Customer service is undoubtedly one of the most topical issues in organizations across the globe. Today’s customers are highly knowledgeable and aware of their rights, needs and wants more than ever before. The internet and its related technologies have definitely made a significant impact on the way business is done. For instance, customers have better access to product information and are able to transact instantly at the click of a button. They can also build or kill the brand image at an amazing rate as word of mouth is spread faster via various social media platforms. Consequently, competition for customers has become more aggressive as geographical boundaries rapidly disappear and businesses can now easily reach out to markets all over the world. The customer experience is now a key factor in the consumer decision-making process. In fact, the establishment of customer contact centres, stand alone customer service departments and even specialist customer service consultants is a clear indication of the importance of enhancing the customer experience. Such efforts are indeed, justifiable. After all, customers are the lifeline of organizations hence; they deserve all the pampering and attention.
Having worked in the service industry as a frontline employee, I have grown to appreciate customer service from the other end of the equation ….that of delivering the service rather than receiving it. Frontline employees are a vital link between the organization and its customers, yet they are often overshadowed by the customers when customer service issues are being considered. It is therefore, no surprise that more attention is significantly drawn toward customers – what should and should not be done for them, what they expect and what all service providers should know about satisfying their needs and attaining service excellence. It is quite tempting to forget that these frontliners are in fact also customers, the internal customers of the organization who have their own needs and expectations. They do not only deliver services but also contribute immensely toward the sustainability and growth of the business. Essentially, customer service personnel are tasked to sustain the business by delivering an excellent service that not only draws clients but also retains them on behalf of the employer.
Whilst there are very high expectations of frontline staff, very little is known and appreciated with regards to the activities that take place ‘behind the scenes’. It is obviously not the intention of this article to divulge the intricacies of the activities that take place behind the counters. Rather, it is a call to decision makers to facilitate even better service delivery by considering the contact staff’s side of the equation.
A key issue which many frontline workers have to deal with, at least in my country, Zimbabwe and other developing nations, is that of inadequate resources. It is really amazing how contact staff often have to exercise ingenuity in a quest to satisfy the customer. Often times (and mostly unknown to both employer and customer) frontline staff go out of their way to deliver an acceptable service to customers, covering up for what the employer has failed to provide. This can be anything really, from using personal phones, compromising one’s safety and unfortunately lying to customers when the truth would be totally unacceptable and ridiculous to the customer. Yes, this is unfortunately a reality of service delivery. For instance, when the hotel has not paid up for its reservations system and the system provider withdraws their service; imagine the reaction the reservations agent would get if they were to say “ Sorry ma’am we can’t assist you at the moment as our system hasn’t been paid for and we have been disconnected.” It would be a complete bummer! What’s more, that would probably be the last customer the employee would serve before they are fired.
Employers should provide adequate resources for seamless service delivery. Apart from inconveniencing customers, the lack of sufficient resources also frustrates and demotivates frontline staff. Inasmuch as employees are expected to deliver an excellent service, it is only fair to provide the necessary resources for this to be attained. Whilst it is appreciated that everything cannot always be perfect, run outs of resources should not become a norm. When it does happen it needs to be properly managed in order to avoid frustrating, demotivating and expecting employees to work out some unimaginable miracles. When employees improvise and show resourcefulness it is certainly commendable. However, to continuously expect maximum returns with very little investment is problematic and could well be a ticking time bomb.
Training is crucial in attaining service excellence. Failing to properly train frontline staff is detrimental to the service encounter. The fast paced global village is making it more and more important for organizations to keep up with trends in their various industries. Failure to do so could result in obsolescence and eventually loss of business. To this end, there is need to consistently train contact staff on the latest trends be it latest versions of working systems, industry regulations or customer expectations. It is truly frustrating for a client to wait an additional minute simply because the one serving them is still struggling to operate the newly installed system. It is even worse when contact staff continue doing things the old, long and monotonous way. Making sure that frontliners are well-trained and confident enough to serve customers in the trendiest way is a huge asset and should not be overlooked.
Apart from the issue of inadequate resources and training, lack of synchronization of the various departments in a company also has adverse effects on frontline staff. A spirit of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is prevalent in many organizations. Frontline staff (and even staff from other departments) do not know where they fit into the whole organization. What role do they play? What is the significance of their respective duties in the overall performance of the company? What are the implications of their actions? How do they contribute to the organization’s goals and mission? Failing to answer these questions can have far reaching effects on the service provider. Customer contact staff and indeed every other person in the organization should know where they fit into the equation and how their actions impact on the entity’s success or failure. Such knowledge enhances the performance of customer service personnel, energizing them by the knowledge that they are making a meaningful and essential contribution to the success of the organization. Conversely, staff are often fragmented as for example, a customer service agent may not know how their work translates to revenue. If they knew, they would probably ensure that they perform their duties perfectly in order to enhance revenue generation.
A moment of truth gone awry is a nasty experience for the customer….and yes of course even for the person serving the customer. Unfortunately, most times when the service encounter fails to live up to expectation, the man or woman delivering the service has to face the music alone, even when it is clearly a management or organizational issue. Some managers and supervisors have an amazing way of suddenly vanishing into thin air when service delivery goes bad. There just isn’t anyone to explain the circumstances to customers, leaving the frontliners to bear the brunt of the justifiably, enraged clients. Be it a delayed flight, a super slow service in the bank or poor mobile network connectivity, management or whoever is in charge should ensure that necessary steps are taken to not only inform customers and explain the hitch but also to provide extra support to service personnel. Keep them informed of measures being taken to rectify the problem. Advise them on what to tell customers and provide them with necessary resources to manage the situation. When the system has gone down, activate manual back up and provide the requisite resources such as stationery and additional communication channels. All efforts should be made to maintain seamless service delivery. As rightly stated by Donald Porter, “Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong.”
While there is a great persuasion to only focus on the external customer in a crisis, it is even more important to consider frontliners as they are evidently an important part of the equation. To balance the equation, management should take heed of customer contact personnel. They should ensure that they are well equipped to handle the prevailing crisis. By so doing, the staff become more confident and capable of assisting clients during the hard times. Failure to consider the customer service staff in such scenarios worsens the service encounter and further complicates service recovery. It has often been said that it is easier to save a new customer than gain a new one, but I believe it is even easier to retain an existing customer than losing and trying to save one.