Is Customer Service the organizational issue of the year 2000?

Now in the year 2000, quality of service is perceived by customers as the main differentiating factor between organizations. Growing customer choice means that customers are increasingly powerful and discerning about what they buy and whom they buy it from. Product quality and strong Customer Service are therefore seen by a majority of organizations as the critical factors for commercial success. Our experience shows that in the UK public sector also, the introduction of Citizen's Charters and Market Testing has put Customer Service at the top of many organizations' strategic agendas. Across the U.K organizations of all types and sizes have responded to this rising interest in service issues in a number of ways:

  • by investing heavily in staff training programmes

  • by employing dedicated Customer Service Trainers, whose exclusive remit is to increase their organization's Customer Service skills

  • by setting up designated Customer Service Departments, trained to deal specifically with Customer problems, queries and complaints

  • by implementing continuous service improvement strategies, involving all staff at all levels.

On this last point, the association with Total Quality Management (TQM) is a close one. Any organization which is practising TQM principles will - or should - at the same time be reviewing service quality, and training for improved Customer Service.

From working with clients it is clear to us that in the context of Customer Service, the key responsibilities of the training function are to:

  • remain aware and up-to-date of Customer Service best practice

  • inform the design and implementation of effective Customer Service programmes

  • work with management and others to determine appropriate standards of Customer Service

  • raise staff awareness of Customer Service issues

  • instill values, attitudes and behaviours which are conducive to Customer Service

  • enable staff and managers, by providing them with the management and interpersonal skills which effective Customer Service requires.

Given the strategic importance currently attached to Customer Service, these responsibilities place trainers at the forefront of driving through the organizational changes required.

Why 90% of Customer Service improvement programmes fail

At present vast sums are spent on Customer Service improvement programmes, but little real or lasting change results in many of the organizations involved. A Sunday Times article as long ago as 1st July 1990 estimated that, of the Customer Service programmes initiated, "90% have failed, or will fail in the near future." There appears to be no real change since then.

One reason for this could be that many so-called 'Customer Care' programmes are seen as 'quick fix' solutions rather than as ongoing processes which require organizational commitment and continuous attention and support from everyone. Significant features of failed Customer Service programmes are that they:

  • focus the training effort almost exclusively on frontline behaviours, failing to make the link between front line service ability and internal service standards

  • are rarely accompanied by a review of operating procedures and policies, some of which may actively constrain the organization's service effort

  • make no serious attempt to empower frontline staff or place decision making levels

  • managers with the understanding they require, to manage Customer Service in their area of the business

  • lack clear objectives, direction and support from the organization's leaders.

Very often such failed programmes leave behind them even greater problems than those they were originally designed to solve. Too high a focus on training customer contact or frontline staff can result in resentment on the part of support staff. Frontline staff who want to implement what they have learned quickly become frustrated when they discover they have no power to change anything, and that neither their managers nor the 'system' supports their efforts.
Our work in Customer Service in both private and public sector shows clearly that programmes designed to modify behaviour can result in confusion when such modification is required only of one group (i.e., frontline staff) and is not supported throughout the organization. Superficial pleasantness is adequate for basic customer satisfaction, but rapidly ceases to please if each issue or problem which arises has to be passed on by staff who are unable and/or unauthorised to cope with anything beyond a 'standard' or routine service request.

To avoid these failings, Customer Service programmes need to take a more integrated, whole-organization view of Customer Service:

A whole-organization approach to Customer Service planning and implementation

  • review the underlying culture and philosophy of the organization and how this impacts on service standards

  • agree specific standards of service behaviour and apply these measures to both internal and external service

  • review operating policies and procedures across the organization in line with the required service standards

  • review service standards regularly, involving representatives from all levels, departments and functions

  • train all staff, to raise awareness of Customer Service as an organization-wide issue

  • continuous, ongoing identification of training needs and provision of appropriate training.

  • acceptance that service excellence needs continuous attention.

(c) DBA, 2000.