A Day @ AQ with the School of Customer Management

What happens when a company bent on improving worldwide customer service meets a room full of people studying customer service management?


Last week, AQ hosted a group of executive students from the School for Customer Management. Their visit lasted the entire day, and justifiably so: there were many questions and insights throughout the day which benefitted both sides.

From the very start, with the obligatory ‘About AQ’ introductions, it became clear that these were not your average students. Forget your typical college-level students, these people have entire careers at their beck and call and are thoroughly invested in their walks of life. Genuinely interested in their course of study, these men and women were not going to take anything for granted.

Questions started flying almost immediately.

From the practical, real-world type of questions:

School of Customer Management Students: Why focus on Asian markets?
Jan-Willem Smulders, AQ’s CEO: After we started in Asia we recognized the need to set up locally, many markets now are managed from our operational HQ in Kuala Lumpur. This is because a lot of work in Asia is regional, so winning projects in one country usually means running it throughout the region.  All the projects we do in Japan, for example, are part of regional programs.

To the mandatory:

SCMS: What does the competitor landscape look like?
JWS: We have a lot of competitors. In our case, we can navigate it in our favour, mostly because we are an Europe-Asia fieldwork provider, able to cover both regions. This sometimes means that even the massive global companies we compete with often outsource their fieldwork to us. The local markets are different, as there are a lot of small start-ups with whom we can’t compete in the short-term based on pricing.

6 - Jan-Willem Presenting

What’s the go with AQ?

Answering questions about the company for which you work – or in Jan-Willem’s case, the company you founded – can be both confronting and interesting. Placing yourself in a position where you actually have to talk about what you do, how you do it, and why can be a really useful way to get back in touch with the company vision.
When a company if first founded there tends to be clear underlying principles. Some companies lose track of these principles as they grow, others adapt these principles to the times, and some companies, like AQ, manage to maintain those core values throughout their existence, incorporating them into the evolution of the time. Managing those values in changing times isn’t always easy, and often impact a company’s culture. AQ’s internal culture is based on four primary core values – Do Right, Create Magic, Make it Happen, Be Passionate – and it’s clear from Jan-Willem’s answers during this session that he, speaking for the company as a whole, hasn’t lost sight of any of those principles.

Posed Group
Technology at Work

SCMS: How is AQ run, how would you describe AQ’s internal culture?
JWS: Our influence on the market does not really impact our internal function. Internally, we have a very flat hierarchy; in this we are influenced by our Dutch heritage. We look to empower our people, we look for the right mix of people, respect, and productivity.

AQ is a multicultural company, bridging gaps in culture, communication, and geography. With more than 20 nationalities working across Europe and Asia, speaking even more different languages, navigating cultural differences is par for the course of what AQ does. It’s not every day that we stop to think about it, except, of course, when we get asked:

SCMS: You work with a lot of different cultures. Do you see see a difference in those cultures when it comes to the importance of customer service?
JWS: Of course….if you look at Malaysia, it’s still very authentic. Which is what I really like about it. People still work from the heart, so to speak, so you get some great opportunities to be surprised. In Singapore it’s a lot more mechanical, which is nice, but you miss a real authentic – natural – customer service experience.
SCMS: Do you believe customer service is trainable in Asia?
JWS: Partially, yes. Hospitality and retail are not always a culturally desirable profession, so people who end up in it are not happy in it – they don’t find any pride in it – which impacts their desire to learn and improve. This makes it difficult to find the right people and puts pressure on the selection process. I think it can be trained but it starts with selecting the people who are already inclined towards wanting to deliver good service.
SCMS: Sometimes you have to decondition people to make them more human. They’re afraid to connect.
JWS: Exactly.

Introduction to Benchmark

Having a group of switched-on people asking questions really gave voice to what we are trying to accomplish as a company. Not only did we get to answer questions about our core offering, mystery shopping, but we also got to share the knowledge that we have learned from 16 years of global experience in the industry. We are experts, after all, and helping others – students or clients – better understand the direction in which the world is heading is part of what we’re all about.

Why Mystery Shopping?

Mystery shopping isn’t something that everyone understands from the get-go; after all, as market research tools go, it’s only part of a larger arsenal. Mystery shopping is one of the tools that can help avoid generating negative experiences. As industries become more and more homogeneous, customer service can often become the key differentiator in customer retention, which is why AQ specializes in it. Pretty much any sector where there is an element of human interaction, mystery shopping can play a role.

Additionally, mystery shopping can be used in so many different ways, all depending on the objective of the assignment. Many clients, for example, are using it more and more as a customer service empowerment tool rather than as a method to police bad employees.

SCMS: Are there areas to innovate?
JWS: Yes, but it’s not clear yet where. The retail environment is changing. We are seeing shifts to more showroom vs. outlet models but it’s not totally clear that it’s really all going that way. Retail is a little like hospitality: it experiments, but they don’t really do it. This is one of the reasons why AQ is working on building a training app to help the retail industry in particular to navigate these changes: accept the things that aren’t going to change – high turnover, training costs, etc. –  and work with what can be innovated. We see a large trend growing in online community measurement, these are more ad hoc measurements done by the client. For us, it’s usually a controlled environment where we want to check a selection of known elements.

Having given the students a crash course in mystery shopping, AQ’s history, and a glimpse at the data insights we deliver as a company through the Fashion Benchmark, our Systems team ran them through the how-to’s of building an actual mystery shopping survey.

Onil Iskandar, Systems & Program Support Manager: We have to establish who our client is: this will determine the type of questions they will ask, or what the overall objective is. Then the trick is to ask whether the program is actionable: what are you going to do with the data? What do you want to do with the data? Only then can we start building a scenario: how will the visit be executed? Think of this as the flow of the visit: put yourself into the typical customer journey and the questions can be built around this process.

aq services can help

Luckily, many of the students had some experience with surveys already, and soon they were ready to go out into the field and see for themselves how the Malaysian customer service was put together.

Fieldwork Insights

We knew it would be important for them to experience the market. There were no surprises when it came to their fieldwork results; the unique take the majority of the Malaysian market has on customer service was certainly evident in the majority of the responses the students brought back with them. Analyzing the data gave these avid students a better understanding of customer service in Malaysia.

One of the most interesting things that they remarked upon was the difference in their focus: when you go into a store with the intent to uncover information – i.e. as a mystery shopper – the experience is totally different from when you normally go into a store as a regular customer. The amount of things you suddenly notice and pay attention to is impressive; things you might normally dismiss as a regular shopper suddenly make or break an experience. As Jan-Willem stressed repeatedly during the session:

“It’s all about generating consistency.”

After an animated and activity-packed day, new truths were out:

SMCS: There was a distinct air of demotivation. Most shops were overstaffed; no one took any pleasure in what they were doing! If they were trained I don’t know what in. The atmosphere of sadness almost was contagious. One of us only got a ‘thank you’ as we were leaving the store! No on asked “what are you looking for?” and no one asked anything that could start a conversation to create context.

As I said, we were not surprised at their report. Whether it was simply a lack of customer service, or the fact that having groups of overly-tall Dutchmen and women wander in can be intimidating, this is one of the biggest obstacles the retail industry faces – particularly in Malaysia – and it reiterated what Jan-Willem had said at the start of the day: “…it starts with selecting the people who are already inclined towards wanting to deliver good service.”

Fieldwork Insights

What’s next?

The very fact that there are students studying customer management specifically lends hope to the evolution of customer service. The fact that such students take the time to spend an entire day with a company like AQ, who’s mission statement is literally “to let people experience great service”, suggests that there is more than just hope at play here. The domain of customer service is always changing, and there are people in the world who not only recognize that evolution, but who are prepared to adapt to the changes right along side us.

Thank You

To that end, AQ would like to thank the School of Community Management for giving us the opportunity to get to know some of your students. We wish you all the best with your future initiatives, and, in true customer service fashion, we hope to see you again soon.

Let’s make it happen.

AQ would like to thank the School of Community Management