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The myths and realities of modern customer service

16th Oct 2014
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10 or so years after 'customer service' started to get a little more prominent as a subject, how much has really changed?

Everything has changed
The ubiquity of the internet has changed the speed and cost of communication as well as the number of people you can speak to at any one time. Fact.
On the one hand, we are all more connected than ever. On the other hand, we are less connected than ever.
The lessons are clear for all to see. Surely.
Word-of-mouth marketing (based on customer experience) has become more important than the advertisements.

Return on investment is collapsing as advertisers struggle to catch the eyeballs of an ever-distracted audience who have more and more to sidetrack them away from a message.

Nothing has changed
What customers and clients want from their suppliers (and from each other) still seems to be the old-fashioned stuff: courtesy, honesty, integrity, and reliability.
People still talk, but to more people.
Despite what people say, most people do not, I repeat, do not buy on price.
Think about your most recent purchases, business-to-business or business-to-consumer. The decision to buy is made on non-rational criteria; reputation counts for more and more.
Relationships vs transactions
For many products we want a relationship with the seller; for others we just want the cheapest. The trick is to know who wants what and when.
It is simply not true that customers always seek great customer service. I do not want customer ecstasy when I buy a pint of milk!
There are business models based on minimum service levels and low cost (e.g. Ryanair or EasyJet) that seem to buck the quality service mantra. They do not focus on excellent customer experience but on excellent prices and that seems to create loyalty (and profitability) despite what the customer evangelists had hoped!
Easy to describe; so few people get it right...
Even in a recession, when it is more important than ever, most businesses still can’t seem to get this customer service thing sorted. I just find it unbelievable.
Some days, every co-called customer service call, every person behind a counter or who answers the phone seems incapable of simple, basic courtesy.
The same case studies of ‘best practice’ get trotted out endlessly
There is no shortage of great, one-off examples, but there seem to be precious few examples of known company names that deliver and do it constantly and consistently. Many fall short at some point. For every lover of a well-known service there is someone who hates the service with a venom disproportionate to anything that may have happened to them!
Has much changed in 10 years?
I would love to say ‘yes’ but actually I don't think much has changed.
But new technology, the internet and the rise of social media has changed everything
New technology, the internet and the rise of social media has meant that it is easier and cheaper than ever before to get close to the customer.
Yet so many fail to do this successfully.
I do believe that the ‘Disney influence’ has a lasting impact. We visit the Disney Store (or Disneyland) and we see what great customer care looks like. We carry that sense of being the ‘important customer’ with us and this affects our expectations of other engagements; we expect more.
However, this creates a bigger gap between our expectations and our day-to-day reality. And even if the reality is improving, we have to remember that, at the same time, the great exemplars are also upping their game. The gap continues to exist.
The problem is still the same...
Most businesses simply do not see customer service as their number one priority. They do not measure it above other success criteria. They mean to be customer-focused but the accountants take over and insist on trying to measure the value and the ROI of every cost that is incurred...
Has anything changed?
Yes, it still drives me bonkers that customer-facing staff can be incapable of basic courtesy. The Little Britain sketches where the worker repeatedly says, "The computer says no” is typical of the dreadful levels of customer service that still pervade so many of our attempts at receiving rudimentary service.

But the opportunity is still there. It always was and it looks like it always will be.

It is plain and simple that most customers want to be treated with courtesy, respect and good manners. Anything above that is a bonus. Meanwhile, in this so-called service economy, it is rare for these fundamental basics to be delivered.
Is the customer experience really the next competitive battleground?
It is clear that customer service is the next big battleground. 
Companies have cut as lean as they can so the only thing that's left for them is differentiation, not by price but by the quality of customer service and the customer experience.
I suspect that customer myopia is what caused the downfalls of such well-loved and respected global brands as Kodak, Encyclopaedia Britannica, HMV, Blockbuster and so forth.
The business cemeteries are full of businesses (big and small) who failed to listen to their customers or give them what they really wanted.
Robert Craven runs The Directors Centre.

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By David Beard
17th Oct 2014 10:00

"people do not, I repeat, do not buy on price."

Except they often do --- even on larger ticket items than milk. I know you reference milk buying as not requiring a care process, but the article does come across as otherwise, suggesting a very binary approach --- "be good or die"

I do think your reference to EasyJet would make for an interesting, longer piece, on service dimensions - product, industry, location, need, etc.

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