Let’s be honest: customer service is hard work. Like, genuine customer service. The customer service that lives up to the ideals of creating a fulfilling relationship between a business and its customers. And yet, customer service workers rarely get the recognition for the value they bring to both the businesses and the consumers. They are often underpaid and mistreated by all sides. They don’t always make good money for all their troubles. And still, they have to turn up everyday to work and take on the tall order of making everybody happy.
We spoke with business owners and a call center expert to understand what really goes into good customer service. We explored why customer service interactions inspire such anxiety in the people who need it and the people who provide it.
Customer service? More like ‘lip service’.
It’s hard to measure customer service by the numbers. Businesses provide good customer service not because one good relationship immediately and directly improves your bottomline. Some consider customer service an additional item on top of the actual product or service.
The truth is, the benefits of good customer service are prospective, not guaranteed. But the relationship it builds between the company and the consumer is very much real. And so is the work that takes to nurture it!
Businesses, big and small, profess how integral customer service is to the heart of their operation. Yet, for all the importance placed on the profession, why does customer service get such a bad rep? Why do plenty of Americans walk away from a customer service call feeling upset?
At first glance, the problem may lie with the businesses themselves.
In a famous Wall Street Journal article, Sharon Terlep talked about the measures some companies took to push customers to their “breaking point”. That is to say, these companies don’t actually aim to solve their customer’s issues. Instead, they manipulate their customers until they give up the cause.
Why? As Anthony Dukes and Yi Zhu put it simply: for profit, ofcourse. They get to save on the costs of having to correct any problems or drawbacks. And they don’t have to invest in proper training or fund resources, or ensure support for customer service departments to actually do their jobs.
It’s not surprising that brand experts and analysts point out how the deliberate neglect can hurt a business in the long run. Older generation prefer genuine personal contact, and millennials and Generation Z want to know that they’re being heard. Companies that fail to serve that need will lose out to those who can.
Getting it right when the competition is tight.
Small businesses and start-ups, including the ones we’ve personally spoken to, pay more attention to how they treat their customers. They know first hand just how challenging it is to build a customer-base and keep their patrons constantly engaged.
“If something goes wrong or a customer wants something returned, we see it as an opportunity to take care of them,” Tate explained, “The hope is that years later, they might remember the way that we treated them and find their way back.”
And it’s not just in the interest of satisfying the needs of the customers. Start-ups and small businesses also engage their customers for insights on how they can improve their products and services.
Sasha Millstein, the CEO and Co-Founder of Aunt Ethel’s Pot Pies, personally interviews her customers at the bars that serve her pot pies. Afterwards, she integrates their feedback into her product development.
“We really want to build a community of engagement where people feel like their opinions matter, that we listen to them,” said Millstein, “And that we tweak our products based on what they have to say or what they’re looking for.”
While it’s arguable that companies starting out are naturally predisposed to prioritize customer service because they need customers, it would be a mistake to assume growing big means customer service is going to matter less. Integrating customer service into your business process is a long term strategy that transforms business relationships into something beyond the initial transaction.
Cutting costs on customer care cuts service quality.
By now, it’s clear how important customer service is. But that doesn’t change the fact that it can be a highly stressful venue of interaction. And this is especially true for the people who consider it a profession.
Plenty of service workers pour their frustrations online. On subreddits like TalesfromRetail and TalesFromCallCenters, many commiserate over the challenges of working in customer service. This can range from working in tightly controlled environments that actually restrict their ability to solve people’s problems, to dealing with demanding and cruel customers. All in all, it can be emotionally and mentally draining.
We reached out to Liz*, who has worked as a contact center agent in education and insurance.
She agrees that customer service is undervalued. Poor customer service management by companies certainly contributes to the dreadful experience.
“I think there’s an assumption that customer service is easy, because you don’t need to go to college to deal with people. But people are unpredictable. And when you have to handle multiple accounts, oftentimes under time pressure with restrictions on what solutions you can and can’t offer, and still hit some sort of quota at the end of the day, then it can be frustrating and draining,” admitted Liz.
It can certainly lose you loyal patrons. And you don’t need a college degree to know how expensive it is to find customers than it is to keep them. Lowering operational costs by reducing human input in valuable areas, such as customer service, or by refusing to invest in the proper training and technical equipment of your employees only leads to loss of loyalty and productivity in the long-run.
Everyone just wants to be cared for.
In summary, companies can’t afford to half-ass their customer service strategy.
“Customer service is the lifeblood of any business organization.” said Liz. “They need to learn how to optimize the patience, resourcefulness and communication skills of their customer service employees. I mean, that’s what we’re hired for.”
If she learned anything from working in the frontline of insurance companies, it is finding the balance between company guidelines and customer needs.
“A few days ago, I was on the phone with a client who was pregnant. Naturally, I checked in on her and asked how she was doing. My supervisor flagged me for prolonging the conversation,” she shrugged, “I can always meet my quota some other day. I want to meet my metrics, but I want to do it without forgetting the people I’m talking to, or myself.”