Monday, February 23, 2015

Why Customer Service Matters (and Why So Many Companies Fail at It)

Since the beginning of real capitalism, businesses have known that sales and marketing depend heavily on consumers. In today's business world, it's even more true, because there are millions of companies ranging from small Etsy shops to multinational corporations trying to compete for a person's hard-earned disposable income. With social media and the internet, word of mouth and recommendations are critical to long-term strategy for businesses. But the greatest marketing team in the world only lasts so long and has so much impact if the customer-facing personnel don't care about the company's solvency.

I've worked in so many fields in my life, starting my first job as soon as I was legally allowed to work. Before that, I babysat for many years, and that was significant income because I was often the first person recommended in my town. In college, I worked three or four jobs simultaneously, as well as served in leadership roles for volunteer programs. Since graduating, I have worked in a variety of industries and I now freelance, manage my own business, and work in customer service. So when I say I'm confident that I understand marketing and customer service, I have something backing it up.

Customer service doesn't pay well generally. It's the entry level position many people get, and most staff in these positions have no real buy-in. They don't care if the company looks bad or earns more customers, because when you're working for minimum wage or just over that, you aren't thinking about long-term strategic plans. That's the first mistake businesses are making. You depend on your customers. Loyalty in a customer is something you can't earn through marketing. Nothing sells your product better than an enthusiastic consumer. Not great blog posts, not amazing Amazon ratings or reviews, not celebrity endorsements. In reality, Peyton Manning endorses way too much for me really to care what he says he likes. I'm not going to choose my cell phone provider because they're the official cell phone provider to the NHL. All these things may work as a gimmick, but even if I buy something because David Tennant recommends it, in the end I'm not sticking around if the product sucks or I don't feel like my money is wanted or my business is valued. Most people are that way - they will try something because a respected blogger or celebrity idol or even close friend strongly encourages them to try it. However, the challenge is that not only will bad customer service deter the shopper from continued use of product, it will also minimize the referring party's credibility. Eventually, that friend or celebrity or blogger will stop being a source of guidance, since they no longer seem to have the consumer's interests in mind.

We all know this, so why is it so hard for a company to manage it well? Is it because they don't want to pay people well enough? I don't think so. I don't make much more than minimum wage for the customer service work I do; I simply find other means to bring in income. I know lots of people who work in jobs they love for far less in salary than they'd earn elsewhere. Money is a driving force, but for most people, it really isn't as powerful as some may think. Yes, companies should invest more in this part of their strategic plan, but at the same time, reps aren't rude or disinterested only because of their pay grade.

Is it that customers are extremely difficult, demanding, or clueless? At times maybe. But for every rude customer who is convinced the adage "the customer is always right" is always true, there are hundreds who simply want an answer and are not looking to complain. Besides, in any other field, would you treat a client the way customer service reps often treat customers? Would you blow off a request for info from an investor? Would a publisher mock an author for asking about royalties? Would a mechanic argue with a tire vendor? Yeah, probably somewhere people do that, but nowhere near as often as you see it in customer-facing roles. The reality is that you represent your organization in a position like that and anyone with any self-preservation should want to present the company in the best possible light, because the company's success equals job security. You can curse out the customer after the call ends or aloud while you email them a pleasant response. They don't need to see it! Yet it happens over and over, but why?

Maybe it's because quality is simply a thing of the past. Companies outsource production and service. They don't even know what their call centers are doing sometimes. My parents own a TV that's an antique at this point. It's ridiculous - it looks like something you would see in Downton Abbey, if they'd had TVs. They've had it for 30 years and never needed to replace one piece (this is an old school picture tube TV). Meanwhile, until we switched to HD, we had to buy new TVs every couple years because they were constantly breaking. Almost everything I buy now breaks within a year. I order something from the pizza place and they make the wrong item. I buy something on Amazon and they forget part of the shipment. My mail comes damaged. We order from Peapod and I'd say 10% of our items aren't what we ordered (and they aren't substitutions, just carelessness). People simply don't care about quality and this carries into customer service. This is probably where companies themselves have the most control and where they truly need to start dedicating more effort. You definitely need to ensure that your service is top quality, because it's the first step to show that you value your customers and that you put in the work.

It takes a lot to change the status quo, but it's also important that we stop just accepting bad service. Companies feel they can get away it, while good businesses have to compete even harder despite making quality products and caring about their customers. When friends ask for a recommendation, consider what you suggest as a product. Does the business seem to value you? If not, why are you doing their job for them? They pay people to make those sales. I know many companies push referrals for bonuses for current customers, but isn't the ethical trust you have with family and friends (and readers if you're a blogger) more important than a few dollars? In addition, we need to demand more, to have higher standards. Why do we excuse bad business or poor quality simply because it's cheap or because we don't want to complain? That's exactly when we need to complain, so that these organizations know that it's not just a stray weirdo who likes complaining, but a serious issue. Remember - this is the face the company puts forward. If your first contact and exposure to them is bad, then what do you think you'll get long-term from the products?

Businesses need to be aware that the people who communicate daily with their customers are the face of their brand. Because of this, they must ensure that the face of their brand is pleasant, responsive, and truly desires to see the organization grow. Maybe that means paying them more, or maybe it really means hiring people with a reason to be invested in the first place. Look at, for example, a company like Disney. They have some of the strictest standards for staff of any organization, but the reason is that they strongly believe everyone interacting with customers has to reflect their values. If you manage a pet store, why would you hire people who don't like animals and don't have pets? Yes, there's desperation at times, but it shows in the quality of the business and the service people get. Start with the source, develop advocates for your business and product, and people will grow to respect your company far more. As for consumers, let's start showing companies that we expect more.

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