Why The Service Sector Lacks Self-Awareness

If you did a root cause analysis of companies that rate poorly for customer service, I predict it would reveal one or more of the following:

  • Outdated processes
  • Inadequate staff training
  • Poor product knowledge
  • Operational silos

What it usually comes down to is a chronic lack of self-awareness. (This is not helped if there is a failure of leadership, or a toxic culture within the organisation.) Despite all the customer feedback forms, platitudes such as “your call is important to us”, and the regular customer advocacy reports, unless service providers can truly put themselves in the shoes of their customers, they will never have sufficient knowledge or self-awareness with which to fully evaluate the “customer experience”.

Image: Customer Feedback Device (Source: Smarte Carte)

Image: Customer Feedback Device (Source: Smarte Carte)

Today’s customers are more knowledgable (because they have access to more information, they can shop around, and in some cases, they have more choice). Today’s customers are also actively encouraged to engage with corporate social media (by following, liking and sharing, and by becoming surrogate brand advocates). However, the increased levels of expectation that this “engagement” creates are not always matched by the post-sales customer experience.

I have written before about how companies can improve their customer service, using a practical 7-point scheme. I would challenge any organisation that rates itself highly for customer service, to assess its performance against those criteria, as well using the ubiquitous customer satisfaction scores (CSAT, NPS®, CES, etc.).

Nearly every time I have an interaction with a telco, utility, bank or other service provider, I receive an immediate follow-up customer feedback request. Once upon a time, I would have been quite willing to provide constructive feedback, as I used to believe that it was important for the voice of the customer to be heard. Nowadays, I am more hesitant, because I don’t believe this feedback is ever properly acknowledged, analyzed or acted upon.

So many of these feedback request forms are self-serving, because the person you dealt with is in effect soliciting personal feedback on their individual performance. And while that is important, it is rarely done in the specific context of the customer’s own experience, and is more concerned with the company’s internal policies and procedures.

I am also increasingly sceptical about feedback processes that are ostensibly used for staff training. First, time is valuable, so it would be nice if companies could reward their customers for making the effort to engage. Second, on the rare occasions where a company has contacted me in response to a complaint submitted online or via a feedback form, I never learn what specific steps the company is taking to rectify problems caused by operational or policy failings. Thirdly, why should I be responsible for telling you how to train your staff or improve your service – surely that’s your job!

In many cases, it is not the performance of an individual customer service representative that is the problem. More likely, it’s poor customer service training, inadequate product knowledge or a myopic perspective, reinforced by silo operations. When even the most pleasant and competent service rep tells me, “I’m sorry, but it’s the way the system is designed…”, they probably don’t realize what a disservice they are doing: a “system” is only as good as the people who design it, and the people who implement it. So, they are in effect criticising their own colleagues, and the organisation they work for.

This lack of self-awareness by customer service staff is reinforced by the limited discretion in trying to resolve customer problems. Along with the use of internal jargon and bewildering acronyms, there is nothing worse than having to complain long or loud enough in order to escalate a problem. It would be wonderful if companies could empower their staff by giving them (well-defined) individual discretion on problem solving, and incentivize them for taking responsibility for the end-to-end resolution process.

In addition, it’s really infuriating being handed from one specialist, team or department to another, especially due to labyrinthine help line service menus. Telco on-boarding processes are particularly notorious for having complex operational procedures, multiple hand-offs and ring-fenced communications. I recall one large service provider who told me that in-bound call-centre staff were unable to speak directly to their own web support teams, and even if they communicated via internal e-mail, they could not guarantee a response.

If I am beginning to sound a bit like a broken record, it’s because recent experiences only reinforce my belief that many companies still don’t understand what it’s like to be one of their customers. But there’s a huge paradox here: on the one hand, companies are trying to reduce customer churn, increase “stickiness”, and improve the share of wallet or lifetime customer value; on the other, the cost of new customer acquisition appears to be cheaper (thanks to social media tools and web analytics), so it doesn’t matter if they lose a few customers, because it’s not that difficult or expensive to find new ones.

If it’s no longer true that “the customer is always right”, because profit margins are being squeezed and companies are being told to “stop delighting your customers”, then service providers have to do a much better job of managing customer expectations. They also need to demonstrate genuine empathy and concern if things go wrong (which is difficult if they don’t have sufficient self-awareness). And if things do go wrong, they need to ask the customer “what could we have done differently to provide you with better customer service?”.

In my professional experience of product management and business development, understanding customer needs and identifying ways to improve service delivery (along with customer-centric perspectives rather than product-led processes), are genuine sources of competitive advantage. But it takes considerable self-awareness to engage customers beyond the level of a single transaction, to develop genuine rapport, and to build sustainable long-term relationships. If your organisation is challenged by poor customer service, and if you recognise this is in part due to a lack of self-awareness, please get in touch – I’d be very interested to understand your problem.

Next week: Idea over Form – Gehry vs Ando

It’s OK to say “I don’t know”

Thanks to the example set by our media-groomed politicians, it seems that nobody is willing to admit when they don’t know the answer to something. Rather than reveal a gap in their knowledge, they prefer to fudge their way to a non-committal, irrelevant or even incorrect response, by trotting out a favourite policy slogan or party catchphrase. Wouldn’t it be refreshing (and more honest) if they just said “I don’t know”, and then figured out how to find the appropriate answer?

Image by: Alexander Henning Drachmann

Image by: Alexander Henning Drachmann

In previous posts, I have commented on my frustrations at poor customer service, and in particular, the inadequate customer service training given to front-line staff. My latest run-in with poor customer service training came at my local supermarket. Owing to an innocent misunderstanding at the checkout, I asked the checkout assistant to reverse the payment on my credit card payment and debit it instead from the cash balance on my store loyalty card.

“No, that’s not possible”, I was told. “It’s already gone through on your credit card. You’ll have to use the loyalty card next time.”

“Surely,” I replied, “it’s a very simple process to reverse the transaction, and process it again?”

My request was further denied as being “impossible”. Eventually, the checkout assistant admitted that she “didn’t know” how to do it, so she would need to ask her supervisor to do it. “Fine,” I replied, and suggested she could have said this in the first place.

Problem was, the supervisor had no idea either. “I’ll have to re-process your transaction by scanning and reversing each item individually, and then put them through again.” By this time, I was wondering why I chose to shop here, and seriously considering why I would ever do so again.

“There must be an easier way,” I suggested. “I can’t be the first customer to have had this issue.” After further hesitation and prevarication, the supervisor said she would have to ask her manager to show her how to do it, as she herself didn’t know the process.

Turns out, it took one transaction code to reverse the credit card payment, and then reprocess it on the loyalty card – and without having to re-scan my shopping.

I don’t blame the checkout assistant, as clearly she hadn’t been trained how to do it (although she should have admitted as much in the first place). I’m a little surprised that the supervisor didn’t know either (how did she get promoted?). But the real blame must lie with the manager (or his manager) for not making sure the staff working under him knew the process, or knew who could perform the transaction.

To me, leadership (in politics, in business and in the service industry) is about making sure people know how to do their job, that they have the right tools and information to perform their duties, and that they know what is expected of them in the role. In cases where they may not know the answer, then it’s better to admit “I don’t know, but I’ll find the answer”, rather than fumbling the issue.

Next week: Updates on Apple Health, AusPost, eTaskr and Slow School of Business