Thursday, 23 November 2006

Customer Service

You can expect to hear a great deal from me on the topic of customer service. Unsurprising as I work as a Quality Analyst in that field.

I tend to wander around different customer service sites on the net. Most decry the state of customer service today. Many suggest fixes (often their own customer service training package.) Quite a few talk about automated solutions.

Although I won't be so bold as to say I know all the solutions to what is wrong with customer service today, I would like to posit a slightly different cause than most of those I see put forward. I don't think the problem is a lack of training, or the wrong training. I don't think the problem is a poor IVR, or bad websites. I think the problem is with the people doing the customer service.

North American culture worships entitlement. We are 'entitled' to everything. We have rights! It is the duty of everyone else to ensure that we get what we are due. Unfortunately, if we all expect others to serve us, that leaves no one to serve. Customer service in North America is floundering because too many of the people who are providing it aren't concerned with the person they are supposed to be helping. They are only concerned with what they are due.

So when these people encounter others looking for help, they are entirely correct in treating with indifference, or disdain. Their culture has told them that they only need to be concerned with their own needs.

If you've read my previous post on altruism, you'll know that I believe that everyone acts only to their own benefit. Unfortunately North America has become very short sighted in this regard. We've lost sight of the big picture of the benefits a caring society provides in favour of a very narrow view. Our vision is only of tangible personal gain. We have deified the cold and calculating individual.

So what does this mean for companies that want to differentiate themselves from their competition on the basis of their customer service? They can hardly alter the collective ethos of hundreds of millions of people. No company is going to make North America a caring culture in any sort of realistic timeframe.

In the short term I think the best a company can do is to take three basic steps.
  1. First they need to hire people who care (at all levels of the organization). This requires a bit of a different focus in terms of the recruitment and selection process, but I think it will create some very interesting side benefits for the company willing to do so.
  2. Second, the company needs to create it's own internal culture. I think the example of the Ritz-Carlton demonstrates how that is done. They talk about customer service every day. They define themselves in terms of their character: "We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.'' They drive their culture through constant communication of a message that says 'this is who we are'.
  3. Finally, the company needs to structure it's performance management, at all levels, to include customer satisfaction and culture adherence. One of the truisms of performance management is that what gets rewarded, gets done. Failure to make the culture part of the performance management regime sends a clear message that it is simply corporate lip service and should be completely ignored. Any organization that says the quality of its customer service matters, and doesn't include the customer's feedback as part of its performance management is deluding itself (and whoever else is listening). Depressingly, many companies do exactly that.
Until a company can hire or create caring individuals, it can do little more than dabble in the field of customer service.

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