In the Midst of a Global Economic Crisis, It’s Still All About Service

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I set out this morning to write a blog with no mention of subprime mortgages, recession, economic downturn, or bailouts. I figured that maybe we have all heard enough gloom and doom in the past few weeks. My message was to be about the role of the HR department in ensuring solid customer service and in delivering jaw-dropping customer experiences. Then, as I began to collect my thoughts, I realized that, in the midst of the economic crisis that has galvanized us all, I am still hearing customers complain loudly about terrible customer service, and occasionally regaling others with less frequent stories of wonderful, caring service encounters.

I attended two enjoyable social functions over the weekend, marking the holiday season. At both, I listened to conversations in which customer service seemed to be the second most discussed topic. Where I live, the weather is always the most discussed topic (it’s unusually balmy at the moment).

I find myself paying a great deal of attention in recent years to the content of human conversation, and am continually impressed by the percentage of conversation devoted to the details of how customers are treated by service providers; by retailers, restaurants, airlines, and telecoms, in particular.

I thought it somewhat intriguing, therefore, that, in the midst of the greatest economic meltdown in living memory, when their portfolios have been decimated and their plans for early retirement jettisoned, customers are still talking about how many times they had to call back to get a simple question answered, how rude the person was at the airline check-in counter, and how they got the food order wrong at the restaurant down the street — all stories I have heard in the past 48 hours.

My conclusion is that the fundamental things that impress customers are not related to international economic conditions, or what is happening to central bank interest rates, or how many billions GM and Ford will eventually receive. Rather, customers still have daily lives to live, and these lives inevitably involve interacting with businesses and their employees.

In fact, I believe that customers’ awareness of and sensitivity to both positive and negative service may actually be heightened in these troubling times. Quite simply, impressive service would go a long way to bringing some brightness into an otherwise gloomy day. On the other hand, poor service delivered by sullen employees will only serve to confirm customers’ worst fears that things are really bad out there.

Which actually connects rather well to the subject on which I intended to write; there is an opportunity right now to stand out from the crowd by delivering superb service at a time when customers may well be expecting the opposite. Customer service stories invariably involve interactions with employees, or with the inability of customers to actually talk with employees. Customers can see when companies are cutting back on staffing levels — they see fewer checkout lines open or the wait time on the customer service help line is even longer than usual. As employees are called upon to work longer shifts or to serve larger volumes of customers, their patience is tested and their tolerance levels reduced. Then we hear more and more stories about how badly customers are being treated.

So, before you let the finance and accounting folks dictate cutbacks in staffing levels, get the marketing and HR folks together and concoct a plan to deliver even better service, thereby standing out from a crowd of competitors that in all likelihood is doing exactly what customers are expecting — reducing service levels, creating more and more customer frustration, and jeopardizing customer loyalty at precisely the time when companies need all the loyal customers they can get.

1 COMMENT

  1. Jim,

    I would go one step further and say that experience is even more important when times are tough. Stress, anxiety, frustration and uncertainty prime customers to react strongly to negative experience and appreciate and even seek out positive experiences.

    My weekend experiences were a little more mundane but still revealing. One was long check-out lines at a large electronics store. There was no jovial holiday spirit amongst fellow shoppers. In fact, one person shouted, “Open more check stations” and as he repeated his plea, more customers joined in.

    The contrasting experience was at Whole Foods where I discover Dungress Crab on sale. My wife and I were debating how much to buy while another couple were having their crabs cleaned and cracked. Our debate turned into a discussion with the other couple about favorite ways to prepare and enjoy crabs. A small crowd of other shoppers assembled to see why we were laughing and smiling and we encouraged them to take advantage of the sale. The first couple increased the size of their order and so did we. In spite of the wait the mood was up beat and friendly. Then another clerk showed up and asked his associate how he could help. The associate said, “I thought you were on break.” The response was that he didn’t like to see people wait.

    Both memorable experiences that will lead to their own form of word-of-mouth.

    John I. Todor, Ph.D., Editor of “The Importance of the Customer Experience in a Down Economy (www.customerfutures.com/downeconomypublication)

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