Why customer service cannot be improved

Two stories on the wires this week – one stateside (http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/bus/stories/072907dnbuscustomerservice.2802510.html) and the other local http://blogs.smh.com.au/enterprise/), all about customer service, and both stories commented on extensively.

The local story is about a sales assistant asking a customer (who had the sniffles) not to touch the merchandise. Customer rage ensued. The question asked was: Is the customer always right? Everybody’s response is usually: “no, but…”

And this is why (most retailers) will never be able to improve customer service; they keep asking the wrong questions!

The question implies that:

  •  a customer is valuable thing,

  • there is a right and wrong (= adversarial relationship),

  • and that the ‘answer’ matters.

This question leads you down the wrong track, because:

  • Customers are not valuable, they’re a commodity. What you need are fans and disciples and friends (i.e. real relationships.)

  • Right and wrong does not matter; all that matters is whether the person is/will be a fan of your business. It is not about identifying who is at fault, but about why something happened to prevent the customer from becoming a fan.

  • The answer is irrelevant because it won’t help fix the root cause of the problem

Having customer service as a sustainable competitive advantage is one of the most valuable assets a retailer can have. If it was as easy as simply asking staff to be nice and to smile or to even cope with customer insults, then everybody would have done it. If it was as easy as training your staff, most retailers would have done it (and as a trainer, that is awesome admission to make).

The reality is none of these things (in isolation) work. Customer service training must be designed to help uncover the path to creating the desired service levels. A 1-day program does not improve service, it simply the start of the journey.

Fixing customer service is harder than getting it right at the beginning, but it can be fixed. The model to use is a framework originally developed by Tom Peters (& Waterman) as McKinsey consultants more than twenty years ago. It identifies the six variables that combine to create the organisational culture, and it is these six variables that must ALL be addressed to create the set of shared values that will eventually result in customer service that can be a sustainable competitive advantage.