Customer Service – A Dying Art?

An incredible amount has been written on the subject of customer service over the years, much of it unnecessarily complicating matters, when really it is nothing more than a simple equation. On the one hand we have the customer’s expectation; on the other we have the seller’s delivery against that expectation. If the delivery exceeds the expectation, we have customer satisfaction: if it falls short, we don’t!Really quite straight forward isn’t it? In fact it’s basic maths! All we need to digest is that every equation has two sides, and they are independently manageable. It is the gap between that is important. Over time, many of the larger corporates have become quite expert at exploiting that gap. Concluding that delivery of customer service is the tougher of the two options, they have become increasingly focussed on driving the customer’s expectation downwards, rather than managing their delivery upwards. Let’s take a look at some recent trends in the marketplace:We’ll start with the supermarkets. It wasn’t that long ago when the grocer was on hand to help us select the goods, pull them out of the shelves for us, and stack them neatly into environmentally-friendly brown paper bags for us. They even carried them to the car for us. These days, if we can just find one, we feel honoured to be able to push our own shopping trolley around. It seems that even the trolleys have been programmed to take any direction but ours, and when it is time to pay, we are now being told by a machine to scan everything ourselves. It is amazing to see that whoever wrote the script actually designed the machine to be ill-mannered. Certainly the ones I have used always ‘tell’ rather than ‘ask’ and the word ‘please’ is nowhere to be seen on the screen… ‘and for goodness sake swipe that card the right way round or I’ll call a person over here to deal with you’.Soon I believe we will see the widespread introduction of wireless technology which will ‘read and tally’ what you have in your trolley as you march towards the checkout. Now that’s a classic example of managing the expectation downwards. It certainly adds new meaning to the old expression ‘the customer is always right’ – right at the bottom of the food chain it seems.Even so, our supermarkets are running a distant second – what about the banks? Once upon a time there was a person called a bank teller. They greeted us like friends, and even knew our children’s names. They courteously handled our enquiries, counted out our money for us, and occasionally paid us some interest on our hard-earned savings. Now, it’s our privilege to search for an Automatic Teller Machine that works, then queue out in the rain patiently awaiting our turn to withdraw some of our own funds – money the bank is graciously minding for us, virtually interest free. We even accept a transaction charge from them for being kind enough to let us do it all ourselves… and, we haven’t even mentioned the ‘service’ stations yet, or the major airlines who, believe it or not, may soon charge extra to have a person assist us with check-in.Yes, I admit I am being more than a little facetious here, and I also have to confess that I’m not quite as na├»ve as I may appear. In reality, this denigration of customer service is no accident. It is a calculated modification of the offer to make these organisations more competitive, and is a key part of their business plans. It’s been happening at trade level for quite a while now too… from the other side of the ledger, an emerging worldwide trend in the department store sector, the move towards the branded shop-within-a-shop concession, puts yet a different slant on it.Many department stores have decided that the appeal of their real estate, measured by their all-important foot traffic, can allow them to hand back the ownership of stock to suppliers. However, shedding the financial burden of stock often breeds complacency, at the expense of customer service, not to mention active selling. This has forced many suppliers to take even greater ownership, often having to resort to implanting their own fully-trained sales staff on site to protect their brand, and to generate an appropriate return on their considerable floor-space investment. It will be interesting to monitor how far this trend will permeate beyond the existing (predominantly fashion) sectors.It is little wonder then that we are growing to accept poor service, and not only at retail level either. It shows up in my training workshops with the younger participants knowing no different, and the older ones begrudgingly accepting it, as they realise that the use of technology is not only saving costs, but reshaping the demand to fit. Sure, it could be just a sign that ‘the times they are a-changing’, and that what we are seeing is simply a ‘merchandising versus selling’ dynamic that we need to take on board as it reaches critical mass and becomes the norm.However, good old-fashioned customer service is not dead yet, and without exception, my trainees (yes, even including the GEN Y contingent) walk away from the sessions applauding this lowering of expectation, and armed with an enthusiastic plan to capitalise on the dearth of personalised service offered elsewhere. These trends should get us excited too, because the more expectations get driven down like this all around us, the easier it is for the professionals among us to stand tall, and to exceed them. Even so, it doesn’t come automatically.While customer service is primarily measured by the actions we take to satisfy the customer’s demands, we can’t overlook the fact that our style also contributes to the way they react to us. Our manner can often compensate for a mishap or shortfall in service delivery. We’re not talking about smoke and mirrors here, or some sort of masquerade in lieu of genuine customer attention, but, as with every other aspect of buying and selling, others may well create their own impressions, based on how they judge us. To offer a complete package, we need a combination of actions and style; we must be able to consistently demonstrate our personal SERVICE pack:Skill – be technically apt and up to dateEnthusiasm – be energetic, friendly, courteousReliability – be dependable… follow throughVision – be observant, intuitive… anticipate, adaptInitiative – use common sense, be innovativeCommunication Skills – be a great listenerEmpathy – be understanding, aim to pleaseOur actions will speak for themselves, but the quest to maintain this style of ours is not always that easy. It can really get put to the test when we are face-to-face with a difficult customer, particularly in the public environment of a trade expo or a retail showroom. From uncontrolled children dripping melting ice cream on our pristine displays to an unduly disgruntled customer or trading partner, our temperament will often be put under unreasonable pressure.Dealing with an aggrieved party does require some special consideration, but in the more everyday delivery of friendly customer service, it is our composure that wins the day. If we look professional, sound professional, act professionally, and simply display our impeccable manners, we will always create the assumption that good, attentive, customer service comes as part of the deal. It makes everything that follows just so much easier. The ‘Three Es’ – energy, enthusiasm, empathy – can serve as reliable prompts. Lesser competitors will often fall short of these, and technology can’t replace them, so irrespective of whether we are the buyer or the seller, a balanced serving of all three will see us home in most circumstances.In essence, I guess it’s a little like the lesson we learned as children from Robert Southey’s famous fairy tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears – not too little, not too much, but getting it just right! First, we must carefully monitor the changing expectations to ensure we never overstay our welcome. Next, we must strike that delicate balance between how much help, attention, and information the other party wants, beyond which they will feel intimidated or patronised. Then, we must stand tall and deliver it – just as they want it!