Customer Service: When do you stop caring?

Customer Service: When do you stop caring?

Customer service is a term we hear and use often. Without customers no business will survive very long. Service has been described as a key business differentiator, a way to stand out from the competition. ‘The Customer is King’ mantra has probably been repeated in staff training sessions in many business sectors for decades. So why is my customer experience so frequently a letdown? Has something changed? Are my expectations simply too high?

Which, the consumer body, recently published a report that suggested smaller airports give better service than larger ones. This got me thinking; especially as I have had a number of frustrating customer experiences recently that were with large corporate entities. Is service really a size issue or is something else going on?

Is customer service unproductive?

Businesses like to run lean and mean. It boosts profits, keeps shareholders happy and helps top management get bigger rewards. In recent years the economic environment has only added fuel to the lean and mean requirement. Technology has been one of the tools that has really helped in the productivity drive. There have been tremendous productivity and margin gains made from ever more sophisticated technology. So here’s my problem. It goes back to the old adage that ‘if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail’. It seems to me that the more we embrace the technology solutions, the greater the risk that we de humanise our business – and in the vast majority of cases people are our business, whether they are employees or customers.

customer service process grinds slowly

The customer service process grinds slowly

Leaders and managers have always been drawn to the more tangible aspects of business. They love clear tasks and processes. People are more complicated and never respond how they might expect. My concern is that now, more than ever, senior leaders and managers are removing more and more of the people element from their processes. However, they do maintain the customer service rhetoric and hope we, as customers, believe it.

When I am training in presentation skills, one of the key lessons to learn is the impact of our actions failing to match our words. If our actions don’t match our words the words are meaningless. The actions are what matter.

What message are you really sending to your customers?

I will give you some examples, and try to avoid it simply becoming a major rant (I do find it very frustrating).

Let’s start with a quick win. These days, when you wish to talk to an organisation you are very often speaking to a call centre of some description. I would say that virtually every time I ring I am told that they are experiencing unusually high volumes of calls and they are sorry for the delay. In reality it is not unusual because I get this message every time I call, whatever time of day or night. The message I really receive is either ‘we don’t care about you’ assuming the problem is understaffing, or we are making money from this call and so are deliberately ripping you off by delaying our response.

It was reported recently that one of the big mobile phone operators was introducing a 50p charge to allow customers to jump the queue when calling their customer helpline. Firstly, this suggests the queue is completely normal and acceptable to them, and secondly the real question asked was then ‘how can we make money from this situation’?

As a customer, you are now funnelled into a process and have to follow the prescribed procedure, however frustrating or nonsensical that may be. A lot of business is conducted online, another advantage of the technology improvement. However, have you ever tried making direct contact with the business if you have a problem? Typically, there is a email contact form, but no telephone number anywhere. The customer service message: ‘we’ll get around to dealing with you in our own good time’.

Trying to actually speak to a person who is able to do anything other than follow the system is becoming increasingly difficult. I fly regularly with an airline (apparently the world’s favourite one) and had a flight cancelled recently due to industrial action out of everyone’s control. They agreed to refund my flights as I had to make alternative travel plans. Great. I received an email confirmation of the refund and waited. Nothing arrived so after about 3 or 4 weeks I called the loyalty members customer service number. The operative apologised, could not tell why I had not received the money but said they would process it again. I waited – Nothing. I called another couple of times and got a similar response, which was now unacceptable as I had paid my credit card bill with the flights on. I asked to speak to a supervisor. He came on the phone and basically said he would put it through again (another 10 day wait) but was not able to do anything else. There was no escalation process and he could not do anything but follow the system that clearly was not working.  I asked to speak to the refund department but was told neither he nor I could do that. No money arrived. I eventually managed to find a person who did take up my case (I had to hold on the line for 33 minutes to be able to do that). Even then, he was only able to communicate with other colleagues by email, so it still took days to finally resolve.

Oh! I feel better now. The point is, we are all experiencing this sort of customer service on a regular basis, and most concerning of all, accepting it as we don’t see any other option.

Whenever I watch TV. programmes such as ‘Under Cover Boss’ it always makes me smile how shocked the senior people are by what they experience at the coal face. Sadly, it is also a reflection on where their real focus is. Saving cost and making money. Ironically, giving really good customer service is still seen as a cost rather than an investment that yields excellent returns. It really isn’t rocket science. Get out there and talk to customers. Experience your business as a customer does. It might be a real eye opener.

The good news

The good news? Customer service is an even stronger differentiator than ever before. Whilst I don’t believe it has to be about size, it does seem that the larger a business grows the less it cares about customer service. Smaller businesses have a fantastic opportunity to steal a march on their larger competitors.

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