At the frontline: Responding to customer needs

Jane Sunley, chief executive of online training provider Purple Cubed, talks to Annabel Palmer about the need for smaller companies to engage with clients at all levels of the customer journey

JANE Sunley founded Purple Cubed in 2001 to offer businesses – including Thomas Pink and Pizza Express – advice on developing and retaining talent. In the past 13 years, the company’s model has pivoted. Now, the online talent management and performance specialist offers strategic approaches to employee attraction, engagement and retention in the form of consultancy services. Sunley talks to City A.M. about the challenges Purple Cubed has encountered in driving its growth by staying connected to clients and responding quickly to their needs.

What obstacles do small and medium-sized businesses face in meeting customer expectations and building customer relationships?

First, it’s important to make the distinction between customer service and the customer experience. Businesses must engage with their audience at all levels of the customer journey. It’s never been just about “selling a product,” or being there when something goes wrong: customers need to be on-side before you make the sales pitch.

In times of economic pressure, the customer-facing “people stuff” is often the first to suffer budget cuts. And operationally, maintaining customer responsiveness and engagement is a constant challenge. Internally, for example, we have to keep our software simple to avoid time wasted by all parties in training new users. But we’ve also implemented vital tools that every SME needs, like High Rise (from web application company Basecamp), which helps maintain databases without a fuss. Keeping abreast of these simple technologies, and how they can boost productivity, is essential.

At Purple Cubed, our biggest setback was in the transition from us providing our customers with an outsource-built, “baby” software product to building an in-house tech team to redesign from the bottom up. To keep up with customer demands, we needed Generation Y technologists in the office to build up-to-date software products. But the transition meant keeping one software product running while recruiting a new team.

How has Purple Cubed innovated to keep on top of customer demand?

In the digital age, it’s easy to focus too heavily on online tools. Of course, we use all the common social media channels, and constantly monitor engagement. We send out monthly e-bulletins, and we write regular articles for online trade and human resources publications.

But we also recently released a new version of our employee engagement software, called Talent Toolbox, which has around 100,000 unique users. Its feedback mechanisms generate a constant stream of suggestions directly from users. We log these onto a “wish list,” which we discuss regularly, and the best or most requested ideas are subsequently deployed within our system. They are then made available to clients via a new release (three times a year).

However, regular face-to-face meetings are also important. We run quarterly Purple Breakfasts and Supper Clubs, which generate content for future newsletters and e-bulletins, and provide us with useful industry insights. It’s much easier to keep abreast of new trends through your customer base than by generalising about the wider world. When the company was 10 years old, I wrote my first book – a practical guide for SMEs on how they can enhance the customer experience. It gave people a flavour of what we were about and, of course, it was great PR.

How are your customer relationships driving business growth?

Communication strategies are constantly being fed back into our services. The awards and PR work we’ve done for our clients (for example, writing their entries and promoting their profiles) has given us greater insight into what’s going on in their businesses – in turn prompting us to modify and extend our own offering. So promoting clients – which began as a value add-on to our service – has turned into a revenue stream. In addition, we interview clients for our own magazine and on behalf of trade press. By giving clients the opportunity to “bare all,” we can then use their comments to shape our business.

And we’re constantly seeing the fruits of our labour. Many of our clients have left their previous employers and gone on to run new businesses – and have taken us with them. One high profile human resource development practitioner, for example, has implemented our software into four different businesses.

How has your product evolved to meet client needs?

We have two streams to the business, one of which is software. At first, we aimed to offer a small appraisal and review software package to the market. But after listening to customer demand, we now have a much bigger product with a communication dashboard and a range of modules.

To give an example, clients were increasingly demanding products that would enable them to run mentoring schemes. The problem was in matching people – manually, it’s a very arduous task. So we wrote a product to simplify the process in response to this demand.

Nonetheless, our product is software. We have to accept that, sometimes, something might go wrong: Blackberry once had a three-day blackout. So if something like that happens, we respond instantly – in some cases even sending a director on site. Good customer service is essential to maintaining brand loyalty.