Last day, my colleague got simultaneous service calls from 3 branches of a reputed car service firm. The call was made three days after he had given his car for service in one of the firms. Customer services failures like this is rampant in almost all sectors, which often make us wonder whether firms have forgot to understand the basics of customer service. While selling products or handling complaints, it is surprising to see a lack of basic customer service skills like empathy, responsiveness or responsibility.
Customer service is no rocket science. It does not take loads of customer data or complex CRM algorithms to provide exceptional customer service. What a firm need is the ability to understand customer’s needs and develop a human process to assist the customers in realizing their needs through the firm’s offering.
One of the fundamental requisite of customer service excellence is to treat customer service as an important strategic marketing tool. When a firm considers customer service as a marketing mix element; investment, involvement and control will be more focused. The task of ‘putting customers first’ will be considered a priority at the highest level.
In 1940s, Johnson & Johnson framed its famous credo, under the leadership of Chairman Robert Wood Johnson. The Credo made a very bold statement that “We believe that our first responsibility is towards doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services”. The credo made the company imbibe a customer oriented culture which is now considered as a core competence. When the importance of customer service is impressed upon by the highest level of management, it becomes a culture rather than a peripheral activity of a division.
Customers always look for a single unified contact point at the company for all their requirements. Often it is the sales/marketing department that acts as the unified contact point. Although the unified contact point is supposed to facilitate two-way communication, in practice the contact is more skewed towards selling products rather than providing customer service. The management has to be careful that the contact point is given sufficient authority to fulfil the customer requirements.
The quality of customer service will come to test when customers have real issues or complaints. How well a firm approaches the complaints is the true determinant of the effectiveness of the customer service initiative. More often, consumers get stuck with their complaints because the contact point may not have the authority to initiate any corrective actions or solutions.
Customers may also have limited access to the higher levels of management. It is in this situation that firms should develop a system of escalation with regard to complaint redress. The process should have definite timelines which automatically triggers escalation of unresolved complaints to the next level of management. For example, if a complaint is unresolved (for whatever reasons) for more than 30 days, it will automatically get moved to the next level of the management hierarchy. The advantage of such a system is that over a period of time, the firm will be able to have virtually no unresolved complaints.
Another basic requirement for exceptional customer service is the human factor. Having highly motivated employees give a special meaning to the word – customer service. An example of extra-ordinary customer service was displayed in the Taj Hotel during the terrorist attack of 26/11. The entire world was thoroughly moved by the dedication of the Taj hotel staff who risked their lives to keep the guests safe from terrorists. These kinds of extra-ordinary actions can result only from a highly motivated and committed team.
While customer service needs to have a human touch, it is important for firms to back the human factor with robust processes. Processes help the firms to have a consistent level of customer service by taking care of the variability factor. Firms must build some amount of flexibility in the processes because one cannot anticipate all kinds of customer requirements and problems.
Companies should also be taking an effort to practice permission marketing while attempting to cross-sell to the customers. Permission marketing is a term coined by the marketing guru Seth Godin to denote the practice of getting prior permission of customers before attempting to sell.
Companies taking customer service seriously should understand that it cannot offer everything to every customer. It takes lot of courage and effort to identify the customer segment that the firm opt to serve. Once that profitable segment is identified, firms should not shy away from providing the best possible customer service to them.