It wasn’t that long ago that this question would have been scoffed at … maybe still will be by some .. but the whole customer service issue should be examined in the light of today’s business and industry parameters, for its impact on business profitability .
Customer service (or ‘client’ service if your industry uses that term) is still highly important in most industries and for most businesses. But the forms of customer service that are important have changed significantly in many industries . Customer service has been, and is being, redefined in terms of what it means. (And this issues a warning to some of the more experienced people in business who may be clinging to the old adage that ‘it’s all about relationships’ but I’ll come back to that later).
For most of business history customer service has been about friendly communication (including and especially face to face), reliability, trust and doing a bit extra. Whilst these aspects can still be important, things have changed on many other fronts . In a much busier world the buying patterns and preferences of consumers have changed significantly and that has altered the ability of businesses to always ‘get in front of people’ to grow relationships and engender trust. New elements of customer service have sprung up and become more prevalent in many industries:
- Forms of interactions with customers have changed, in favour of the less personal exchanges (email, internet, text, automated telephone ‘conversations’).
- The ease and convenience of interactions is now critically important, including when and how they can occur.
- Swiftness of interactions has become paramount … how efficiently and quickly these interactions are facilitated for customers.
- Clarity and accuracy of interactions . This has always been important to customers but many businesses now have less time in their interactions or are having to engage the less personal types of interactions (as above).
- Interactions are sometimes punctuated by interruptions as customers dart in and out of digital communications. It’s then vital for a business to accommodate this effectively for customers or they may drop out of’ the communication loop to go elsewhere in future .. because they can so easily now.
- Building trust online is about the purchaser rather than the customer … the two are different. Repeat online selling will only occur if the website has created trust in the purchaser for the quality of the product, delivery times, easy ability to get accurate information online and the ability to return or remedy unsuitable goods.
Further to all of this are the growing multi-cultural aspects of many societies, meaning that businesses need to align their definitions of customer service with what their markets expect. The days of customer service having one set of criteria are gone, as we respect and need to cater to varying cultures. This adds to the need to cater for the different expectations across age groups, males and females, and rural versus metropolitan customers. Whilst some of these differences have always been at play the variations are now wider than before given that our customers can come from almost anywhere (due to technology), as distinct from ‘walking in’.
Another aspect is the importance for a business’s customer service to fit the messaging it gives out re its brand and its products. For example, if the messages are around being different, superior, cheap, fast, surprising, or whatever, then the customer service model and delivery needs to be consistent with that. The difference today is that each business’s messaging can and is being received by the market on a much broader geographic scale than ever due to the internet so the ability to deliver on those messages can be more difficult.
The earlier warning about holding onto the old adage of ‘it’s all about relationships’ is based on customer relationships now being built on some of the different criteria listed above. Face to face and personal interactions with customers can still be important, of course, but if in reality this is no more than more experienced people holding onto what they are most comfortable with, what they have always done, rather than adapting to today’s market expectations, then it can be a dangerous and non productive approach to take. If that is happening, it’s as much the business’s responsibility as it is the individual’s … neither has kept up with the changing expectations of the market. Businesses should be providing training and development to their own people to equip them in today’s different business world, rather than allowing them to flounder with some less relevant approaches to customer service .. and sometimes this ‘retraining’ isn’t happening because the people are more experienced and we rely on their past records to drive current performance.
It’s now more important for businesses not to try to please everyone. The customer is not always right (that just causes profit reductions to act in that way) and sometimes the best customer service is to say No and offer an alternative rather than risk over promising and under delivering. It’s also critical to be crystal clear on the criteria for target customers and acceptable customers, so that the customer service model fits them rather than everyone.
Where does price sit in the customer service arena? Usually the higher the price paid (as perceived by the customer .. and that’s an important definition) the higher and broader the expectations will be from the customer with respect to service beyond the purchase. So a business needs to be cognisant of those expectations to be able to meet them (if indeed that’s a long term profitable approach). It’s also important to know that price, as perceived by the customer, is not only the money; it’s also the time invested in the act of purchasing.
There are some important realities of customer service that haven’t changed and it’s important to note and continue to act on them:
- How people are treated internally will affect how they treat external customers. Outstanding internal treatment of personnel will lead to the same quality of treatment of external customers. It’s critical to understand what the important elements of internal treatment are and that can only be determined according to their perception.
- Recognition of high level customer service as delivered by internal personnel is important but in forms that mean something to the people involved .. not necessarily prizes or employee of the week.
- If you’re wrong, then admit it and use the A word … Apologize to the customer. Then take responsibility for fixing the problem if one exists.
- Internal people need to be empowered to deliver high customer service .. not always having to ask someone else before acting .. that can be too slow, might not happen, or can be annoying to the customer. “Sorry, I understand how you must feel, but I can’t help you” doesn’t cut it.
- Establishing agreed and clear expectations with customers re what will be delivered, when it will be delivered, how and when interactions will occur and what add ons will be provided, through early and skilled conversations, is still one of the most critical aspect of being able to deliver high levels of customer service.
Customer service is still important, of course it is, but often in different and additional forms, driven by developments in and around each industry and business. There are also more and significant differences between customers (cultures, generations, etc.) than before, as societies change in composition and markets become broader through technology. So, whilst it is time consuming for a business to figure out what their customer service model should be, that investment is well worth it, indeed necessary, for future success.
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