting those they already have — insurance is a case in point. Whilst sending ‘thank-you’ gifts can, these days, leave you exposed to anti-bribery legislation, at Gradient we make a charitable donation instead, theirs or ours, to recognise loyalty.
Thirdly, recognition. Who doesn’t want to walk into the local coffee shop/restaurant/pub (delete as appropriate) and be greeted by name, along with a question or comment to follow on from a previous conversation. As mentioned previously, our APEX Framework includes Engage, where our team meets with individuals to understand what makes them tick, recognising that success is the sum of each person’s efforts.
Fourthly, communication. We want to know what’s happening and when. Have our emails replied to, our calls returned? Again returning to APEX — Align is about understanding what the client wants, and Process is how we will meet those expectations. Nobody is too busy to send a quick holding email, it’s rudeness not to.
Finally, and yes, I’ve identified the required five aspects — go the extra mile. Call someone ahead of a deadline, over-deliver, answer a question before it’s been asked. In this way, you Xceed a customer’s expectations. We can spot something whilst on a client’s site that whilst not in scope, might deliver significant and immediate benefit.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
When all of the above elements come together, we should get one happy customer — an advocate of our services. So now what? Memories are short and time moves on, so we quickly produce a case study, get agreement on being a reference site, etc. We also want to encourage companies to pass our details onto other business, pass us referrals, feedback, etc. So, as suggested earlier, rather than simply offering the typical entry into a prize draw, we make a donation to the charity we support, and, in this way, everyone is a winner!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have a passion for supporting young adults, especially those who’ve had a tough start or are in difficult situations, in helping them take control of their lives and grow in confidence. The charity we support, Emmaus Burnley, does just that. So, if money and time were no object, I would create a foundation so each person could be funded into training, to start a business, go travelling, put a deposit down on somewhere to live, etc. In this way they can break free of the past and embrace freedom and independence, building a better future both for them and the world in general.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!