Saturday, January 28, 2012

Customer Service

Customer service in the UK seems to be akin to a dirty word. We have all, I'm sure, experienced the terse or casual direction to something wanted in the supermarket, or the seemingly ubiquitous excuse of "it's the computer" when querying a mistake. And have you ever tried telephoning a large company or a public utility? All you get is a series of options to push this or that button depending on the nature of your enquiry. BT must be among the worst for that, and they run a telephone company!

The last time I had cause to call out BT for a line fault I discovered as the engineer was leaving that he had actually made the situation worse. By the time I reached the door to call him back, it was just in time to see his van drive off. Eventually another engineer came a few days later, called the work done by his predecessor "rubbish" and proceeded to replace it. It took a third engineer and his supervisor, many days later, to trace the original fault to a broken extension cable which they replaced. I have had no trouble since, but why did it take them so long to find and to rectify the fault? In the event they decided that they would pay for the work as it was their faulty installation and fault locating which were to blame.

That is not the point. The original call was to report a faulty line. The first guy replaced the line from the street to the house. The second guy replaced the junction box where the extension line enters the house (he also used a box intended only for internal use, so that rain entered it and shorted-out the connection). It took the third guy and his supervisor to realise that the original extension cable was broken and needed replacing, together with the leaking junction box. If the first chap had properly tested his 'solution' and the second one had paid attention to his training on the use of various junction boxes I, the customer, would have been better served.

Across many walks of life opportunities present themselves for improvement in customer service, and generally they are not difficult to see. People, by whom I mean those whose job is to serve the public in some way, need to be encouraged to go the extra mile, to go out of their way for their customer and be pleasant about it. I have long felt that the traditional hierarchical corporate structure would be better inverted so that the staff who daily face the customer occupy the most important positions on the company family tree. It is they who represent the company's image, who have to take the flak when things go awry, and upon whom to a greater or lesser extent the fortunes of the company depend. Sure, the company directors bear the ultimate responsibility, but how many of us actually see them or care who they are? The person in the shop or on the telephone to us, however, is very real and we tend to judge their company by the service we receive on a personal basis.

Training is key. Take a company like MuliYork. Some years ago I replaced our three-piece suite, and went to MultiYork to do so. We were able to spend as much time in the shop as needed without hindrance, swapping cushions for comfort and softness as the whim took us before making our choice. We paid a deposit. Four days before promised delivery we were required to pay the balance, and on the day of delivery we were given a two-hour time slot when delivery would be made. It happened like clockwork. No being pounds out of pocket for weeks while waiting for delivery, no waiting in all day in hope, no wondering if the delivery would ever come, just good solid customer service. If they can do it, why not others?

We have recently bought a new bed. I elected to pay on order despite the delivery date being some three weeks off, but had no complaint about the service and advice received from the shop and its manager. However, when delivered on the appointed day the bed was damaged. Not by being dropped, but by water. It was raining hard that day and the van leaked, and furthermore the tail-gate was so ill-fitting that spray from the vehicle's rear wheels entered the goods compartment. That was bad enough, but the plastic covering of the bed was damaged too so that water had penetrated and soaked the fabric. Maybe these thing happen, but as the driver knew of the tail-gate problem, why had he not taken precautions? Ours was the second bed damaged in that van that day at a cost to the company. The customer service took a further nose-dive when we were asked to arrange a replacement order, to wait for a further 3 weeks for delivery, and then (and only then) to phone back with a claim for compensation!!

Abroad the shopkeepers and company employees are mindful of the fact that ulimately the customer keeps them employed, and so they will go out of their way to see that satisfaction and ease of the customer is well served. It requires some effort, some training, and an awareness from every stratum of the company that the customer pays the bills and no-one is more important. Until we ditch the culture of "I work for the company and it pays me to do so" things will not improve. What is needed is for the front-line staff, those whose job is to deal directly with the customer either on the shop floor or on the telephone, to be properly recognised for the vitally important impression they create. Paying peanuts attract monkeys, so reward them properly, treat them as VIP's make them the focus of continuous serviced-based training and revere them. Equally, discipline those who fall short of the required standard. Teach the executives of the company to test each new idea, innovation, system or change in terms of the customer, in other words think like the customer instead of expecting the customer to fit the corporate model.

The rewards are great for both sides. Let the revolution begin.

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