Holidays are perfect social experiments for studying customer service. You book a cab, take a flight, check into a hotel, perhaps also experience a local tour guide service and a specialty restaurant while you are at it. It is a gold mine for the introspective mind that obsesses about how a customer must be treated.
I am one of those obsessive introspective minds and a career in consulting and training doesn’t make it any easier. So my recent holiday made me think more deeply about customer service than perhaps let me take that mental break I was chasing for such a long time.
Customer service has been hailed as perhaps one of the most important parameters of business success. It is non-negotiable. And surely, for all the right reasons. A customer is unhappy, you get bad press. In today’s day and age of democratic authorship, that is not only unfavorable word-of-mouth but also unfavorable ratings and descriptive reviews on social media. Quite a scary proposition one would think.
Yet, branding strategies and business success seem to increasingly come in the way of quality customer service. Research shows that marketing spends for a company are about 50 times higher than customer service budgets. The assumption is that “people will come to us anyway”. It could be because, “We have the cheapest interest rates on our loan”, or “We are the most well-known five-star hotel”, or “The legal system is India is quite hopeless anyway so the customer can’t do much.”
As a result, organizations cut down on customer service training budgets, reduce internal focus on customer service or at best, pay it lip service.
And service companies are amongst the lowest spenders when it comes to training. Makes one wonder…
Three serious enemies that further hamper customer service are automated feedback generation mechanisms, customer service or politeness checklists and poor customer service training.
Automated Feedback Generation Mechanisms
Feedback is really the most abused tool today. Much more might be gathered by mere observation. But well, who has the time? So let’s get the customer to do the work for us. Another manifestation of DIYFS. As if that were not bad enough, automated feedback generation mechanisms add power to the punch.
Online forms and such are not a bad concept really. They save paper, one reason all companies flaunt them. And of course, they are easier to then process, analyze and hopefully use for improvement. The only terrible thing with them is poor implementation. Companies seem to forget that while feedback collation has been automated, feedback giving is not. There is still a human customer at the other end of that online form, taking the effort to type that feedback. And this person needs to know that his feedback is being heard. The loop-back mechanism is missing. So people turn to social media – it offers the feedback giver a purpose to that feedback activity and a sense of influence on the outcome.
The second pain in the wrong place is politeness checklists. Let me take the hospitality industry as an example. This is how the checklist, written or unwritten, typically reads:
- Good morning Ma’am
- How’s the food Ma’am?
- Hope you are having a pleasant stay with us.
- I am extremely sorry about this.
It has become so mechanical that people blurt this out like robots, without any ability to contextualize and more importantly, apply the skill of knowing when exactly to shut up. I just sent back my Malaysian curry for being too raw while you were busy chatting up customers at the next table. You really are asking me, “How’s the food Ma’am?”
The point is, checklists don’t do anything on their own. People need to know how and when to use them. And that needs training and practice.
Funnily, what most people also miss is that the sentence is less about “what” and so much more about “how” it is said. One can’t learn empathy from reading and rote-learning a list.
Poor Customer Service Training
A lot of customer service training has become about projecting a deck of slides and having a trainer walk through all that content with some practice exercises. And that’s if at all customer service training is invested in.
Customer service training is not about a workshop in class. It is about systems and a culture that thrive on customer service. Let me continue with the hospitality thread for the sake of this article. I have an experience with Hotel A and Hotel X as a customer. At both premium hotels, there was a delay of about 30 minutes in in-room dining. At Hotel A, the duty manager calls my room, apologies profusely on behalf of himself, the chef and the entire team at the kitchen. As a mark of apology, he waives off the dining bill and requests me to accept the waiver. At Hotel X, I call the duty manager after 30 minutes and remind him something is missing. I am then transferred to the kitchen where I have to repeat the whole situation again and then I have someone sent to my room to correct the situation 20 minutes later.
What happened at Hotel A was the result of a strong service culture, an understanding of how a customer must be treated and a system that allowed managers the decision making authority required to drive excellent customer experience. On the other hand, Hotel X’s behavior was the result of not only poor customer service understanding but also lack of adequate internal communication and poor sense of ownership of the brand.
Customer service training needs to be viewed as an organizational development initiative for business growth. It has to emerge from real customer experiences, everyday employee behavior and an assessment of policies and incentive structures that drive behavior. It has to link back to repeat business, increasing revenues and positive brand attention. It has to be delivered through training, coaching and mentoring in and beyond the classroom. It has to be given time, practice and priority.