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Customer Service
- a Consultant's Perspective

Brenda Spiller

Why do we need to fix Britain? Well we don't need to, we have to, because we are becoming an endangered species as far as business is concerned – the causes are many, but one of the main causes - apathetic attitude towards customers and the serving of them.

As an example, you will remember the 26th July 2003. We will have just heard on the news that Rod Eddington, CEO of British Airways was going to meet the BA unions at ACAS on the following Monday (having been pressurized into changing his schedule). We had heard on the news earlier in that week that he couldn't fit in this meeting until Tuesday week, which would have been the 5th August – this is just symptomatic of the apathy I refer to – the apparent lack of management interest (I accept that Mr. Eddington, CEO is a very busy man, however how we perceive his behaviour determines our attitude to doing business with his organization), perhaps its just me, maybe no one else thinks this deeply about such matters…but I care about customer service, and I have never underestimated its importance to staying in business, whether that business be a corporation or a sole trader. Perception is all!

Now in case you have forgotten about BA's chaos, and on reading my example you clearly have no idea what I am talking about, which is, British Airways (the then world's favourite airline – so claimed by BA) was subject to an unofficial strike which caused chaos for its passengers (customers) resulting in a fall in its revenues, and of course, the whole incident did little to enhance its reputation.

Interestingly, when Rod Eddington was asked to come to discuss the problem he couldn't fit it in his diary…it seemed to me, and I am but one BA customer, that - had I any intention of traveling with them in the near future, I would not have done so. Not just because I might find myself subject to a wildcat strike but more because he (Rod Eddington) didn't seem to care, or if he did, his behaviour (which is how I judge him) gave me this impression. Why would I spend my hard earned money with BA if he doesn't care about his staff, or me the customer enough to arrange to deal with chaos as a matter of urgency? I am sure he did care, but that is not what I heard or saw – behaviour is directly observable, and it is what people ‘say and do' that people (customers) judge.

Now, I am working on hearsay, I have not substantiated anything I have just written, but that is my point, it has created an impression in my mind, whether true or not.

EasyJet (the low fare airline) claimed that they alone picked up over 6000 additional passengers from BA adding £500,000 to their revenues as a result!

Interestingly I received (finally) from BA's Director of Sales, Worldwide, the following email, dated 24th July 2003

Dear Miss Spiller

As you will be aware, British Airways has been experiencing major disruption at London Heathrow Terminals 1 and 4 since Friday.

The disruption was caused by unofficial industrial action at London Heathrow regarding the introduction of a new swipe card system. We continue to be in extensive talks with the staff groups and union representatives involved and are striving to resolve this as soon as possible.

As at 3pm, Wednesday 23 July 2003, London Heathrow Terminals 1 and 4 are now operating as normal, as are all other UK and worldwide airports.

If you are travelling in the next few days please visit http://ba.com for the most up to date information.

If your travel plans were affected during this time, we unreservedly apologise.”

Yours sincerely,

Dale Moss
Director of Sales Worldwide

I replied to Mr. Moss (although I doubt he ever saw it, because his letter was sent by email, and its one of those emails systems you probably shouldn't reply to – heaven forbid I might as a customer want to respond, and I did) and I said:

“I won't be travelling in the next few days, but if I were, I have to say you are bit late with the apology!”

What is my point? My point is, this is typical of the way customers are treated and some British business wonders why we, the customers, are disillusioned with their organizations, and our attitude to purchasing from them, in turn our attitude will affect their growth and success. BA is not alone in this. British Business needs to fix this raging apathy about serving the customer.


apathetic customer service = loses revenue, likely destroys a hard earned reputation
= your competition benefits!

Customer service, or at least the notion of it, should come from a corporate philosophy about what it, the corporation, truly believes about ‘serving its customers'. It's Board of Directors who manages the corporation, and in my experience most (that is more than half of them) have no idea what serving customers is truly about. In fact, many companies operate on the principle that as long as they have a ‘customer service department', which can be 6, 60 or 600 people, this will suffice, regardless of whether a customer can ever get through those dreadful telephone systems to speak to anyone…but let's deal with those later. Everyone, and that is everyone in an organization serves the customer not just the ‘customer service department'!

However, it is generally only the ‘customer service department' personnel that receive any training in serving customers – why is this?

Directors and senior managers are, I believe, so far removed from the customer, and are so highly paid, many of them I suspect, never experience poor service, well at least not from their own organizations – they think the art of serving customers is common sense, well let me enlighten them, sense is not common and nor is common best practice – sometimes skills have to be learnt.

Directors and senior managers, not only need to think outside the box of customer service, they need to think, and occasionally operate outside their organizations – i.e. call in as a customer and truly experience what it is like to be served – this may prove to be a enlightening experience.

Customers leave an organization with not just a problem solved or enquiry competently answered but with a memory how they were served. British business need to strive to ensure that is proves to be a powerful and positive experience (memory).

What they (the bosses) also overlook is that customers have friends and relations working in their organizations, so they often know just how poorly organized service is. This information is not hidden, as many bosses would like to believe – people talk and bad news travels fast.

What is also true is that if the personnel of an organization are seen to be poorly treated whether real or otherwise this all adds to the perception customers have of that organization. The service delivered is often a reflection of how the staff is treated.

Customer service is only good or bad because we, the customer, say it is. It is not right or wrong intrinsically. Good or bad is not an intrinsic condition, it is a subjective judgment in a personal value system. By our subjective judgments we create our model of the world i.e. our perception of service.

Excellent or outstanding service = satisfied loyal customers = profits = stability and growth.

I, of course can cite other personal stories of British business (often owned by an American parent company) of how not to provide service, along with what is a better way of providing it, and I am certain you can too, but this doesn't fix Britain. Only positive attitude, the know-how and the motivation to make things better will do that. The question is how much worse does it need to get before organizations act to make things better?

Whilst making reference to America, let me dispel a myth about its customer service record, firstly, in general, customer service is not better in the USA, it is just perceived that it is, because, generally the American people are more cheerful about serving customers, even when they are providing poor service. Secondly, to us Brits, we sense some of their behaviour as insincere – which sometimes it is. Some of us Brits on the other hand dislike serving customers and it shows!

This is not to say that all American companies, any more than all British businesses are poor at customer service, some are excellent, but what I have notice is many American companies are, in the main, ‘process driven', and rely too heavily upon technology, as a consequence the customer service agent is functioning purely by what they have to read on their PC screen – no apparent ability to be allowed to think for themselves. Of course, having become the 51st state of the US, Britain is fast to follow instead of lead in the field of service so is also becoming, or has become process driven.

As a consequence of this lack of thought, when a customer asks for something other than what is on ‘the list' they cannot respond with a sensible answer. Yet the customer service agent still operates in the belief that he/she is giving ‘outstanding' service. In fact they are doing the best they can within their skills and knowledge and the perimeters they are allowed to operate, what needs to change is management's attitude about trusting their staff to be natural and think for themselves when serving customers – this of course may require companies spend money on training their staff. Some British companies have started to do this, and with great success, First Direct, Bank of Scotland and Virgin Atlantic are three companies I have had personal great customer experiences with. Let us hope more will follow.

Customer study tours leave the UK to visit Florida; Disney World is often the final destination, because Disney is cited as providing outstanding service. Now, I have visited Disney many times as a customer – it's great – it's fun – and for the most part I experienced outstanding service, but the service is provided by ‘people' thousands of them, armies of them. Disney is the exception, and exceptional, rather than the rule.

Without excellent outstanding service they would not have a business. Disney has grasped the true concept about service and knows its business is about people having positive ‘fun' experiences, and if other businesses could realize that they to are in the people (and not process) having positive experiences they too would provide service of substance just like Disney.

However, Disney aside and in general, American business, it seems to me, believe if they provide everything in a uniform way i.e. the notion that the customer knows what they are getting every time, this constitutes ‘customer service' – it doesn't.

Let's consider this, if we extend this model, in general, to banks, insurance companies in fact any business, anywhere that has a call centre or help desk (there's a misnomer!), interestingly it is thought that the provision of the product or service, in the same way, creates customer service and satisfaction, where in point of fact equal treatment creates dissatisfaction.

Customer service requires that we vary treatment for equal levels of customer satisfaction.

If organizations want to provide any service of substance they will have to provide uniqueness not sameness, and ‘people' not process deliver uniqueness. I am not suggesting that a business process is unimportant; of course, any company has to have order, but not have process at any cost, or where people will do an infinitely better job.

People, provide people with service not machines.

I mean, let us not get into the machines! The ACD (automated call distributor) or as I call it - aggravate customers daily - a system to ensure you never speak to the same customer service agent twice. Or the IVR (Interactive Voice Response System) I call it - Insure Vague Reply - a system where telephony has replaced people answering calls, these systems cause untold dissatisfaction and customer rage – I would venture to say they are now the primary generators of customer complaints rather than faulty goods or service.

It is not to say the ACD and IVR should not have a place in customer service, but it cannot replace it.

So again, the poor customer service agent, when the customer finally gets through to speak to him/her ends up dealing with an outraged customer instead of someone who probably was calm cool and collected when they first made their call. The customer service agent then spends several precious minutes calming the customer before they can even deal with the enquiry – and then we talk about wanting to build relationships with customers…

Relationships - customers don't want a relationship with an organization they want SERVICE – of substance – or outstanding – or excellence – or delight or any other adjective that will provide them what they perceive professional service to be. True business relationships, when they are real and can, and need to be maintained, can only be built on impressive service. If companies want a customer to buy from them time and again, they must provide excellent and professional service, and have a ‘get it right first time' or ‘can do mentality'.

As customers, we are subjected to all types of indifferent and apathetic customer service experiences (and occasionally positive one – I always write to congratulate these companies), and because we now have greater awareness of our rights, our expectations of service are much higher.

Businesses can no longer rely on the fact that we are unconscious to their treatment of us. It's time for a change, it's time we had outstanding service, although if they cannot manage outstanding, then, just plain old fashioned good, reliable, friendly service will do – it is our perception of the service that counts and determines our willingness to remain loyal (profitable) customers.

Managements of businesses need to stop talking the talk, and learn about how to serve. How you serve is infinitely more important that what you serve.

Lets Fix Britain, let us all make a difference!

Brenda Spiller is a trainer and consultant
in customer service provision.
You can learn more about
her services at www.shinetraining.com

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