The relationship between a business and its customers has evolved greatly over recent decades. Commercial organizations have long understood that the customer is central to their success, but the way many businesses have developed their service offerings has often left customers feeling short-changed. The customer experience has suffered in the pursuit of the holy grail of customer service.
There was a time when the term “customer service” was almost synonymous with “complaints.” It was commonly used to describe the function within an organization where dissatisfied customers were sent. It might have been a desk within a retail outlet or possibly a remote call center, but its most frequent users were those wanting to vent about poor service or faulty goods. It was as though customer service was only necessary once something had gone wrong.
Times have changed. Customer service departments have become more rounded. No longer are they just there to clear up the aftermath of a bad experience, but also to offer the customer a cheerful welcome and make sure they are dealt with quickly and efficiently, getting everything they came for and possibly more. An entire service industry has flourished, with bespoke outsourcing companies providing their expertise through customer service call centers.
The world has gone target crazy in an effort to ensure customers receive a better service than the competition — “better” usually being defined as quicker, cheaper and higher quality. Retail outlets have targets on queue lengths and wait times. Call centers have targets on speed of answer, average handle time and quality. Managers will be under pressure to ensure these ever-increasing targets are achieved within ever-diminishing budgets. But are these targets driving the desired effect? Does achieving them mean an organization is creating happy customers?
The answer is no, not in isolation. But to understand why, you have to answer another question, “what is customer service?” Herein lies the problem: too many businesses interpret the answer to this question within the narrow confines of a single transaction. They consider customer service as being something that starts when a customer engages with the organization to obtain a product or service, and ends at the point of delivery.
The reality for a customer is quite different. Their relationship with an organization starts long before they choose to make contact, and extends long after a transaction concludes. For a customer, it is all about the experience, not the service. The service happened at a point in time, possibly more than once. Each touch point may be perceived as good or bad. But the experience encompasses the whole, and is ongoing. Ultimately, this determines how a customer feels about the organization, and what they tell their friends and family.
Many businesses are now waking up to this reality and expanding their legacy customer service departments to consider the entire customer experience. Doing this right involves collaboration between a lot of business functions, such as marketing, customer services, IT, recruitment and training teams. Mapping the “customer journey” is critical to understanding how customers perceive the organization and why. How do they first find out about the business? How to they compare competing providers? How do they make contact and what does that feel like? How well are they treated after the point of delivery? What keeps them engaged and retained?
Typical customer service targets are good at creating good first impressions, but they don’t help much with the initial customer attraction or with customer retention. Sadly, there are still many examples of businesses targeting their resources toward a narrow slice of the customer experience. For example, telecommunications companies might offer sensational deals to tempt a steady stream of new customers into long contracts, while alienating swaths of existing customers already locked into contracts, by excluding them from the same deals.
Those organizations that are willing to invest in understanding the end-to-end experience of their customers, and build their business models around this, are the ones that will score most highly in customer rankings. They will attract customers through their reputation for treating people well (employees and customers) and operating in environmentally and community-friendly ways. They will secure customers through clearly communicated and competitively priced products and services, tailored to their individual needs. They will retain customers through comprehensive aftercare and fair treatment that gives them no reason to consider looking elsewhere.
In short, customer service is dead. This is a new era, where customer experience is king. Aided by the power of the Internet, customers have more savvy and their expectations are higher as a result. Businesses that choose to ignore this do so at their peril.