Customer Service – why is it so difficult?

Spending so much of my career helping individuals and companies to deliver better service to their customers, I sometimes think I must be the world’s worst customer to have. I am quick to complain if something isn’t right but I’m equally as quick to praise when my expectations are met.

imagesThere are so many elements in providing excellent service including the need for slick processes, ensuring value for money, making it easy to buy from and do business with, having an easy to use on line presence and of course recruiting and training the right people. If just one of these areas fails to deliver then the customer is destined to be disappointed.

I am aware that the ‘non-human’ elements are increasingly being done really well. I recently went on holiday from Gatwick airport and was very impressed by every aspect of British Airways’ booking and online check-in process. It’s easy to use and gave me the power and control that I want when travelling. Even at the airport I was able to print my own baggage labels and boarding cards. No antiquated ‘Disney’ style queues – just a simple walk to a free desk to drop off the luggage. And that’s where it started to go wrong. It seems that as soon as there is human interaction the risk of upsetting the customer increases. The transactional and surly approach spoilt my impression completely. No longer was I bowled over by the slick and easy to use processes and IT, now I felt under-valued and disappointed.

The human side of customer service shouldn’t be difficult. Our ethos is to basically treat your customer how you would like to be treated – with respect and empathy. So why does it go wrong so often?

Today at our local leisure centre, I reported the coffee and food machine ‘out of order’ to the receptionist. She was immediately defensive and clearly felt I was suggesting it was her fault. All I really needed was a show of empathy, a quick apology and to feel convinced that she cared enough to make a note of the situation and would raise it with her manager. Her reaction alone moved me from a state of disappointment and minor frustration to one where I felt compelled to tell you about the experience!

So why do some find it so difficult? The reasons are many and varied – ranging from not being cut out from a customer service role, inadequate training, poor levels of reward and recognition and, I’m really sorry to say, but maybe just not caring enough!

Personally, I feel the blame rests totally with those in customer service management positions. If they are not looking after their staff, coaching and developing them, acknowledging them for a job well done, addressing poor performance and providing suitable levels of reward (not just financial) and recognition, then it is no wonder that employees are letting them, and their customers, down.

John Lewis (the UK based department and grocery chain) this week posted exceptional profits which were 60% up for the first half of the year compared to 2011. How have they done this in times of such economic challenge for the retail sector? Commentators were quick to attribute much of this success to their staff who are all Partners in the business. Every one of them owns a share of the business and is financially rewarded for success. However, they are looked after well in many other ways too and being valued and able to contribute to the company’s direction undoubtedly gives them a level of ownership which is so often lacking.

Some years ago Harvard’s Service Profit Chain model was all the rage! Put simply, this focused on the fact that if you treated your staff well, they would treat your customers well, with a direct correlation to the bottom line.

It seems that John Lewis has proven the model’s validity once again.

More information about the Service Profit Chain model can be found in this Harvard Business review article.

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