What’s So Hard About Customer Service?


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"You’ll never believe what happened to me today." Everyone’s got a customer service story. One of the problems with customer service, though, is that everyone has a unique view of what it entails. It’s the epitome of a moving target.

One person’s excellent service may represent barely adequate service to someone else. What impresses one customer may make absolutely no impression on another. To complicate matters, what a customer believes to be good service in one context may be unacceptable in another situation or at another time. Service is perceptual; it is individualized; and it is situational.

So how can you figure out what customers want from you in terms of service? The kind and level of service that you must deliver depends on who the customer is, what her expectations are, what experience she has had with you and other firms, what your strategy is and what role customer service plays in its delivery—along with a host of other things.

Many managers and executives are uncomfortable with this notion of variable service delivery; they would much prefer to be able to pin down service and to be able to standardize it so that it can be consistently delivered. But I don’t believe service should be the same for everyone. In fact, the value of service as a relationship-building tool is its customizability. Simply out, some customers require and deserve better service than others. In some situations, you will want to be able to provide service that will impress customers so as to make an emotional connection. Whenever your employees can say to a customer, "Let me take care of that for you," you are delivering a higher level of service than the customer was expecting.

Yet customer service gets far less attention than it deserves in many companies, simply because managers do not realize or accept its importance in influencing customer satisfaction and loyalty. Many view customer service provision as a cost, rather than an investment. Many spend a great deal of time looking for ways to reduce that cost, without appreciating the impact it has on the customer’s feelings toward the firm.

At the same time, managers tend to focus on what I call the functional side of service provision: the speed and accuracy of service delivery, in particular. Do we arrive on time? Do we have things in stock? Do we answer incoming calls within 20 seconds? These are the aspects of service with which managers in many firms are most comfortable, mainly because they are most easily and frequently measured in conventional customer satisfaction surveys. But they are a dangerously limiting view of service and not nearly as all-encompassing as the customer’s view of service.

Four levels of service
Another element that gets in the way of impressive service delivery is management’s very simplistic view of customer service. I can think of at least four levels of customer service, each of which involves the creation of progressively more emotional value for customers.

To the customer, service involves more than just the functional delivery of service (the first level, which, in a world where companies like FedEx have practically perfected technical service provision, customers take as a given). Customers care how easy you make it for them to communicate with you. This opens the door to a discussion of your phone system, your web site and your customer service center—not to mention whether customers can find someone to serve them in your store. Increasingly, when you keep them on hold for 20 minutes, don’t respond to their email inquiries and ask them to deal with unknowledgeable and unhelpful staff, they will walk away.

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At the third level, companies need to understand how customer service is linked to the people they employ. My experience suggests that customers are most likely to equate the notion of service with the way they are treated by employees.

Finally, the level of service that customers experience is a powerful influence on how customers feel emotionally toward a company. Poor service can make a customer feel neglected, unimportant, frustrated, angry or even humiliated. Surprisingly good service leads to emotions such as comfort, relief, delight or excitement.

That holistic view again
Yet, many companies have a less-than-holistic view of their value proposition. Customer service must be seen to be an integral part of what we offer the customer. I recently encountered a major company that has separate marketing, sales and customer service departments, each of which prepares its own annual plan and sets its own budgets, without consulting with the others. In that firm, customer service is defined mainly as the operation of the call center. To the customer, service means much more.

It is far too simplistic to ask customers to rate your customer service on the predictable 10-point scale. It’s much too complex a concept for customers to reduce it to a single number. You can’t interpret it, anyway. So last month they gave us a rating of 8.1 on customer service. What does that mean? Very little. There’s no direction on how we can improve. Anyway, the only people who are rating you are current customers. How would those customers who stormed out or hung up in disgust rate your customer service? You will never know. Yet theirs is a much more important number.

Customer service is not optional. It’s not trivial. And it’s not easily standardized. Don’t make the mistake that one Canadian bank made of treating customer service as a promotion. That bank offered customers $5 if they had to wait in line more than five minutes in its branches. Customers were generally not impressed. To them, a wait time of five minutes was not the issue. Of course, wait time is important—but not nearly as important as being served politely and efficiently once you reach the counter.

Customer service is extremely complex, much like value, satisfaction and the increasingly popular customer experience. To apply such concepts effectively, management must appreciate their complexity. To utilize customer service to increase customer loyalty, to reinforce the positioning of the brand and to gain a competitive advantage, companies much have a strategy to guide its development and implementation.


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