Customer service is dead!

31 Mar

Is it really?

“For more enquiries, please e-mail us on…….”

“How can we help?……..let me put you through to someone else”

“We’ll call you after 5 minutes……”

The above are a few examples of where service delivery fails and it has become almost a norm and acceptable, at least from my experience in my beloved country Zambia.

The first is an amazing footnote that accompanies most adverts from Zambian organizations in the print media. I am still reeling from the inattention attached to the commitments businesses pronounce perfunctorily. I had sent an e-mail to a private college in Lusaka as advertised in one of the daily newspapers to solicit more information on their course offerings. That was over two months ago and unbelievably I still have not received a response.

The second failure is a common occurrence as well. How many times have we called an organization or visited one with an enquiry or request for assistance, only to be referred to someone else after all the explaining? When you do get through to the next person, the storytelling starts all over again and if you are very unfortunate, you may just have to be thrown to yet another person “that will be of assistance”

And then the most common “we’ll call you back…” Most front-line and customer service staff use this phrase with little or no thought at all. It comes naturally and usually seems to be an escape so they can get on and deal with the next person, hoping the clock hits 5pm soon or their shift comes to its end.

My experience, like most I believe, is that this call never comes. Five minutes is never five minutes nor a call back a commitment to be seen to its end. Therein lies a broken promise at a critical point of interaction with the customer.

These are examples of poor interactions where businesses lose the opportunity to impress and also connect with the customer, a prerequisite for loyalty and retention.

However, the points at which this lapse occurs also extends to processes and systems made without the customer in mind. For instance, one of our utility companies in Lusaka had disconnected service at my residence some time back. Within minutes, (and to avert a domestic thrashing at the hands of my wife for forgetting to pay!), I rushed to their head office and settled the account.

My expectation was that this was a done deal and the next call from home would be a confirmation of the reconnection. Alas, it was not. Instead the call was to tell me the company’s representative had refused to reconnect because they did not find a receipt at home. When I walked into their office I had no kind words for the company. My question was simple, I made a payment and their systems must update the records and this is information that should be readily available companywide in real time. Additionally, I queried how the agent had ended up at my home for a reconnection if it was not because their records were showing that I paid… what did he need a receipt for when he had the instruction to go and reconnect?

Getting to the bottom….

There are oceans of examples that can be cited for every business. Highlighting these is of extreme importance. But this is only the first step. The next must always be an introspection to understand where the gaps arise and the corrective action to deal with the gaps. Before getting scientific or devising grand plans to fix this, every member of the organization must also honestly assess what their contribution or lack of it is with regard to customer service. How many of us actually miss calls because we do not want to talk to a work colleague, either out of prejudice or on account of owing them some information we promised and do not have? How many of us bother to even call back? How many of us respond to e-mails from work colleagues? Or the famous “I’m in a meeting, will call you back” and the call never comes. If we are unable to handle fellow employees we know and see every day, how do we expect to deliver exceptional service to a stranger, the customer?

So to achieve the excellence companies blurt on, what needs fixing? I am of the humble view that customer service improvement is all about the most basic and simplest of things. Paradoxically too, that is the biggest challenge of fixing it……we seek grand and record breaking changes to improve it when it is all about the daily “in your face” gaps.

What are these things?

Departmental myth

First things first, customer service is everyone’s responsibility, not a department. As long as we all deal with other people, we are practicing it. At home, in the office, church, social club etc, we are interacting and always expect smooth exchange and feedback. This means the simple principle of “give to others what you expect to receive from them” applies. So the next time you are complaining about poor service, challenge yourself and examine how you are faring in the same regard when at work.


Customer service requires leadership. This is very critical and it must be real leadership that shows the passion of the senior management team. Customer service must never be one of those boardroom pronouncements “just for the record” or staff meeting mantras. There is one prominent organization that has their vision and mission hanging on the walls proclaiming that “we want to be the best service provider and make our customers and shareholders happy”. It just takes a few seconds on their premises and an interaction with their staff to realize these are just hollow statements crafted in some meeting and not sold to the rest of the team and organisation.

Customer service must be a followed through commitment from the top to the bottom, practised and applied by every soul in the organisation. It must be in the business’ DNA to the core at all levels. I have attended some meetings in my professional career where customer service is just one of those formality items on the agenda. The minute it comes up, people want it rushed through so they close the meeting or get to other “important” sections. In this competitive environment where few products and services are absolutely unique, businesses must get to a realisation that customer service is a key differentiator that will deliver competitive edge, loyalty, increased revenue, free word of mouth/viral advertising and “worlds apart” brand power.

KPI setting and standards

Then there is the obvious (or is it?), setting of standards, measurable parameters. This happens in almost all organisations these days. Unfortunately, it usually all ends up as a flowery PowerPoint presentation or some framed decoration hanging on some wall. The standards should never be an end in themselves. They must be set in perspective and in a context very relevant to the daily activities of all team members. This entails that all the set KPIs and KRAs must be well understood by all and their importance highlighted. They should not be academic exercises at the start of a year and documented for audit purposes. Rather, the team must be drilled through so there is appreciation of the role each KPI and team member plays in the chain. This will then also highlight what a lapse in those areas means and its business impact.

Such correlation between the KPIs and business impact in cases of delivery breakdown can be derived from real work situations where these lapses may have occurred, to assist team members see the application in real work life. Additionally, these standards should never be set and “sold” to staff with a “carrot or stick” approach. This is always a challenge as the vision is never shared with the motivation of winning team members over. Instead, fear and apathy is instilled as the team members will apply their barest minimum to get by in their job and pay the rent as opposed to offering service they believe in, service that presents the “extra mile” mindset a chance to survive!

Systems and internal processes

The systems and processes that a company devises must also have the customer at heart. In many cases, businesses invest in systems on account of prejudiced professional advice and by the time the customer service team is brought in, money has been spent. Only then does the realisation hit home that what this system will deliver is as per the technocrats’ preference as opposed to making it easy for the customer to do business with an organisation. Likewise, when it comes to processes, there are so many a time when a customer has to go in rings for a refund, query resolution or a request that ordinarily must be closed at first contact or communicated clearly and followed through till closure if escalated. How empowered are the teams to deliver this exceptional service? Are the tools available or are there any knowledge pots that need to be filled to ensure processes are customer centric?


Finally, no business can ever be sustainable or post growth in the long term without its people. All the bottom lines, top lines and the fancy business terms can only be achieved through people. This means the business must recruit people that are trainable and exhibit the right attitude. Selection methods are always a challenge as most of the time, you have no chance of seeing all you need to in a prospective employee in an interview. However, the business must be ready on engagement to sell the excellence proposition to all its employees. It must also ensure the environment reflects the importance attached to this and all the possible investments are made to sustain this. Tools, product knowledge, recognition, best practice exchange and exposure to top organisations (the best in the trade) must all be active items on the agendas and plans.

Walking the talk…

In the end, a business must reach a stage where every member walks the talk and plays a daily active role to deliver exceptional customer service. This must be a demand and must right from the top.

Customer service is a vocation like priesthood, medicine and all such calls. It must always be seen beyond just being another job, a means to an end but rather as everyone’s responsibility and contribution to building the business and ensuring its survival generations later.

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Posted by on March 31, 2012 in Customer service


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