Customer service & local empowerment

Have you noticed how vast numbers of companies and even government departments are pledging themselves to deliver excellence in customer service, to drive up satisfaction ratings til we talk in awed terms to our friends and family about how they exceeded our every expectation?  And have you also noticed how few of them actually deliver anything remotely like a

There was a time when I thought centralisation was good.  Greater efficiency, all the information in the same place, easy access, rapid response, all the good things you associate with organisations that muster their forces to provide a better service.

Except I was wrong.  Yes, you heard it here first!  Maybe I’m just getting old but I now yearn for the days of devolved localised decision-making and personal service, as in truly personal – someone to ‘own’ an issue and take a personal pride in making things work.

There was a time, for example, when each branch of a bank had a manager with almost total autonomy for making decisions.  These days, branch managers have targets but little leeway.  If you want to speak to anyone with decision-making powers you have to find a regional manager, though getting through to them might be very difficult.  Banks, like almost every organisation these days, have centralised operations into regional units and focused customer relations on call centres.

In my view, call centres exist to keep customers at arm’s length and to offer the very minimum possible response.  Operatives are trained in their scripts but not in the real art of giving proper customer service.  They are poorly paid, highly stressed, under orders to deal with a certain number of calls in a day, and suffer a high turnover for one reason or other.

They may be able to help with specific technical queries, but they won’t put you through to the member of senior management responsible, and will fob you off in the quickest and cheapest way possible.  They have targets to answer calls within a certain number of rings, but chances are you will be hanging on in a queue for sometimes very long periods while the IVR telephone queueing systems put you through to a real live person.  If you’re lucky, it might be a free 0800 number so it’s only your own time you’re wasting, but then many put you on 0845s or even premium phone lines so it costs a fortune every time you are permitted to speak to these people.  Talk about rubbing salt into the wound.

And then there is the tendency to off you bamboozling menu options so you don’t know which to select, then go into automatic mode which denies you access to any form of call centre agent.

Ah, but manpower is cheaper elsewhere in the world, so the tendency arose a number of years ago to off-shore call-centres to the Indian subcontinent and beyond.  This created more space, physical and psychological between the consumer and the company, and in the case of banking legislation means they could not view or answer questions about your personal finances either.

Time was when after-sales service or even liaison with any body was something provided free and with a genuine desire to solve problems, not to obfuscate, confuse or make matters ten times worse.  I have no doubt that call centre agents have to put up with a lot of abuse from customers, but then if they were accessible and helpful the chances of phone rage occurring would be proportionately smaller.

The older I get, the more I yearn for the days when you could find assistance quickly and simply, by phone or in person, but someone willing to give their name, pursue the issue to resolution and keep the customer informed at all times.  Remember the old adage?  The customer is always right.  I doubt that has been imprinted on the memories at most organisations for decades.

Nor senior management.  Years ago I did a lot of client work with NatWest, pre- and post-takeover.  Later on, during my MBA, I went out to Suffolk to interview the chairman of NatWest at the time I had been working with the company, Sir David Rowland, about his period in charge.  He was very helpful, and told one very illuminating anecdote about paying a visit to the office on Eastcheap, London, to which complaints were routinely directed.  While there is asked for a few to be given to him to investigate, and asked that two or three complaints be sent to him each week.  The management staff at Eastcheap bridled at the suggestion that top executives should sully their hands with complaints, normally dealt with by the lowest level staff there.

So to all organisations out there, public, private and voluntary sector, a simple message: empower your local staff to provide top quality customer service, to care about the needs of their consumer, and to give them the discretion to make decisions and put things right.  You will be repaid with far greater loyalty and word of mouth.

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