By Graham Williams, Centre-ing Services (centserv@iafrica.com)


Technology then and now. On my first business visits to Durban many many years ago, I got into the habit of staying at the Edward Hotel. The manager always greeted me by name on arrival and made sure that my preferences regarding room location, daily newspaper, and other services were met. I felt important. He recorded these needs and expectations on a manual card ‘system’. It worked!

 Nowadays information and communications technology has become very sophisticated: IVR scripting, CTI implementation, skills-based routing, queue management, call tracking, workflow support, knowledge engineering, multi-media blending/ prioritising/ processing, CRM systems, Internet to phone click-ons, workforce management. It doesn’t always work!

 In the midst of such complexity, it’s easy to become obsessed with “tangible” metrics that can easily be attributed to bottom line costs and productivity indicators (often ”sold” to organisations by technology vendors): average speed of answer, talk time, abandonment rate, and other measurements that impress management. But sometimes in the process, customer “focus” becomes blurred. Really successful customer service centre managers are those that truly know what it is to care about employees and customers alike. They know what is needed to build trust and gain the loyalty of customers. Without trust (which can’t be hardwired into technology), business transactions become mired in petty details and complaints – the bane of any customer interaction. In this hi-tech age of the often invisible customer, too many forget that hi-tech must be complemented with high-touch.

 Process then and now. In the days of the Pony Express in the Wild West , the letter or package would often arrive late, as well as torn and dirty, perhaps because one of the horse riders had been ambushed or even killed along the way. It was the customer perception that the employees of this company were actually risking their lives that guaranteed its place as a service legend. In wild South Africa today post is often lost or damaged [whatever postal or courier service you use] yet our perceptions are quite different!  We don’t feel secure about the process outcome.

 In more and more cases, the modern customer service centre is becoming the pivotal link in the entire business supply chain AND performing a centralised sales function AND fulfilling orders AND supporting self-service functions AND answering inquiries AND distributing marketing information AND solving problems and complaints.  The service center is at last assuming the “caseworker” role and status (the single-point-of-contact process) envisaged by Hammer and Champy in the 1960’s. Yet many still fail their customers by employing lowly paid service providers in sweat-shop atmospheres, to conduct only routine, repetitive, soul destroying work. Mundane processes that don’t add  much value.

 [A caution: You have to first decide whether you are in the business of creating actual long-term relationships with customers or whether you just need to provide efficient, inexpensive, convenient, friendly customer service on an as needed basis. These are two very distinct processes. While one-to-one relationship building is often touted as a customer service solution for all companies, no matter what their  product or service offering, this is simply not true. An important distinction must be made between efficiency-based and relationship-based customer service. There are certain situations in which we expect and want nothing more than efficiency and convenience: buying a meal at a fast-food restaurant, shopping for light bulbs, buying petrol, purchasing a toaster. By trying to follow the one-to-one relationship philosophy, many efficiency-based companies have been lured into developing what have been termed “pseudo-relationships” with customers, and this inappropriate process can actually damage customer perceptions of the company.]

 People relationships then and now. The owner of the corner village store could assess customers at a glance. He or she became very familiar with our buying habits: How often we returned to the store, what kind of purchasing ability we possessed, how open we were to cross-selling and other profit-making suggestions, what our personal and economic situation at any given time might be, and so on. Our lifetime value was very evident to the village-store owner, as was our influence over others, our complaint power and even our nuisance factor. As a pillar of the community, the corner store owner gained our trust and custom by respecting our self-worth.

 The average customer service centre service provider, on the other hand, certainly doesn’t know that Jim is anxious because he’s just lost his job, or that Laura is exhausted because she just had a baby. Even since the emergence of integrated Customer Relationship Management systems, service providers in medium to large size call centers often view every customer in much the same way.

 One neglected area in service provision has been the building of service agent competence in focused, evaluative listening. For example, although deprived of visual cues and clues, the perceptive and competent telephone service provider is able to "see" smiles, hear the subtle unsaid and accurately ‘read’ between the lines - in a way without the "distraction" of the visuals present in face to face communications. Evaluative listening can demonstrate empathy, which in turn contributes to relationship. (Technology can provide visuals to telephone-based conversations these days - but that's another subject). Good language proficiency, allied to meaningful historical and contextual information can also assist the competent service agent in the similar evaluation of other forms of communication, for example email. For example, a phrase in an email: "and you call this good service!" can be completely misinterpreted (by both humans and the most sophisticated automated e-mail interpretation software) without proper knowledge of language usage – in this case, sarcasm.

Customer Service then and now.  In a frenetic, fast changing, hi-tech business world, it behoves us to remember what remains constant: That the customer is ultimately the sole arbitrator of business success. Not costs, not productivity, not shareholder demands, not technology vendor panaceas. These lessons from the past, in the areas of technology, process and people illustrate that service success comes from a genuine, unrelenting focus on what is best for the customer. From the basic business truth that the customer continues to make a buying decision in your favour if you meet his/her primary needs – their importance, their self worth and their security.


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