Want To Know What’s Best for the Customer? Ask Your Service People

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A funeral home boasts: “We’re dying to serve you!” A firework company calls itself the “world’s largest.”

Marketing hype has infiltrated everything. Everyone now has a tagline, however bizarre. And hyperbole abounds. We seem to be inundated with apparent oxymora: “IT helpdesk,” “open government,” “user-friendly technology.” Did someone wake up one morning and decide that putting an empathetic adjective in front of something unpalatable would somehow instantly render it enticing? I suspect that’s what happened.

In an age of global marketing and power brands, customers have never had so much power, and yet we all behave like Pavlov’s dogs: brainwashed or forced into using IVR and Internet services because someone said “it’s better for the customer.”

Who are these companies kidding? The real reason is because it’s cheaper. Hotels from Budapest to Bangalore claim that not replacing my wet bathroom towels somehow saves the environment. Oh, please. It just saves laundry costs. If you don’t believe me, just ask the hotel about its policy on serving only organic food or on ecological waste management.

And just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, CRM has been hijacked by analytics experts who truly believe that customer data can provide all the insight you’ll ever need to run a successful business. Now don’t get me wrong, analytics is a valuable tool and has its rightful place in CRM, but it’s not the panacea. It was Winston Churchill who said: “There are lies. There are damned lies. And there are statistics.”

Magic dust

Executives, it seems, still seek the Holy Grail of marketing, the magic dust that will miraculously turn an average product in an average company into a world-beater. Isn’t that why they all flocked to buy Seibel, like lemmings diving over a cliff? The emperor really isn’t wearing any clothes. I thought we’d all learned this lesson—several times. Apparently we didn’t.

Perhaps the most surprising facet of modern companies is that they are all too willing to outsource direct contact with their customers to external organizations who are trying to generate operating profit from performing the same tasks. Outsourcers who, more often than not, operate on the other side of the planet—stretching systems, processes and communications to the limit. Why? Is it because they can manage customers better? No. It’s because it’s cheaper.

Yet these same companies retain such mission critical functions as finance, procurement, product development and human relations. I have nothing against these fine professions, but what does it say about a company that is so willing to do this? To me, and possibly to its customers, it says that customers are not very important. Yet, executives of these same companies are quick to bemoan the degrading of service at companies they patronize. What’s wrong with this picture?

Good customer-facing people are worth their weight in gold, if only companies knew it. I’ve run a customer service operation, so I admit I am biased. It was a life-changing experience. But it was a constant battle. My fellow executives saw customer service as a completely unnecessary expense. It was seen as the cost of doing business, so they were all focused minimizing that cost—not by eliminating the causes of the customer contact but by squeezing call handling times, forcing automation on unwilling customers and by finding cheaper sources of labor.

Look within

How many companies truly value their customer-facing teams? Why do they spend large sums of money of customer research and focus groups when their customer service teams could tell them everything they need to know about the company’s products, services, policies and processes—free of charge.

Customer service is the organizational drip-tray into which fall all the inconsistencies, contradictions, errors, omissions and downright stupid things that companies do to their customers. If companies really allowed them to, customer service teams could drive all the self-inflicted costs out of the business, increasing customer loyalty and significantly reducing operating costs.

I like the Amazon.com approach introduced by Bill Price, the company’s former vice president of Global Customer Service. Every customer contact was coded, and the codes flagged the most were investigated to identify the root cause of the call. The cost for servicing those calls was then charged back to that department. You can be sure that the offending department worked closely with customer service to eliminate those calls as quickly as possible.

Having won the customers’ trust by resolving their issues, aren’t customer service representatives the best people to “advise” customers on new products and upgrades—extending customer value and loyalty? Sales-through-service (cross-selling to you and I) has a success rate several magnitudes higher than outbound telesales.

You don’t need hype. You don’t need analytics. If you’re searching for the Holy Grail, look no further than your own customer service team. Therein lies a veritable treasure trove that holds the secret of how you can reduce operating costs, increase customer satisfaction, increase customer profitability which, in turn, all lead to maximum shareholder value. Now why would you want to outsource that?

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