Having heard the saying ‘the customer is king' many times in my life, I have often wondered if it applies to the Gulf. The service industry is complex and not something to be taken lightly, but are we fully equipped to handle this very significant part of a customer's experience?
As I listened to the CEO of Bloomingdale's talk about their Dh270 million investment in the Dubai store, I was rather impressed. Dubai's retail industry has risen to great heights, competing with cities like New York and London, and with the Burj Khalifa, the Metro and other landmark additions to the city, I doubt that I am the only person who is dazed by it all.
However, you only have to open a few newspapers to realise that, too often, the journey a customer takes is not an entirely satisfying one, and that the term ‘after-sales service' is altogether ignored or discredited on the organisation's side. For example, does a customer enjoy standing in line for half an hour to post a letter, only to find a disgruntled employee procrastinating, sipping coffee and enjoying a leisurely chat with a colleague? Should we be grateful to the telecoms company for sending our bill on thick expensive paper, when the person on the other side of the phone cannot comprehend our concerns about our phone bill? Do I ignore the speeding taxi driver who is desperately honking behind me, trying to get me out of the way, only to discover that there are a group of bewildered tourists sitting in the back of the taxi holding on for dear life? This is the kind of customer journey that I am speaking of.
London Business School research shows that the ability to deliver a customer experience consistently aligned around customer needs and intentions has a significant impact on a company's ability to create customer loyalty. In turn, loyal customers have a huge impact on the bottom line, by buying more and referring other customers to the company.
Economic downturns such as the one we are experiencing provide a unique opportunity to re-evaluate and optimise the customer experience. Moreover, with sharper focus an economic downturn gives businesses a unique opportunity to re-examine their customer experience. These companies recognise the risk and opportunity downturns create within their customer base. The risk of losing customers increases as consumers reassess their service providers; they begin the process of reducing spending, sparing only those products and services from companies that they value most. Switching from a large retailer to perhaps a smaller, more hands-on retailer could be one of the outcomes. The retail industry's sales service is always under the microscope — exceeding customers expectations is key. Incorporating these insightful processes requires a great deal of effort on behalf of a retailer. Customer research, including primary and behavioural analysis, makes up a large part of the process.
The outcome of this study should inform the goals and guidelines of the organisation, which are instilled through training. This may involve a substantial amount of investment into these training programmes, but will certainly work to the great benefit of the employee's sector knowledge, additionally instilling a feeling of self-worth into them. A tailored customer experience is the resultof this good plan, and if implemented on a continuous basis can lead to retention. Jack Welch, former chairman of General Electric, was spot on when he spoke about ‘sticky customers' — those who become very loyal.
The orderly city-state of Singapore has always been a model for the region. I personally find the Customer Satisfaction Index of Singapore, which is used as a national barometer of customer satisfaction in their economy, to be a great example of a tangible benchmark for a typically intangible aspect of business. In 2008 the Institute of Service Excellence at Singapore Management University was appointed to implement and maintain an annual benchmark for the service sectors in Singapore. The questionnaire is completed by both residents and tourists and covers eight sectors of the Singapore economy. Once a small fishing village, Singapore is now a prosperous nation with a population of about five million and a GDP per capita that ranks it as the fifth wealthiest country in the world — a formidable case study for us all to take as an example. This is the direction that our service industry should be moving in.
In truth, the Gulf is not at stake. It continues to offer most people a rewarding place to live, and both tourists and residents enjoy a great social life. But there are some grounds for concern when it comes to the retention and loyalty of those people. Let us raise the bar, build a region based on meritocracy and diminish these concerns once and for all. Without doubt we have the means and manpower to do so.
Muna Al Gurg is a director at the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group and vice chairperson of the Young Arab Leaders.