Is service being curbed by the ‘customer is king’ cliché?

Neil Davey
Managing editor
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We are in a service crisis that can only be broken by slaying some sacred cows, says Ron Kaufman.

Customer service has long been treated as the runt of the litter by businesses – forced to feed off scraps when it comes to budget, and left out in the cold when it comes to a boardroom presence.
But all of this could be set to change.
The commoditisation of offers and products has increased concurrent with the emergence of technologies that enable the consumer to search for such offers instantaneously. Differentiating based upon a feature or benefit of the product or price is quickly commoditising.
Meanwhile, the ability to deliver from anywhere in the world has meant that what in the past might have been an advantage in terms of location, has now been erased.
This scenario increasingly points to the emergence of customer service as the all-important competitive differentiator. But there’s a problem – we are in the midst of a service crisis.
This crisis is two-fold. Firstly, because there is so much bad service, and customers now have the ability to complain about it more loudly than ever before, thanks to social media. The second part of the crisis is the demoralisation of service providers – the resentment and resignation that so many people have associated with their job.
Combined, these two factors are creating a “vicious power cycle” according to Ron Kaufman, author of Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues and Everyone Else You Meet.
But the good news is that this cycle can be broken.
“To break the cycle there are two key insights that need to occur,” he explains. “One relates to the definition of service – which I define as ‘taking action to create value for someone else’. Service is not about the soft stuff. If you are taking action and someone else is going to get value, then you are by definition a service provider. So it’s no longer a situation of who works in customer service – all of us are in service positions, and that’s half the problem.”
And accompanying this epiphany needs to be education. “The other half of this is that the historical idea is that being in service makes you servile or subservient in some way, which is accentuated by really silly things like ‘The customer is king’, which is no longer applicable in today’s world. And what's been missing is solid education that takes the fundamental definition and principal of service and makes them part of the education of everyone going through the school system as well as everyone who goes to work.”
Kaufman continues: “The fact that that's not being taught today means that companies have to deal with the fact that they're hiring people who don’t know the answer to fundamental questions like ‘what is service’, ‘what is the customer’, and ‘when do you need to take action to create value for something else’. So it’s twofold - you've got the crisis and the solution.”
Don't be satisfied with clichés
‘The customer is king’ is, of course, a common mantra for modern businesses. Dismissing it, to some, is akin to slaughtering a sacred cow. But there is a very real sense that some organisations (if not many) are simply hiding behind empty platitudes without actually committing themselves to the dirty work of re-architecting the business to actually better serve the customer.  
“I would challenge anyone who is satisfied with that level of cliché,” says Kaufman. “There’s an intellectual laziness that they would never bring to the design of a computer system, or to the design of a distribution channel. And to design a customer experience and engineer a culture where people are educated, supported, encouraged, reminded, rewarded, communicated to about service every day internally as well as externally, from the top down to the coal face, takes every bit as much deliberate design as designing your new office building. And yet the office building often gets more intentional engineering help.”
According to Kaufman, there is a clear architecture for building a service culture, consisting of two key components:
  • Actionable service education - service education (with new understanding, new ideas and new actions) is the foundation of a superior service culture. Whether you’re the boss or a call centre agent, an internal or external service provider, the principle of service applies. Employees need to be taught in a way that they can see how they apply to their jobs and what actionable steps they can take to upgrade or improve the quality of service and the value that they create for other people. Creating a culture of passionate learning around service is key.
  • Service leadership - nobody gets to the c-suite because they’re strong in the development of service culture; they get there because they were politically savvy or have great financial skills or they’re a domain expert in some other part of the business. Yet when in that position, that person has tremendous influence, so it is important to walk the walk and be a great service provider yourself. The leaders at the top need to know the same fundamental service principles as the people in the rest of the organisation have been learning and use that language in their addresses on a regular basis to haul the organisation up to a higher level of performance and alignment with that.
In addition to these key components, there are other building blocks of culture-building activities that exist in all large organisations that must be continuously aligned and improved to build and reinforce a superior service culture.
“There are distinct areas of activity that every major organisation is already doing, but the way they do them is often fragmented,” explains Kaufman. “So human resources has some, learning and development has some, marketing and communications has some… and that results in these fragmented cultures that are very siloed and where people are more focused on their KPI or their procedure than they are on creating the valuable outcome for the colleague, even if this would create a really positive experience for the customer.”
Of course, this requires a huge undertaking. Changing a company’s culture doesn’t happen overnight. But those organisations that begin the process now, will still beat their competitors to the punch. So where should they start?
“The first step will depend on the situation of the organisation – it’s a bit like asking a doctor whether the first thing you should do should be to stop smoking or change your diet or exercise more,” says Kaufman. “However, one area where every organisation can easily and inexpensively take a step forward is in service recognition, which is to provide not money rewards but unique meaningful recognition to service providers.”
He continues: “What tends to happen is that the people who get recognised are the people who get the compliments from customers – but the compliments are already a form of recognition. So what about the person who finds a way to solve a service problem with an angry customer? Do they get recognition afterwards? What about somebody inside the organisation who improves the quality of service that they're department provides to another department? Do you have any recognition programme for that? What about the service when two departments work together to be able to streamline or improve the experience that all of their colleagues will then have working with them? Do they get recognition?
"Therefore, you could set up a robust set of different ways that people can get recognised, for instance, ‘best service recovery’, ‘best innovation in service’, ‘best improvement for new customers’ – and they don't have to be expensive recognitions. It could just be an announcement, or a handwritten note or some movie tickets. So that’s one place that a business can start without doing some of the harder work.
“Another one is the issue of recruiting the right people in the first place. I realise in today's market there may not be a lot of recruiting going on but in other places there's always recruiting going on. So it is valuable to embed into the recruitment process a way of screening people or allowing them to self-screen for those who have the attitude of others' focused orientation rather than what's in it for me. So if somebody comes in and says ‘tell me about the job, how much do I get paid’, it’s very different from someone who says ‘who does this job serve, what do those people need and how can I add value and contribute’. So there are certain questions that you can ask during the interview to process to help you identify what candidates are going to focus on.”

About Neil Davey

About Neil Davey

Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.


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18th Mar 2013 23:18

This is a great article. Customers are our livelihood. Customers exist in our every day lives. We don't have to have jobs to have customers. Stay-at-home moms have customers: their children, their partners, even more! What it boils down to is that every job is a customer service job. Author and facilitator, Vasudha Deming, says it best (in addition to this article!): 

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