Customer Service: Mission Impossible?

According to the recent Microsoft State of Global Customer Service report, 61% of consumers have come to view customer service as “very important” in their choice of, and loyalty to, a brand.    In the  American Express Customer Service Barometer of 2014, 99% of consumers said that getting a satisfactory answer or being connected to someone knowledgeable are important prerequisites to a great customer service experience.

These and other findings suggest that customer service is not only very important to customers but that it is more than about politeness.  Speaking specifically of the Caribbean, the view still persists that customer service is about being courteous. Not surprisingly then, this continues to be the focus of much of the customer service training.   Frankly though, much of the training IS needed simply to counteract the sheer uncouthness that is still being meted out to customers in some areas!

But let us suppose we were able solve the problem of discourteous behaviour from customer service agents; would that bring our customer service into the 100th percentile? The answer is “No!” One of the reasons why poor customer service persists is because of this narrow focus on courtesy. Global Customer Service Reports consistently show that issues such as valuing customers’ time, convenience, speed and helpfulness are key expectations in customer service.

The matter of the nature of customer service is so important that we developed the following working definition for it:

Customer service is all the behaviours and utilities a customer expects from an organization in transacting business with it.

This definition is based on the highly acclaimed work of Parasuramann, Zeithaml & Berry (1988) in which they argued that customer service is all about expectations.  Three key aspects of this definition need to be emphasized.  First, customer service is what the customer expects and not what the organization thinks it is or is prepared to give. The authors cited above identified specific types of behaviours customers themselves regard as important.  Subsequent research has confirmed and elaborated on these behaviours.

The second aspect of the working definition relates to the term “behaviours”.  “Behaviours” are the attitudes, sentiments and actions displayed by employees of the organization, for example, good manners, ,  paying attention etc. As noted above, most customer service training tends to focus on this aspect of customer service so here we are on familiar ground.

While there are several common behaviours expected in customer service, customers’ expectations may differ in detail from industry to industry.  For example, the airline passenger expects courtesy as well as safety and timeliness.  A patient certainly expects courtesy but courtesy with an inaccurate prescription may result in a dead customer and a law-suit for the clinic!

The third feature relates to the term “utilities”. This refers to the benefits, convenience and performance customers desire; for example, timeliness of delivery, accuracy in filling an order,  product knowledge, accessibility and so on.  Performance issues do not enjoy the same level of emphasis in customer service training  as ‘courtesy’ and are often not so easy to implement. Nevertheless, the research is suggesting that they are highly valued by employees.  “Utilities”  also includes aspects of the so-called  “servicescape”, that is, the facilities and atmosphere or ambiance in which business is transacted.  Businesses that are sensitive to this pay more than passing attention to reception areas, signage, employee dress and the like.

The frequent absence of the performance aspects from the customer service experience can be attributed to the fact that customer service is often treated as just a frontline, meet-and-greet-the-customer operation rather than being systemic to the organization. “Systemic” implies that customer service is part of the strategy and structure of the entire organization and therefore, manifests itself at all levels and in all interactions with the customer.

Achieving this requires a strategic approach. Both top-down and bottom-up approaches must be used: it must start with the customer and work is way up to top management; then it must work its way down to the individual  employee. While it is certainly okay to buy into individual employee effectiveness training, good customer service will not inhere in the organization unless top management is educated on its importance, how to systematically implement it over time and how to play an active role in it.

Given its unequivocal importance, we wish to offer a few bits of advice to organizations looking to improve their customer service.

1. Start by finding out what is important to customers. This  is a research problem which should be approached in a professional manner.

2. Assess the extent to which the organization is currently giving customers what they want. This should be part of the research problem in step 1.

3. Formulate and implement a strategic plan to bridge the gap between 1 and 2. Yes! there is such a thing as a strategic customer service plan! (We will discuss this in later articles). Top management must be involved in both its formulation and implementation; customer service cannot be left to front line employees only.  Organizations often appoint a customer service champion but  for practical purposes, a middle-level manager with real line authority for customer service is the way to go.

4. Ensure that the plan contains provision for employees to be trained, rewarded and commended for achieving excellent customer service .

5. Ensure that the plan includes periodic assessment of customer service (e.g. quarterly, episodically, half-yearly, annually) by both external and internal customers and that the measures adopted are rigorous enough to create an index of progress over time which can be made available to stakeholders.

Achieving excellent customer service is not a destination but a journey. However, there must be a staring point and there must be the will to carry on!

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