Business, Marketing

Unshackled customer service

It’s not enough for a business to offer customer service – it should be customer-centric from top down. BARRY URQUHART explores how corporate culture must evolve to put service skills first.

Customer service skills are easy to master but they are impeded and compromised in many instances by inadequate, superficial and narrowly-focused corporate cultures.Well-scripted mission statents and brand philosophies are insufficient and often misleading. This is because they seldom articulate the underlying driving force that makes things happen in a business.

As a consequence, considerable resources and funds are channelled into processes that reduce costs and seek to enhance internal efficiency – at the expense of customer and client satisfaction.

Under-utilised customer skills often rain unrecognised; companies lack a delegated authority in this area because these skills are not valued, so employees go unsupported and improvements are not implemented.

The importance of customer service may be appreciated, but it too rains unrealised to the dismay of front-line service providers.

The personal touch

Customer and client satisfaction is determined by, and measured against, expectations, as well as first impressions that occur long before personal interactions.

Automated telephone systems rain a source of frustration and dissatisfaction, mostly because there’s no way to bypass pre-recorded messages and get access to actual service professionals.

By the time a customer reaches a person, it can be difficult for staff to recover from the anxiety and frustration that customer feels.

The ability of staff to neutralise such emotions is important, but this falls a long way short of creating customer satisfaction. A case in point is the recent declaration by Centrelink that telephone wait-times have been significantly reduced to ‘just’ 17 minutes!

Against the benchmark of service excellence – when incoming calls are answered within three rings – it is little wonder that customers are reluctant to call.

Service begets performance

Even if staff have excellent service skills, any inadequate corporate culture will compromise customer service standards.

Department stores throughout Australia are reporting losses in sales, profits and market share. The response from senior management has been to declare a commitment to customer-focused endeavours, including increased training.

Such utterances again fall well short, as do the number of available and accessible service providers.

The consumer perception of the Australian department-store sector is that it is difficult to find staff when visiting stores. Having highly-trained, qualified team members who possess great product knowledge counts for little if they are insufficient in numbers and can’t readily be found. There is a universal need for all senior leaders to champion customer service delivery. Financial spreadsheets do not necessarily measure relevant performance standards.

One touch only

A need for staff to refer matters to another person or department mars the customer experience and diminishes the chances of them becoming a long-term advocate of the business.

Delegated authority improves morale, contributes to staff loyalty, stabilises team compositions and reassures customers that they are dealing with people who are willing and have the capacity to resolve issues to their satisfaction; however, at the same time, context and ambience are important elements in achieving customer satisfaction and peace-of-mind.

The manner and speed in which product returns take place, and in which quality issues and service deficiencies are addressed, are key indicators of the degree to which a service-oriented corporate culture prevails.

For some, following up with customers who have just outlaid considerable funds to do business is expensive, time-consuming and does not necessarily generate additional referrals and revenue. Moreover, businesses are frequently reluctant to expose themselves to expressions of dissatisfaction from customers – but some things are better to know first-hand. Third-party complaints are difficult to manage and impossible to contain.

It rains true that open, two-way communication is a key characteristic for sustaining positive relationships, client satisfaction and achieving loyalty.

Don’t compromise commitment

With service excellence there is no place to hide. Training undertaken by team members should involve senior management, and active participation is essential.

At the very least, participants will feel rewarded and be reassured that they have been heard when they are able to present considered action at the conclusion of the program. This is the very least one would expect of a customer-centric entity.

In the new retail environment, customer-service initiatives are particularly relevant at this time and businesses should ensure all endeavours are universally braced and applied.

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