Customer service improvements in a tough market

Challenge to customer service

As the consequences of a global downturn bite, more senior managers, who are familiar with the importance of the customer experience, are looking for alternative employment. Jobs are being taken by people who would normally not be prepared to accept the lower wage level, but, as they say, needs must when the devil drives.

Some companies, like DIY stores, have always employed highly experienced but unusual people in that they are semi-retired, from many and varied previous walks of life; they just know how to DIY. Call centres also employ people from a range of backgrounds: students eking out their grant, semi-retired professionals and so on. Would you say that their customer service is truly customer-led?

There is a huge opportunity to exploit the experience and knowledge of this rising number of employees but are organisations ready for this? Now, one would imagine that businesses would leap at the chance of mining this rich seam of bright new recruits with such a valuable combination of people skills plus an eye on the bottom line but companies either aren’t aware of the opportunity or don’t have the right policies in place to exploit the underlying talent.

This could mean that we see the levels of customer service rise; however, will that be on an individual basis or will the influx raise the game for organisations as a whole?

Or this could lead to chaotic service where the employee becomes so disenchanted with what they may perceive as restrictive rules, imposed to provide consistency that they go off script and provide what they personally would consider a better service.

Consider these two real-life examples: Angela is a senior qualitative market researcher who, to fill in the gaps in freelance work, works in a telephone interviewing call-centre from time to time. She accepts that for her new role, and its accompanying pay grade, one must conform to sticking to the script and hitting targets. She positively views her experience in terms of learning the intricacies of how a call-centre works and viewing the quantitative side of the market research coin.

In contrast, Terrance was previously a foreign exchange trader for a top investment bank, a job that was high-pressured and highly aggressive. At 50 he struggled to find equivalent employment outside the finance sector. He currently works for a train provider at a London main line station helping passengers buy the right ticket and locate their platform. Given their backgrounds it’s not surprising that Terrance suffers fools less gladly than Angela and is actively frustrated by the processes and rules imposed by management. Worse still he feels prohibited from being able to provide any feedback – both on the spot, understandably, but also, less understandably, because there is no recognised mechanism for communicating ideas for improvement.

Part of his frustration is the poor customer service culture where employees are encouraged to have an attitude of sticking to policy no matter what the circumstances. We are all aware that there is small print when we make a purchase but we have come to expect latitude in exceptional circumstances. For example, how would you expect to be treated by your train company if you found yourself in a city miles from where you live and have just had your bag stolen, along with your wallet and ticket? One would expect that an employee would take your distress seriously and do everything they could to make sure you got home alright. How frustrating it must be, as such an employee, when you are faced with a supervisor who tells you that you can only restate the policy that “we don’t replace stolen or lost tickets” and at best all you’re told to suggest to your customer that they get a crime number and reclaim the cost of the ticket from your insurance company. He quite rightly feels that this is not good enough but is powerless to raise the issue.

Angela finds similar obstructions, in particular from a stock answer of ‘you don’t need to know’ to questions she asks. One can understand that the people she is asking the questions of maybe don’t know the answer, aren’t paid enough to care or feel threatened. Supervisors and managers will increasingly be faced with the prospect of having to manage sub-ordinates who, in previous life, would have been their senior. How are their employers equipping them to deal with this?

At this point are you asking “do we have a feedback process for employees on the front line, actually dealing with customers?”? This isn’t a new question, sadly, but just a suggestion that if you aren’t ready to harvest the most from employees that want to make a difference then beware as the effect could hit you in two ways:

  1. your front-line employees will feel their voice is so unimportant that senior management don’t want to hear it
  2. your processes and improvements will not have your customers at heart

Another part of the equation to consider is that there can sometimes be a fine balance between employing experienced personnel who enjoy interacting with customers and achieving the operational needs of a business. For example, in a recent visit to Sainsbury’s a retired professional on the checkout not only enquired into how everyone’s day was, but asked them what job they did. He then went on to explain what he used to do, and who else had been through the checkout that morning. The only problem with this is that the queue waiting to checkout was growing not only in length, but in frustration as well!

The need to provide an excellent customer experience is not new, and there are clearly companies out there that are better at doing this than others, but perhaps the recent addition of a differently experienced workforce has somewhat changed the profile of people delivering that experience. Are their experiences and needs being taken fully into consideration when they are being employed? Those organisations that can get this balancing act right will benefit and, undoubtedly, will gain a competitive advantage. However, getting it wrong in these challenging times may be even more costly than usual.

As a footnote, looking further ahead to more settled times, will we start to see the effect from reinstated managers having gained shop floor experience being better positioned to understand customers when as the recession recedes they return to their senior management roles?

Take the next step

If you want to discuss incorporating employee feedback into your customer strategy, please contact us.

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