During his 50-year film career, John Wayne made more than 170 movies. Arguably, one of the worst was The Barbarian and the Geisha, released in 1958, in which he played Townsend Harris, the United States’ first official envoy to Japan. The movie wasn’t particularly memorable (although the scenery was beautiful), but it makes a critical point about the concept of ambassadorship.
Harris’ specific assignment, through words and actions, was to create trust among the Japanese nobility because, at the time the movie took place (1856), Japan regarded the motives of every foreign country with fear and mistrust. So establishing and maintaining a stable, positive relationship was a formidable task.
The plot is not at all dissimilar to the relationship every company has with every customer. Providing trust and value is the dual goal of each customer-supplier interaction, and, because employees are the principal catalyst for creating and maintaining trust, their role in the linkage of value delivery to customer behavior must be better understood.
An ambassador, according to the dictionary, is an official or unofficial diplomat, the representative of a country or an organization. Those of us involved in employee research view ambassadorship as having direct correction to the concept of customer advocacy in terms of the active expression of commitment. Employee ambassadors, then, represent the highest level of commitment (or the lowest level, which we identify as “sabotage”) to the company’s product or service value promise; to the organization, itself; and to the customers.
‘One executive asked me how she could get the other departments in the company to account for their time.’
Nowhere is the product of employee ambassadorial or sabotage behavior more on display than with customer complaints. At a time when product and service loyalty continues to decline, consumer advocacy groups report that more than 50 percent of the buying public have problems or complaints with the products and services they purchase.
The jury is still out on how well suppliers are paying attention to customer concerns. The American Customer Satisfaction Index, which attempts to measure the perceived quality of service delivery for industries across the United States, has found that satisfaction scores for airlines, banks, department stores, fast-food restaurants, hospitals, hotels, and telephone companies are all down. Even taking into consideration that satisfaction scores are rarely a true indicator of customer loyalty (and have no proven correlation with sales increases), this is problematical.
Nothing can be as effective as complaints at sinking a sales, marketing, customer loyalty or CRM program—or at giving it new life. Complaints can be a positive or negative influence on customer word of mouth, as well as customers’ intention to remain loyal or to defect. In fact, numerous studies have shown that proactive approaches to complaint resolution will lead to stronger customer loyalty behavior than if no complaint had existed in the first place.
It seems to me there are three fundamental issues involved in improving customer service. All of them would benefit from understanding the impact on loyalty behavior of employee ambassadorship.
The first is senior management attitude. If companies like airlines see themselves as providers of seats for travel and banks offering mortgages see their “product” on a commodity basis and not service organizations providing strategically differentiated value, that shapes the culture, structure, systems and virtually every process within the company. Those companies view customer service strictly as a cost, rather than as a way to create positive perception; a conduit for dynamic information flow and an engine for increased revenue—an ambassador, if you will.
Recently, I conducted a workshop at a managed care customer service conference. Because customer service staff activities are typically so closely and rigorously monitored, with tightly managed performance metrics, one executive asked me how she could get the other departments in the company to account for their time, in quarter hour intervals, just as her department had to. My reply was that, if the rest of the company wasn’t on a time clock, then she should question why her department was singled out to do that. At first she seemed amazed by my observation, but very quickly she acknowledged the fundamental unfairness of her situation.
The second issue is that customer service has become more complicated. It may take 15 minutes to sell a long-distance telephone service, but it takes more than 200 hours to train a customer service representative. Brokerage firm Charles Schwab, for example, estimates that the length of calls to Schwab has increased by 75 percent over the past five years. The brokerage has also increased the number of customer service representatives threefold. At the same time, this puts pressure on keeping these highly-skilled knowledge workers—and making certain they have the tools to be deliver customer value and create or sustain loyalty behavior.
Companies would be well advised to find methods of making CSRs more productive and contributory, while also giving them opportunity for leadership and advancement. There are many good models for having CSRs directly involved in customer relationships, as well as up-sell and cross-sell initiatives.
Finally, the human factor—the “heart,” if you will, in relationships with customers—seems to have been drained from many customer service operations, if there ever was one to begin with. The technological innovations that are available to customer service have served only to further remove them from direct customer involvement. It may be less expensive to have bank balances available by automated telephone menu than by a human being, but the empathy involved in answering questions and fixing problems has gone into hiding.
Amazon, for one, considers every customer interaction an important opportunity—to learn. The company tracks the reason for each customer contact, on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. There’s a group within the customer service department that does nothing but analyze and anticipate problems, and also develop solutions. As an example, the No. 1 question people used to ask Amazon was the status of their delivery. Now, on every page of the Amazon site, beginning with the Welcome page, there’s a box labeled: “Where’s My Stuff?” Operational changes at Amazon are truly customer-driven.
CRM is supposed to be about creating relationships with customers; however, CRM initiatives are, typically, almost all about the technology: software systems, sales contact management, data warehousing and so on. People, especially customer-facing staff, have largely been an afterthought in CRM strategies. Companies are going to have to do a better job of determining just how effective service groups are at strengthening relationships and, ultimately, optimizing customer loyalty behavior.
They will need to develop an understanding how aligned staffers are with customers through every transactional touch-point and experience; how productively they deliver benefits on behalf of customers; and how well supported and directed they are in providing value. That’s how customer ambassadors are created.