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Drop the 'blue-sky thinking': Firms need plain English

Recently a company I know rolled out a customer service campaign to its staff. It was very high profile: the walls of its offices, inside the lifts, even the mirrors inside the staff washrooms – all available surfaces were plastered with slogans designed, I assume, to exhort and inspire staff to do more, to do better.

Quite right too, yes? I mean, what's wrong with using shareholders' cash to do this? Customer service is everything, without good customer service a company will, in the long run, suffer. I emphasize "in the long run" because although, as attributed to JM Keynes, in the long run we are all dead, some people would have pointed to Ryanair as an example of how to prosper and thrive even with consistently poor customer service. But even that institution has had a re-think and is telling customer show they have changed.

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But here is the rub. It has to be genuine. It has to be in plain language. And it has to start from the top.

Simply stating base platitudes doesn't inspire anyone, customers or staff. After all, one has to assume that employees know at least the basics, so simply telling them what they already know is insulting and de-motivating.

Avoid consultant-speak. Plain English is stated consistently by customers as amongst the top 3 attributes they desire from companies they buy products from. Ditch the "think outside the box" slogans, the "enabling high-performance teams" nonsense. It ain't big and it ain't clever.

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And the most important thing? Build the customer service culture internally from the top. If senior management treat staff poorly, there is little chance of said staff treating customers well. And when I mean poorly, that includes feeding them a diet of platitudes and tick-box performance appraisals. If employees perceive politics-heavy executive behaviour, with closed inner circles, they will respond with cynicism and bitterness. Hardly the recipe for good customer service.

Treat staff and customers as adults who are as intelligent as you. It works wonders.

Professor Moorad Choudhry is at the Department of Mathematical Sciences, Brunel University and author of The Principles of Banking (John Wiley & Sons 2012).

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