Good customer service means different things to different people and in different situations. When dealing with a financial advisor, for example, careful consideration and understanding of all relevant information is required, taking into account the client's future hopes and needs. Targeted questions from the adviser are expected, along with a well-reasoned decision-making process. In contrast, when ordering a burger at a fast-food outlet, polite efficiency – rather than analysis of the purchase decision – is preferred. Customers and those who serve them have their own perceptions of what makes good service, and a mismatch can lead to serious problems.
A confusing factor on both sides of the interaction is that customer service has become a "blended" conversation around customer needs, notes Catriona Wallace, managing director of service strategy and research consultancy Fifth Quadrant and a lecturer on AGSM programs at the Australian School of Business. For example, at the outset of a phone call or interaction, a customer may have had a specific enquiry that needs resolving but, after satisfying the original request, the customer service representative may explore other needs. "Sales and service are no longer clearly distinguished, although the dynamic, and what happens in those two parts of the conversation, can be quite different," says Wallace.
Customer service roles must be filled by people whose talents, attitudes and perceptions match their customers' expectations, advises Rita Di Mascio, a lecturer at the Australian School of Business who has spent nine years studying service models for frontline employees. In addition, she emphasises, training programs need to be individualised for specific talent groups, to avoid training useful attitudes out of a member of staff.
In an Australian study of 450 customer service representatives, aimed at developing a clear picture of customer service perceptions, Di Mascio discovered frontline staff perceived customer service in three different ways. In the right situation, each perception can be highly valuable, while in the wrong situation they can be be seriously damaging. Managers with responsibility for recruitment and training need to be aware of the categories and of the individual skills and talents of their customer service staff, Di Mascio suggests.
Category 1: Win-Win
"Staff in the 'Win-Win' category perceive customer service to be all about problem-solving," Di Mascio says. "They are concerned with satisfying the customers' true needs, even if the customers don't realise exactly what those needs are. They perceive their own role as being a resource for the customer that the customer can use, but they need respect from the customer in order to perform well for them. So in a way they need something back from the customer before being able to do their job well, hence the 'Win-Win' title. They see it as a relationship, not a one-sided affair."
Win-Win staffers believe the customer can make the best decisions for themselves, reports Di Mascio, so they empower the customer to do so. "In each encounter, they try to establish the right atmosphere for the relationship to develop. They don't follow a script and they treat the customer the way they would personally like to be treated."
Consider salespeople in a luxury car showroom, or perhaps in an electronics store, Di Mascio suggests. Their role is to ask a great deal of questions to find out what is driving the purchase, what the customer's lifestyle needs are, and then to use their specific knowledge of the products to make recommendations and, ultimately, to empower the customer to decide. That's the Win-Win attitude. But if you put such a salesperson behind the counter at a burger outlet, such as McDonald's, then their perception of customer service is unlikely to generate positive results.
The Win-Win customer service rep is competent and experienced and places high importance on the customer's needs. Members of this group are not "surface acting" (a behaviour that can involve reading scripts and not caring about the interaction), instead they are "deep acting". Good customer service means they have gone one step further for the customer and earned respect and appreciation in return.
Category 2: Efficiency
Those in the second category, known as 'Efficiency', are interested in procedure or in systemising the customer service process. "The script or procedures most likely come from their organisation and these staff think that by following those procedures they are providing good customer service," Di Mascio says. "They think that all customers appreciate the same kind of service. Their view of their own role is that they respond to customer queries – they do not collaborate with the customer to solve problems, they are just an answering machine. They do not go deeper. The customer is dominant."
Efficiency-motivated staff believe customers are allowed to act rudely towards them because it is their right, Di Mascio says. While Win-Win employees need respect from the customer, "Efficiency" staff are completely submissive. Regardless of the mood of the relationship, they will rely on the structure of the procedure to get by. They respect the customers, but do not hold them in the esteemed position that Win-Win staff do.
Put an Efficiency staff member behind the counter at McDonald's and it's a perfect match, Di Mascio says. The customer expects a systemised response to their order and does not want to develop a relationship with the person who is serving them. The main driver for this group is to serve the customers, give them whatever it is they ask for politely and as quickly as possible to reduce the queue.
As a café worker within Di Mascio's research group outlined: "We just want to serve them whatever they ask for quickly. But we still have to be nice to them, despite the fact that we're run off our feet. For example, when they're ordering coffee we can't say, 'Hey you, it's ready.' Instead, when they order, we take down their names, and when their order is ready we call out their name and say, 'Your coffee – or whatever – is ready'. It's more civil this way because we're using their name."
Category 3: 'Means'
The final group identified in the 10-year research study was called the 'Means' group, because customer service is seen simply as a means to an end. "It is not necessarily a selfish objective," Di Mascio says. "It might be a sales objective or a promised bonus, but it also might be to help people out via charity, to make the time at work go faster, to compete with colleagues or any other number of drivers."
Making a sale is what it's all about for the Means group. "Customer service means satisfying enough of their needs to make a sale," one respondent commented. "That's all you want, a sale, because it's impossible to satisfy all of their needs."
Service providers with a Means view, see the customers as malleable and potentially under the customer service person's control, according to Di Mascio's findings. There's a high level of surface acting as the customer service officer attempts to convince the customer that they are friends, simply in order to close a sale. "They saw themselves like actors, able to invoke different ways of relating to these different groups of customers," Di Mascio says.
Out of the three groups, the Means category is most likely to have sales quotas to meet, they are outranked by Win-Win in terms of competence and they are the least customer-oriented.
The Training Trap
The research casts new light on the importance of recruitment and training for customer service roles. Not only is it vital to recruit the right type of customer service professional for the requirements of the specific role, but once a customer service team has been established, training sessions – either for individuals or groups – must play to their strengths, rather than create a commonality of behaviour, says Di Mascio. "Quite often customer service representatives are trained to follow procedure and are measured on details, such as whether they mentioned the customer's name and followed all of the other steps. If the staff member is competent already – if for instance they have a Win-Win mentality – then when they are asked to follow a procedure they are being forced to concentrate on lower-level things and as a result they become less competent. Training must be suited to the level of the person, but it is surprising how many companies deliver the same training to all staff, regardless."
Within five broad channels of customer service, including face-to-face, voice (call centre), correspondence, online and social media, Wallace says there are 24 different channels through which a customer can make contact and interact in a sales and service environment. For example, the online channel splits into click-to-chat, instant messaging, email or social media. "It is very complex," she says. "For an organisation to deliver service, they need to have two dimensions of expertise. One is category expertise, or great knowledge of the company's offerings, and the other is channel expertise. The channel might be talking to a customer on the phone, through email or through web chat. We can then delve even deeper into needs-based customer service, which means you're reactively responding to an enquiry, plus exploring the greater needs of the customer in order to sell them more. And there's a further dimension called 'context', which requires the customer service representative to understand exactly who the customer is, where are they calling from, why are they calling, and what is the context in which they are calling."
Di Mascio's three categories highlight the need to identify the enquiry type, Wallace asserts. The Win-Win attitude will fit a certain type of enquiry, for instance. "Customer value will dictate if it should be a Win-Win type of conversation or an Efficiency or a Means-based one," she says. "Modern customer service is horrendously complicated so all of this needs to be modelled out. Really smart organisations with good customer service strategies need to have modelled this and must be appropriately equipped and properly trained to effectively respond. This should all be backed up by good knowledge management, good CRM (customer relationship management) and good telephony, telecommunications and online support."