Why you should stop focusing on your customers

The customer is not king, says Zen Internet CEO Paul Stobart.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 26 Apr 2019

When Richard Tang founded internet service provider Zen in 1995, he knew he’d have his work cut out trying to get its name heard in an industry dominated by big players.

Twenty-three years later, and despite being a very minor player in a fiercely competitive market, Zen has been able to cut its own furrow, serving a growing customer pool of 120,000. It turned over £71 million in 2018.

Part of this success has been down to a fastidious approach to customer service that focuses on personal engagements and building long relationships. Zen has no KPIs to cut call length in its call centre, and tries to ensure that when a customer calls they are connected to the same agent they spoke to previously.

The result is a customer attrition rate of below ten per cent (extremely low for the sector) and an average membership length of a decade, which has enabled the company to benefit from happy customers recommending them to their friends.

But it would be "naive" to think that Zen puts the customer at the heart of its business, says current CEO and former Sage EMEA boss Paul Stobart (who took the reigns from Tang in 2018). He says the way to achieve brilliance in customer service is not actually to focus on the customer, but to focus on the staff.


"If you get your people inspired, then customers get a very different kind of experience, because they feel like they are speaking with someone who genuinely cares.

"There are many leaders who will say, ‘we're people focused, we're a people company’ but the reality on the ground is something very different.

"We keep a very close watch on how engagement is working across the company. Every quarter we do a poll and that helps us know where we need to make improvements to people’s experience.  

"That can be small things like increasing the proportion of training, introducing flexible working practices or more enhanced benefits in certain areas. It can be adjustments to hygiene factors, but actually the thing that makes the biggest difference is investment in leadership and development.

"We put all of our leaders through a very intense three day programme called the Living Leader Programme, and we're working to role this out across the entire organisation. It’s run by an outsourced company and gives a fantastic insight into their own abilities and skills as leaders.

"We also spend a lot of time on communications; we’re constantly taking feedback, using blogs, vlogs and podcasts to encourage openness and host Q&A chat rooms over lunch.

"All of these factors, and some of them are really not that big, aggregate to make people realise that they’re with a company that cares and is interested in them. It makes them feel great and as a result they stay with us for years."

Image credit: Tim Mossholder/Pexels

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