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You May Be Doing Customer Service All Wrong

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In the current issue of Harvard Business Review, two researchers who have worked with global commercial clients over the past 25 years offer some counter-intuitive advice for improving customer service. Jochen Wirtz and Ron Kaufman said it is important to focus on deep cultural change in the workforce, not just tactical process changes. Given this perspective, they recommend:

Don’t start with customer-facing employees. Wirtz and Kaufman said that customer service representatives already know the aggravations facing their organization’s customers. They said “the real problem lies with logistics, IT, or some other back-end function that isn’t meeting frontline colleagues’ needs.” They said that retraining customer-facing employees is a frustrating waste of time. They point to one communications company that tried retraining and there was no improvement, but when the company included its mission-support staffs in the training, satisfaction rose up to 20 percent for key customers. This is probably pretty good advice in government, as well.

Don’t focus training on specific skills or scripts. Wirtz and Kaufman said “companies spend vast sums training employees to follow procedures and flowcharts when interacting with customers.” Companies then monitor calls or use “mystery shoppers” to gauge adherence to the scripts. “A better approach,” the authors said, “is to persuade employees to commit to a holistic definition of service: creating value for others, outside and within their organization.”

Their advice reflects similar efforts by the Reinventing Government effort in the 1990s when the Department of Education (among others) issued employees “permission slips” to do what is good for their customers (so long as it is legal and ethical).

Don’t pilot changes. When large-scale transformation is needed, the authors said “firms must create momentum fast and set their sights high.” They point to an African airline that had poor customer service, red ink, poor union relations, and low staff morale. The new CEO undertook a crash effort to turn the organization around by creating cross-functional teams, provided “train the trainer” workshops, and new investments. The airline converted complaints to compliments and returned to profitability. There have been similar efforts in the federal government when agencies were in crisis, notably FEMA and the IRS in the 1990s.

Don’t track traditional metrics. Wirtz and Kaufman said the conventional quantitative metrics for customer satisfaction tend to be “lag indicators” that look back, but stymie efforts to “achieve rapid, dramatic change.” One company they observed shifted from quantitative metrics to qualitative open-ended evaluations of what customers wanted in terms of changes in services. “The shift changed employees’ focus: Instead of trying to hit a specific satisfaction score, they brainstormed ways to make customers happier,” the authors said. 

The authors concluded that if companies adopt these four unconventional strategies, typically slow improvements in customer service can turn into rapid and sustainable success. Having worked on government efforts to improve customer service, this may be a bit optimistic in the public sector, but is clearly worth considering.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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