Friday, 14 November 2008

customer service: part I - the reality

Sensational service underpins my business.
I've always taken pride in delivering fast, excellent service to my clientele and new customers alike.
I take a real interest in their progress and celebrate their successes.
Most of them are friends. Some are good friends.
I enjoy challenging myself to turn around work as quickly as possible and finding efficient, elegant solutions to technical issues.
I always promptly respond to phone calls and emailed enquiries.
I'm generally happy to go the extra mile to satisfy customers' needs … by working out-of-hours to achieve the 'impossible', perhaps, or building solutions to help their budget work.
Sometimes they need some simple advice - or a referral - or a 'translator' to explain some technical jargon.
Information is power! and customers are entitled to know what's going on.
I never charge for such 'consultancy' services … even when I need to conduct my own research on behalf of others.
In fact, though I realistically can't afford to - and shouldn't! - around a third of the work I perform is charged out either free or at my 'community rate'.
To simplify all this: I'm a professional. I love my work. I love to help out.
'It's all part of the service!'

I was having a chat yesterday with my very good friend S about the many 'gaps' in Australian culture which encompass knowledge, skills and behaviour rather than socioeconomic inequities (although the latter is definitely relevant up to a point).
Here's my thesis: I believe it's accurate to claim that most Australians simply don't understand the simple principle of customer service.
Yes, we know what we expect of others … yet we simply aren't that good at meeting their expectations!

Using the KISS principle, let's start with the commonly understood interpretation of 'customer service': it's how a business and its representatives respond to your needs.
Irrespective of the size of the business - one employee or thousands - I am repeatedly disappointed by their lack of interest in my needs as a customer.
Poor service takes many forms and I won't dwell on anecdotal evidence. Here's a handful to go on with:
A tradesman who doesn't return my first and only call has lost me as a customer (as well as those I whinge to).
In the retail environment I expect to be acknowledged as (treated as) a human being.
A straight question to a salesperson merits a straight answer. ('I don't know but I'll find out' is fine with me.)
Surreptitiously taking over my telco account without my permission is fraudulent! (Yes, this happened to me. Cheers Optus!)
If I choose to do my grocery shopping 'off-peak' to avoid the queues I get bloody pissed off when I end up in a queue.
Whenever I telephone a company with an enquiry or a complaint, why should I be expected to wait at their convenience?
(Feel free to substitute your own experiences!)

To reinterpret: why must the customer repeatedly 'pay' for a business's deficiencies?
Why is the whole notion of 'customer service' so poorly interpreted within our economy?
And why aren't we doing anything about it?

Now that the traditional definition is covered, let's expand the theme.
Ten or 15 years ago, in response to the demands of the market god (see this - 8 November), government departments, educational institutions, charities and other not-for-profit organisations started relabelling their user-base as 'customers' and 'clients'.
Did this change anything? Did the culture improve? No - and NO.
More 'benchmarks'. Sweet. Ample 'workshops'. Cool.
Same old mediocre service in shiny new packages.
Walking the Talk remains the province of the minority.

Again, I won't dwell on anecdotes since everyone can provide their own - so here's another handful, all very recent.
When I present (as a 'customer') at reception and four staff are jabbering I'm entitled to expect that one just might divorce herself from the drivel to serve me - promptly, courteously, professionally.
And when a local government uses my money to destroy a much-loved kids' playground to build a better one, it shouldn't take more than twelve months to 'serve the customer'.
And should an extremely busy individual be expected to spend 20 minutes plus trying to send a fax to a government department because the number is continually engaged?

Face it. In most cases 'customer service' is getting worse - yet we're all talking the talk more than ever.

Why is this shit happening?
A couple of closely-related reasons.
The market knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
In other words, there's a damn good reason why so many non-essential products are so cheap - aside from the slave-labour involved in production and our collective failure to realistically charge for raw materials.
On the retail side, fewer skilled staff allows more competitive prices, higher turnover … ad nauseam.
To put it another way, the market inherently and systematically undervalues humanity.
'god' just wants us all to be productive / consumptive little cogs in this pervasive, fragile, structurally-'needy' machine that lacks either brain or heart.
It's been proven repeatedly that trained, skilled, professional employees not only add real value to a business … they become more empowered in their personal lives.
Some even start to question the morality of capitalism and overconsumption … and then proceed to disengage just a little … eventually, perhaps, even find a better quality of life.
The market can't have that!

As a society we are increasingly collectively selfish.
What I want is more important than what you want!
Too few of us offer respect unless we get it first. (Even then, it's all-too-often 'conditional'.)
We increasingly eschew volunteerism - leaving the dwindling few to carry the load - and then complain when a community project fails or the Country Fire Authority doesn't show up in time.
We 'shop 'til we drop.'
We demand our middle-class welfare.
We stomp across the planet on the back of cheap air-fares and wonder why the Barrier Reef is dying and the Coorong is dead; why Summer's 'getting hotter' and the rain isn't falling like it used to.
We indulge ourselves silly and worry that our kids are turning into spoilt brats.

Enough! There is a fairly straightforward solution.
But I'll keep you in suspenders.

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