The hallmark of successful companies, outstanding customer service is easy to say, but difficult to define and even harder to deliver
We all think we understand customer service; we appreciate good service, complain when we don’t get it and increasingly, we work in service orientated businesses. As a result, many organisations now see service as a way of differentiating themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Retailers such as John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and Amazon have been particularly successful at associating quality service with their brands. Yet, they tend to be the exception; poor service is a much discussed topic on many social networks.
But what exactly is good Customer Service? It’s extremely difficult to define, because it can be interpreted in so many ways. Service is also very personal: individuals and companies have different expectations and perceptions about service and judge it using widely varying criteria.
Whilst there are many variables, there are some key essentials to all good service: being polite, helpful, responding quickly and appropriately, resolving complaints and understanding customers’ viewpoints. These parameters can be defined and incorporated into customer management systems. Using metrics and targets to agree a minimum service levels can be very effective, particularly for large organisations with multiple operations.
But used without the vital human element, such systems don’t often provide good quality service. Many customer service experts believe that recruiting the right people is the most important aspect of good service. This is certainly the approach of online bank, First Direct: its Head of Banking Services, Sharon Dawson says the bank’s focus is “Hiring for attitude and training for it. For every 42 people who contact us, one makes it. We are very selective because our customer service is at the heart of everything we do”. FirstDirect has topped the poll for best bank account service over the past 18 months, with 90% of customers saying their current account service was “great”.
Perhaps the Holy Grail of customer service is a combination of systems which define and monitor minimum “practical” standards, and highly trained, responsive people who not only communicate effectively, but also embody the company’s values.
This approach has proved highly successful for serviced office provider, BE Offices, whose Service Guarantee sets standards for every aspect of the company’s service (from room temperature and kitchen facilities to maintenance call-outs and recycling) for all its Business Centre customers across London and the south east. Alongside this, each Centre has a dedicated team who provide the high quality, individual services which support their clients.
At its heart, outstanding customer service is the embodiment of an organisation’s brand, culture and how it does business. It is also one of the reasons that one in four customers say that they will pay more for excellent customer service*. But achieving this takes time and means considerable investment to make sure that everyone (not just Customer Services) understands the business – and can communicate its goals and policies effectively. Recruiting the right people plays a part, but good customer service also stems from employing those people: so they have the knowledge, expertise and confidence to deliver on the company’s promises.
Good customer service doesn’t come cheap: it requires investment in research, training and development. Some companies are reticent about making the investment, often because it can be difficult to justify; there are very few studies or statistics which show the direct return on investment. Customer satisfaction surveys, such as those published by the Institute of Customer Service demonstrate the positive impact of the impact of good service (66% of recent survey respondents said they would recommend a company which has given them good service) but they do not show a direct correlation between investment in customer services and increased sales.
Perhaps the most powerful argument for investing in customer service is the negative impact that poor service can have on a company’s reputation – and by association – its revenues. It’s a cliché, but reputations are hard won and easily lost, and poor service is one of the surest ways to dent a reputation. Poor service is a constant theme running through many online forums, Twitter streams and Facebook pages. As customers increasingly look for peer and online recommendations, it’s easy to see how a poor review or comments about poor service would dissuade a potential customer.
Great customer service is one of the best advertisements for any business: according to the recent Nielsen survey, 92% of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family more than any other form of advertising. Given that everyone has friends and family, surely this statistic alone is encouragement enough to invest as much as possible in making your customer service truly exceptional.