The secret of a successful business

Be it retail, leisure or transport, customer service can make all the difference
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Traditionally, "customer service" conjures up images of teams of staff dealing with mundane complaints. The general perception is that whether they're trying to calm down aggrieved consumers or agreeing to swap one purchase for another, those in customer service don't exactly have a creative or pro-active role. However, the reality is different.

"Customer service is now increasingly accepted as one of the main differentiates for commercial success and is a benchmark for assessing public-sector excellence," says Don Hales, director of the National Customer Service Awards – an annual event that has been created in recognition of this. As a result, careers within this field offer opportunities for fast promotion, high levels of responsibility and impressive salaries.

Pauline Wilson became customer service manager at Thomson Holidays shortly after joining the company three years ago. "At the time of joining, morale was low, with computer malfunctions and high staff turnover," she explains. She introduced longer opening hours to suit customer requirements, staff incentives, team leaders and service-standard guidelines. The result has been a greatly improved service for customers, travel agents and holiday representatives and a customer-service team that is continually striving to improve performance.

"We are living in times of fast-growing customer expectations and an extremely competitive market-place," says Peter Lowe, client relations manager at recruitment consultancy, Customer Service Careers. "Companies are recognising that even in times of recession, they have to find ways of finding new business and retaining customers in order to survive. That's why there are excellent career opportunities in customer service in practically every industry and at practically every level."

Industries that are now committed to customer service include retail, utilities, leisure, transport and the public sector.

"A growing number of graduates are entering customer service, and there is also a trend of people deciding to move across from other careers," reports Howard Kendall, chairman of the Institute of Customer Service and founding director of Customer Service Management magazine.

Language skills and a willingness to travel are particularly valued as customer-service roles become increasingly global. Technological skills are also sought-after and taught as sophisticated systems are used more and more by companies intent on delivering world-class service. And should you want to switch roles within the world of customer service, there's always the chance to become a trainer.

'I wanted a role in a company making products I could really believe in'

Gaynor Childs, 29, the overall winner of this year's awards, is customer service manager for Stannah Stairlifts. She is the first point of call for 16 agents in 14 countries as well as for many of the customers. Operating in a market that is both highly competitive and service-driven, she answers queries in English and German and has implemented several changes to improve the service.

"I applied for this job because I wanted a customer-service based role in a company that makes products I could really believe in. I also wanted to use my language skills and work in a relatively small team ­ just because that suits my personality best and because it's my experience that it makes the work more varied. At that time, the customer service department at Stannah was being set up and I realised I'd have a chance to be quite influential.

"I'd say that to make it in customer service, a genuine care about people is probably the most important attribute."

The National Customer Service Awards in association with 'The Independent' were held last Tuesday and sponsored by Avaya, AXA PPP Healthcare, BSI, BT Retail, Chameleon Training & Consulting, Consignia, Creation Financial Services, Customer Service Careers, Mercedes Benz, TXU Energi, Edify, Eurostar, Merchants, Mortgage Express, Primus, Genesys, Respond UK, Royal Bank of Scotland, Sainsbury's, Scottish Equitable, Siemens Communications, Sitel Consulting, Thames Water, RBC Global Services, TMI, top-banana Global, Vertex, Winning Business and Zurich Financial Services