In the business world, with the possible exceptions of “regulation” and “bureaucracy”, no term evolves a more emotional response than the term “customer service”. There appears to be an across-the-board feeling that customer service has markedly declined for most companies. In fact, “good customer service” is often viewed as an oxymoron! To be fair, there are a number of companies that do excel in providing outstanding customer service. Lexus, Mercedes Benz, BMW and some high-end retail stores have excelled and have the sales and loyal customer followings to prove it.
Unfortunately, not many companies fall into that category. In fact, there seems to be a group of companies that year-after-year have poor customer service ratings by their customers. Cable companies and cellular companies seem to top the list. Of course, even within these categories, there are some companies that continue to provide excellent service. There are many reasons for the apparent increase in the feeling of degrading customer service. Perhaps it is not degrading! Perhaps it has always been bad but due to the proliferation of the Internet with the ease of sharing information and feelings, widespread dissatisfaction has become well-known.
Whether dissatisfaction with customer service is increasing or constant, it appears to be at odds with the near universal acceptance of improved quality and process improvement that has been embraced across all market sectors and product and service categories. Outsourcing of customer service is commonly blamed as the root cause of the apparent degradation. In many circles, the “Press One for English” epitomizes the problem often met with the comment “Can I press one to HEAR English without a heavy accent!” Inherently, outsourcing, in which a company relies on another company that specializes in customer service, should be a positive approach. Companies, across the board, have developed substantial partnering relationships with other companies by leveraging the core competencies of each partner.
If outsourcing is not one of the root causes, then what is? Perhaps the degradation or continued lack of adequate customer service is primarily caused by increased competitive pressure that is being felt by every company, in every market, and in every region. Virtually all companies have become cost conscious, with many of them attempting to save their way back to profitability. The parallel focus on new top line revenue further aggravates the situation. On the surface, shallow thinkers view customer service only as a necessary expense that diverts investments in revenue-producing activities or in reducing “below the gross margin line” costs. The placement of this chapter in this collection subtly supports that notion. It should probably have been placed in the Revenue Volume of this collection. The fact is that superior, or at least, positive customer satisfaction can significantly improve sales.
As pointed out in several articles throughout this collection, the customer satisfaction or dis-satisfaction levels are based on feelings not facts. Those feelings surface when customers actually begin to use a product or a service. Those activities occur only after a sale is made. Customer service organizations and the well-meaning reps in those departments that interact with customers on a daily basis are the primary forces that shape customer satisfaction. The articles in this chapter, as listed below, share the common theme of approaching customer service as a valuable asset instead of a required liability.
Customer Service Articles
Introduction to Chapter 21: Customer Service
The dissatisfaction with customer service appears to be ever increasing. Customers are becoming more and more vocal about this issue and it seems to be following the axiom: “If you look for the worst, you are seldom disappointed”. There are probably many fundamental reasons for this situation. The most common root cause stems from viewing customer service as a necessary business expense that should be minimized as part of the overall focus on cost reduction due to increased competitive pressure. Instead, customer service should be reviewed as positive force that can have a direct barring in increasing revenue.
What Is Customer Service
The term customer service usually includes the term “helping” in the definition. Customer service and good intentions go hand in hand. However, customers want resolutions of their issue which is easily defined as having their expectations met. The issue may involve an actual product or service failure or simply a misunderstanding. It doesn’t matter to them. Resolution of the situation to their satisfaction is all that counts.
Department or Activity
Virtually every company creates a customer service department that is tasked with resolving customer issues. Unfortunately, in most cases, those departments have the responsibility but do not have the authority or tools necessary to successfully perform their mission. They need to rely on others, who have different goals and objectives. Companies need to promote the notion that customer service activities extend well beyond the customer service department.
A Cog or COGS
It is easy for a company to fall into the trap of minimizing the costs of customer service without realizing the critical role that customer service plays in the overall sales process. Sales reps can only provide an opportunity for a company to meet a customer’s needs. In many cases, customer service personnel are the first exposure that a customer has if they encounter a real or perceived issue with the company’s products or services. Companies need to ensure that customer service teams are funded and supported appropriately for the overall well-being of the entire organization.
The Indirect Force
An all too common notion held by most companies is that the sales organization is responsible for generating revenue while the customer service organization is responsible for fixing problems after-the-fact. Involving customer service personnel in the sales process can dramatically increase sales. It needs to start by thinking of customer service as key contributor to revenue as opposed to a necessary cost center.
Head of Heart
In an effort to become more cost effective, many companies have either outsourced or automated their customer service operations to help their bottom-line performance. Degraded customer service is a commonly held belief by many individuals. It has almost become a fact of life. One needs to only consider their personal experiences with other companies to validate this observation. Many companies also complain about the lack of customer loyalty and do not see the connection between customer loyalty and their insensitive, mechanical customer service processes. Their mechanized approach may be very logical but logic is not persuasive. Ignoring customer emotions is simply not effective.
Metrics Drive Behaviors
It is easy to institute mechanical metrics with the intent of increasing efficiency, which is another way of saying reducing costs in the customer service operation. Although on the surface, this appears to be a reasonable approach. However, emphasizing those metrics may have the unintended consequence of actually reducing the most important metric of all—the level of customer satisfaction. Companies need to carefully consider the behaviors of their customer service reps that will naturally occur as they attempt to meet the pre-established metric goals. Will those behaviors help or hurt the overall satisfaction level of customers?
Who Sets the Rules
We see it all the time; governments and regulators, at all levels, keep adding laws, rules, or regulations while seldom are any of them eliminated. In many instances, the true impacts on the target audiences are not adequately considered. Companies are no different. For rules and policies that focus on customers, customer service personnel are generally responsible for informing customers. Rarely, is it good news. Companies need to carefully and periodically review their rules to ensure that they make sense for both the company and their customers.
Are You Really Ready?
It is common to focus virtually all attention during a new product launch on all of the positive attributes that the product will offer customers. The reality is that some things will go wrong or not develop as anticipated. It is important to heavily involve customer service upfront in planning for the announcement and thinking through what could go wrong so that preventive or corrective actions can be formulated before they are needed.
When Does It Start?
The involvement of customer service needs to occur during the inception phase of a new product or service. Based on their past experience, they can provide insight into what worked, what didn’t work, and what can be done better. Waiting until firm plans have been made for these inputs is often too late. Their interaction with individuals that actually use the product or service will provide insight that may not be obvious to development, product management, sales or marketing personnel.
When Does It End?
Customer service should not end with the resolution to a particular issue, only to be started up again when a new problem presents itself. Think of customer service as a continuous process that only “happens” to involve individual issues as they occur. This approach is the key element in adhering to Principle Four: Continuously Delight Each Customer by showing that you care.
If We Only Knew
Unintentionally, information related to customer issues is often like the proverbial light under the bushel basket; unavailable to those who could benefit from it. Customer Service organizations, as the focal point for all customer inquiries, need to resolve issues as they occur but also understand what steps could be taken to eliminate the issues from occurring in the future. They can do this by accumulating, analyzing, and then sharing their observations with other elements in the organization.