Quality Customer Service: An Unending Quest

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

Can quality customer service be defined? Can it be identified? How does it match up against consumers’ expectations? Can it be monitored?

There are basic questions any public-facing business ought to consider. There is not a day that goes by when we are not dealing with a product or service problem, whether large or small, that requires our issue to be resolved. The problem givers can be a bank, insurance company, phone carrier, utility or an airline.

There is a baseline of service delivery requirements we identify and expect. Some of the top requirements are commitment, dependability, responsiveness and empathy. The last item is not accomplished when you are on hold for 45 minutes to switch a cell phone to a different user account. It is also not accomplished if you are met with a disingenuous “I am sorry for the inconvenience; I certainly understand your frustration.” Or, “I can imagine your frustration and am really doing all I can.” The second one we normally hear from a frazzled airline agent who is defenseless against the long line formed in front of the counter. Offering nothing but a robotic statement designed to calm the angry customers only serves to make them angrier.

In the case of the airlines, earlier this month it took my wife and her two sisters 12 hours to get from West Palm Beach to Newark Airport  ̶   and this was well before the impact of the U.S. government shutdown was showing operational deficiencies in airports. The airline, which shall go unnamed (Okay. It was United), showed its inner Keystone Cops. Instead of being honest, United offered lies and half-truths about equipment breakdown and the inability to find a small replacement part, even reaching out to other airports in the state. Then there were pilot and crew shift changes at the wrong time and other comical (if you find this situation funny) situations. But one constant remained: lack of commitment, dependability, responsiveness and empathy.

And for all the hassle and stress it created, United offered only a fifty-dollar voucher that had to be used with United. So, for those who missed connections and had to find a hotel to stay at overnight (the original flight was scheduled for 4:00pm on a Sunday and did not take off until 12:30am the next morning), I could not imagine such a voucher would have a calming effect. An apology sent via email to ticket holders could not have sounded more indifferent and insincere.

Is Quality Customer Service Illusory?

Why does the term, customer service even exist? It has gotten to the point that when a human answers a phone and resolves even the most mundane of requests, we hang up the phone and high five anyone who is around us, or we let out an ear-splitting scream of joy!

In reality, there is nothing to be discovered in the fuss regarding customer service. The concept of customer service is theoretically sound, but is there really any quality customer service? You make a call and go through a litany of menu options and choices, none of which matches your immediate needs. In some instances, the automated operator directs you to the company’s website where you can have an online chat. Try this out with Verizon. You have to really dumb down an explanation in order for their online representatives to have even a remote understanding of what you need. Try asking for someone’s immediate supervisor.

Good luck with that.

The Financial Payoff in Great Service and the Financial Cost of Poor Service

There are scores of books that address customer satisfaction, service or loyalty. Consider the information contained in The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty; Customer Satisfaction is Worthless, Customer Loyalty is Priceless; and Customer Experience 3.0: High-Profit Strategies in the Age of Techno Service. In any of these books one theory is inescapable: the customer service experiences a company offers will either generate more revenue or considerably reduce it. Customer service is neither a neutral offering nor a zero-sum game in a business.

Nothing too complex about that.

Harvard Business Review has covered customer service many times, with the usual conclusion that customer service has a profound effect on a corporation’s bottom line. In one of its earliest studies, it found that companies that boosted their customer retention by as little as five percent saw increases in their profits ranging from 25 percent to a 95 percent.

The corollary is not surprising. A simple formula:  When you offer poor service, it leads to lost customers, which in turn, leads to lost profits.  A US News and World Report article reported the average American business loses 15 percent of its customer base annually.  And 68 percent of the customers who stop doing business with a company do so because of “poor or indifferent customer service.” An additional 14 percent also departs because of an “unsatisfactorily resolved dispute or complaint.” 

What is interesting is only nine percent of customers are affected by price and will look elsewhere for a better deal. So, if price is the least important factor, greater attention must be placed on the total 82 percent that stops doing business with a company because of a customer service-related matter.

Of course, the cynics (or the lazy) can say, “So, what. Not a big deal. If we lose a customer once in a while, what’s the big deal? You can’t make everyone satisfied.”  True enough.  But it’s a much bigger deal than you might think … because that defecting, angry and frustrated customer will hurt your future business.

How can this happen? With social media or word of mouth, it takes only one unhappy customer who does not simply shrug his/her shoulders and walk away defeated. On the contrary. Just one unhappy customer may tell other people in person or on Facebook and Twitter. Those 10 people grow exponentially to hundreds and then thousands. And if you have a video to share that shows the shoddy service, chances are good that it will go viral. Just ask United when it was filmed in two separate bad passenger experiences, one in 2017 and the other in 2018. These were just a couple of what may be many documented examples of how not to provide quality customer service. Then of course, who knows how many other situations that went undocumented.

Retain Customers and Profitability

To retain your customers and boost your profitability, whether a product or a service, they must be accompanied by quality. Interestingly enough, a new wave of younger consumers are seeking more. This something more is the concept of a memorable experience. This means leaving a positive impression compelling enough that customers talk about their experience and also have a reason to come back.

In my experience there are several reasons or emotions that can make customers evangelists for a company.

They have to feel—

  1. Important. Make them feel special; as an individual and not one in a “herd of cattle.” This also includes showing respect.
  2. Secure. Give them confidence that their basic needs will be met.
  3. Treasured. Recognize the individual and his/her business and be grateful. Expressing this sentiment can be done more than once in a transaction or encounter without any downside.
  4. Understood. Listen carefully to what they are saying (and not saying) and the emotions they display. And absolutely do not be defensive.
  5. Welcome. Show sincerity that you are glad to serve them and that you are happy they have come to your company.

Service companies should encourage the input of all employees to consider these five elements and come up with five fundamental ways that their customers can be made to feel more important, and another five ways to make them feel secure, and on and on. Publish this and make it available on company intranets, as well as having hard copies available at each counter, workstation, customer service booth, etc. Remind employees every week that these are company “values.”  Monitor customer complaints and see which of the above five are being violated, and take appropriate steps to rectify the situation(s).

When customer service is done well, it is a win-win.  The service provider irrespective of his or her level in the company should have an emotional investment in wanting to make a positive difference. Often, companies will send online surveys or ask that a phone survey be completed. The employee should keep this in mind because no dissatisfied customer will remain silent if the experience was really bad.

A company needs to value its customers. It’s simple stuff, but so frequently taken for granted. The ratio of frustration to satisfaction needs to flip. We’re all busy. Who needs empty apologies coupled with zero positive results…like being placed on hold for 45 minutes, or taking 12 hours to go from Florida to New Jersey when it is only a three and one-half hour flight?

Remember: The life blood of any business is based on loyalty. Quality customer service is the heart that pumps the blood.

About the Author

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose.