There used to be a time when organisations had all the power. It was the days of the giant monopolies, where customers had no choice but to deal with only particular organisations because they were the only game in town. There are a still a few of those organisations around. Customer service was almost non-existent during this period. Therefore, managers and employees placed in charge of customer service or customer experience had to go and fight for the customer.
Because in most of those organisations, customer service was not too high in the order of priorities, managers had a hard time justifying anything that looked like a customer service expenditure. During this period, the organisation was mainly interested in the welfare of its staff. Competitive advantage was in having the very best of human resource at the organisation’s disposal. Organisations would go out of their way to recruit the very best of employees, offering them the best of packages to get them to stay.
After this period came an age when competition among businesses meant that customers now had the power to take their business away if they felt they were not being given the kind of treatment they wanted or deserved. During this era, organisations had no choice but to purposely employ managers to handle customer service. Roles like Customer Service Managers, Customer Experience Executives and Experience Management Consultants became more commonplace. These managers did not have to fight for resources as those in the preceding period. The resources were given to them.
However, as competition become increasingly intense, customer service became so powerful that anything and everything was done to promote it—many times, to the detriment of the employee. This was the era when mantras such as “The Customer is King”, “The Customer is always right”, “The Customer is the Reason for our Existence” and other refrains reigned supreme. The experience of employees was slowly relegated to the background for the more important “Customer” to take centre stage. This greatly affected the enthusiasm with which individuals, especially customer-handling employees, did their jobs.
It is a fact of life that we cannot give what we do not have. It does not matter how sincere we are about wanting to give; if we do not have, we cannot give. This truth transcends all aspects of life including the world of business in general and customer service in particular. Customer service, much like selling, is about a transfer of enthusiasm. However, if employees do not have the very best of experiences working for the organisation, they will not be enthusiastic about the job. And if they do not have the enthusiasm to give out, this makes it next to impossible for them to give to give the very best of experiences to customers.
It is true that there are professionals who will put aside every issue they might be having inside the organisation to go out of their way to ensure that customers have a good experience. Those are, however, few and far between. And even if they do, the experiences will fall short of great. Without enthusiasm, the best a customer will get will be good and not great. British-American author, motivational speaker and organisational consultant, Simon Simek, was absolutely on point when he said, “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.”
It is possible to get a few unprofessional staff even “envying” their customers when they see those customers “enjoying” while they, the employees, suffer. Take a case of an organisation where staff complain of poor working conditions or low monetary rewards. If those same employees see the organisation spending money to ensure that customers are well-catered for, it is only human that such negative emotions would surface. How would you expect a front line employee to be excited about serving customers when she keeps complaining about the quality of the chair she sits on but her customers are given the best chairs to sit on? How will a staff whose salary has delayed for a few days gladly serve a customer with a smile on her face?
I once did some work for an organisation where staff were up in arms against Management because staff had been told to stay away from a cocoa drinks dispenser. According to the management of the company, staff were abusing the privilege and therefore the dispenser was now for the sole benefit of customers. One manager told me he had seen employees buy huge loaves of bread and come to “fetch” large volumes of the cocoa drink for their breakfast. The abuse of the system meant Management had to cut out that experience for employees.
Sometimes, it is not even a matter of staff seeing the organisation doing some things for customers that it would not do for employees. Sometimes, it is just a matter of staff not having the right resources and tools to serve customers well. Out-of-date tools and processes, as would be expected, tend to frustrate employees and if those employees have customers in front of them, then the frustration increases exponentially.
A simple malfunctioning photocopier adds stress to the life of a customer-serving employee. If the staff has to “slap” the machine twice, take out the cartridge and shake it vigorously, place it back into the machine, before one good copy comes out, then the employee’s experience is marred. If the receptionist has to squint before seeing some words and figures on her monitor, how is she going to be excited about her experience for her to, in turn, excite her customers?
This is why I propose a third phase in the customer service revolution—a phase of collaboration. I believe we need to get into a dispensation where a great customer experience would not be achieved at the expense of a great employee experience. Customer experience and employee experience should go hand-in-hand.
One organisational function or department that needs to play an increasingly important role in this third phase is Human Resource. Customer service must work hand-in-hand with HR to ensure that the customer’s experience and the employee’s experience are not too far apart.
One area where HR needs to come to the fore is employee engagement. Every business manager, leader and supervisor must be aware of the importance of having employees fully engaged on the job. Highly engaged staff are those that have fully bought into the vision and mission of the organisation, understand that they are making a meaningful contribution to the overall vision and are convinced that the organisation cares about their wellbeing. It goes without saying that it is these kind of employees who are ready to go the extra mile for their customers.
Unfortunately, several studies I have come across indicate that globally, the percentage of employees who are highly engaged on the job does not exceed 30%. In other words, of every ten employees, at most, only three are fully committed to the job and the organisation. The rest are just coasting through the day.
Without employees being fully committed to the organisation and loving the job they are doing, the organisation’s output will constantly fall short. The role of the HR department is important for customer service because it is the gateway to employees entering the organisation. Therefore, if the hiring is wrong, the organisation suffers. When square pegs are brought in to do the jobs of round pegs, the stage is set for disappointment.
HR managers should be so interested in the engagement of employees to the point where, at any point in time, there should have an idea of the engagement levels of the entire workforce. Regular research should be done to ensure that such information is readily available. With that information, HR can then find ways of increasing engagement levels.
One such way is to adopt the right motivations to get staff to give off their best. Staff appraisals and rewards must be such that good performance would be encouraged and celebrated. Praise must be given when praise is deserved. Issues such as biasness and favouritism cause disaffection among staff leading to, not only lower levels of engagement, but even total disengagement in some cases.
Closely related to the HR function and its role in promoting great customer service is the role of workers’ unions. It is important that unions are brought into the entire customer service picture. In most organisations, unions are only known for militant stance against management. Unions are all about getting the very best bargains for employees, regardless of how that imparts on the customer’s experience—and by extension, the profitability of the organisation.
Approach a union leader and give the one an option between fixing a new air conditioner at the visitor’s reception and fixing one at the staff common room and I bet you, dollars to donuts, that it will be a no-brainer. The union leader will obviously fight for the welfare of her members.
However, can you imagine what would happen if union leaders fight equally for the good of both customers and employees? Can you imagine if union leaders use all the weapons at their disposal, include the occasional threat of sit-downs and other industrial actions to push for better customer and employee experience?
Unfortunately, many of the union leaders I have comes across just could not be bothered about the quality of service the organisation metes out to customers. All they care about is salary increment, regardless of the financial health of the organisation—and they would do everything possible to achieve that, even if it means taking away from the customer. If only they would care as much for the customer’s experience as they do for the employee’s.
As the business terrain becomes more competitive, great customer service is sure to become a most valued asset for those businesses who can provide it. However, the truth is that, it takes human beings to provide customers with that compelling reason to keep coming back—and the happiness of those human beings must be of interest to the organisation.
Businesses must ensure a good balance between what their employees experience and what customers also experience. One cannot be sacrificed for the other. Any attempt to do that will most certainly backfire because it is when employees enjoy that customers truly enjoy.