Why is Customer Service still the Achilles’ heel for the Service Industry?

Recent experience has reinforced my deeply held belief that for many service providers, enhancing the customer experience is the last thing on their mind. But when customer service is possibly the one true competitive advantage you can have, why do so many service providers perform so badly when dealing with their own customers?

We know that competing on price alone can be a race to the bottom where nobody wins, and everyone loses. Competing on technology only gets you so far, especially as we operate in an increasingly open-source environment. And first-mover advantage is not always an option, unless you can quickly recoup the higher investment it takes to be a market leader from Day 1.

I also find it increasingly infuriating that nearly every service provider claims to be poring over their customer feedback, yet their service levels rarely improve. Not only are customers expected to be brand advocates (via social media, word-of-mouth marketing, testimonials, etc.), they are also expected to provide training material for the customer service department (see “Some gratuitous advice for customer service managers – 7 handy hints”).

Last week I had to visit the retail outlet of a major service provider in the communications sector. When I tried to explain how frustrating it is as a customer to discover that the company’s website has different information to what I was being given in-store, I got the following responses:

  • The website is nothing to do with in-store service, and is only there for information
  • It doesn’t matter what’s on the public website, counter staff can only go by the information displayed on their in-house computer terminal
  • If I wanted to pursue the matter, I would have to make a complaint (by phone, or on-line – not in-store)
  • If I was unhappy, I could cancel my purchase and get my money back (and presumably take my custom elsewhere?)

Not one to give in easily, I submitted a detailed complaint on-line. A few days later, I received a call from someone who said she represented the “On-line Support” team. She simply reiterated that the public website was only there “for guidance”, and that the on-line content was managed by a different department. The most accurate information could only be provided at the in-store point of sale. The representative also said she would e-mail the web team, but could not guarantee a response as “they don’t communicate with us” – and this is a major communications business!  (Not surprisingly, the person I spoke to could not appreciate the irony in this.)

Banks, utilities, insurance firms, telcos and government departments are regularly criticised for their poor quality of customer service – from their billing systems, to their habit of building their external service delivery around internal business silos – so it’s somewhat encouraging to learn that one local bank is attempting to address this by providing one customer contact person from start to finish. We can only hope that the idea of consistency and continuity of service will catch on.


Some gratuitous advice for customer service managers – 7 handy hints

I make no apologies for the fact that this week’s post is something of a rant. But in venting my spleen I hope to offer some invaluable and sincere feedback to customer service managers everywhere.

Over recent weeks, I have had numerous phone conversations with front line customer service staff working for utilities, telcos and financial institutions. From my personal experience, these companies appear to be among the most frustrating companies to deal with, but my comments could equally apply to retailers, hotels, travel agents, software vendors, local governments or logistics companies.

Here are my suggestions on how customer service managers could improve their performance:

1. Train team members on the full product or service life-cycle – There is nothing worse than being passed off to a never-ending chain of “specialists”, people who know only their own few centimeters of the billing or fulfillment process (albeit their knowledge is probably several kilometers deep…). I am not saying they all have to be experts at everything, but having at least a common and consistent understanding of the end-to-end process would be a great start.

2. Update all team members on latest product and service changes on a timely basis – Following on from the above, I get really annoyed when given contradictory information from different client-facing employees, especially when the person I am speaking to is clearly not up-to-date with the company’s own offerings.

3. Tell the teams not to keep blaming the “system” – For one thing, the “system” is only as good as the humans who designed it. For another, the “system” is not some abstract or imaginary force over which nobody has any control. Often those designers are their colleagues. So in criticising the system for any shortcomings, the customer service representatives are in effect criticising their fellow employees and by extension, the company itself.

4. Listen to customer feedback relayed by the front line employees – For the most part, customers actually want to help service providers to do better. They don’t give their feedback so it can be ignored and disregarded – they would like it to be acknowledged, followed up and acted upon. No doubt most front-line employees would also like to think they are being taken seriously – but often I think there is an element of “shooting the messenger” which dissuades employees from raising genuine customer feedback and criticism with their managers.

5. Give customer service teams clear parameters to exercise their discretion – I understand that organizations require consistency, and they also expect adherence to operating guidelines and protocols. However, it gives me very little pleasure to have to go over the head of a front line employee to speak to a supervisor or team leader, who then ends up making their subordinate look ineffective because they have the “power” to reverse that erroneous charge on my bill. Rather than forcing customers to escalate issues in order to get attention from further up the chain of command, how about providing front line teams with more individual discretion as to how they can resolve customer complaints? I once heard of a major hotel chain that empowered front desk employees by granting them a program and quota of refunds, rewards, upgrades, discounts which they could allocate and award as they saw fit to address guest issues.

6. Learn to be more customer-centric, not product-led – So many service providers like to believe they focus on the customer. In fact, we know that customers are managed according to the products they purchase and the services they subscribe to. How often are internal systems jargon and inward-looking product terms used as a justification for a particular client outcome? To me, this demonstrates that many organizations are not interested in serving their customers – they are often rigidly organised around product processes and internal systems.

7. Don’t expect customers to train customer service staff (and certainly not for nothing) – Finally, we know that many organisations record in-bound customer calls. Sometimes, they bother to listen to the recordings. Occasionally, they might even contact the customer to seek more information. But rarely, if ever, do they contact their customers to say they listened, they heard and they did something about the issue. Sure, feel free to use my customer feedback for “staff training and coaching purposes”, but please give credit where credit is due. A voucher or a discount off my next bill would be a nice gesture!

While most retail markets are competitive, and customers have at least some choice between providers, the reality is that we all need access to gas, water, electricity, telecommunication and banking services. All of these sectors are highly regulated (and in some cases they also enjoy government protections), which by necessity reduces the amount of choice. Wouldn’t it be nice if these powerful and monopolistic companies used their enviable market position to benefit their customers, rather than taking them for granted?