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How Customer Service Disappeared

May 17, 2013

customer-service.0822.12I frequently hear people complain about the lack of customer service. I complain about the same thing. Cell phone and cable companies are my favorite targets. Oh, and let’s not forget the airlines, take your pick, any of the major airlines are easy targets for customer service complaints.

Pretty much everyone I know laments the loss of decent customer service. We all seem to remember a time when people just cared more about “the customer” and their job in general.

I wonder if that’s true? Do people really care less these days?

Do companies just invest less in customer service training? Is it possible that when they do train their people that the training just misses the mark?

I personally don’t think any of that is true. I have a completely different thought. I think it’s a leadership issue. To be more precise, I think it’s a careless leadership issue.

Careless as in there are fewer leaders that truly care about their people today than there has been since the advent of capitalism. Authentic leaders know that if they want their people to care about the customer then they need to FIRST care about their people.

I remember years ago when Northwest Airlines was still in business the pilots went out on strike. The pilot’s union and Northwest management both began running ads in the media stating their case and ripping the other side to shreds. Northwest hinted at the fact that their pilots were greedy idiots without the ability to form a cognitive thought. The pilots said it was the airline that was greedy and that they were cutting corners on maintenance that made the airline unsafe to fly. It was pretty ugly and emotional on both sides.

Then one day a local radio station interviewed one of the pilots. This was a very rational guy who explained how he saw the root cause of almost every problem at the airline.

He said the basic problem was that the airline was using unhappy, unengaged, and disillusioned employees to try and make happy, engaged and loyal customers.

He made a powerful case that it was nearly impossible for a unhappy “service worker” as he called them, to happily service a customer. He said it was normal, and should be expected, that if you’re unhappy you won’t exactly kill yourself trying to make somebody else happy.

I have agreed with and believed that ever since I first heard it.

Which brings us to the state of customer service today.

Today, the disparity in pay between those at the top of a company and those in the company who are most likely to provide service to the company’s customers is greater than it has ever been. The disparity is generally greatest in the cable, cell phone and airline industries. Is that a coincidence?

Executive pay in many cases continue’s to grow at double digit rates while the people in the trenches doing the heavy lifting receive increases of 1-2% on average. If that!

That disparity is easily explained by the relative “importance” of the job. Obviously top executives have a lot more responsibility than a front-line customer service rep. Or do they?

Whether they do or not is almost immaterial for this discussion. Here’s the point, if leaders say or do things that cause their people to feel as if what they do is unimportant they will respond accordingly.

Once a person feels unimportant they will be hard pressed to make someone else, a customer for instance, feel important either.

As leaders continue to build walls between themselves and their people, customer service will continue to decline. I don’t believe the building of walls is intentional, but a wall is a wall. Some of the walls are built with cash and some are built with actions but they are built all the same.

If you’re a leader who wants your people to provide a higher level of service to your customers, then don’t ask what your people can do for your customers. Ask what you can do for your people.

22 Comments
  1. I love this Blog!!! As someone who hs been in the customer service industry for over a decade,I have watched it go from good to bad to horrible.
    I am constantly screaming that what we do to/for our internal customers will trickle down to our external customers good or bad.
    I love that you have called this out and I hope and pray more organizations get the hint and change from the inside out.
    Once we have generated internal customer loyalty,gaining and maintaining the loyalty of our external customer will be a breeze.
    Great post!:)

    • Thanks for your comment! You are so so right, it is just crazy that companies take employees for granted and are then surprised that those same employees take customers for granted.

      Employees will not treat a company’s customers better than they are treated by the company. It just doesn’t seem that hard to me but I guess it is to those who insulate themselves from real live customers.

  2. The appreciation felt by an employee definitely shines through in service dealings with the customer and likely their production in general too. Hopefully, like many things this is cyclical and business will realize the larger loss in value from lower customer satisfaction by cutting corners on employee appreciation and we will see a new trend of business success realized through returned importance placed on well trained, happy, dedicated employees at all levels of the business hierarchy, especially in customer service! Thank you for your well articulated sharing of wise perspective Steve!

    • You’re welcome and thanks for your comment – I hope you’re right about it turning around. A little respect for our people goes a long way to solving customer service issues.

  3. Steve,
    Are you reading my mind? I have worked in the retail sector for the past 26 years. Two things have happened that will cause the closing of many retail stores. The people working in the stores are less engaged in their jobs and there are less of them to service a customer.

    Consumers have gone to internet shopping because they get the same service at a lower price. Most people in retail stores today are over worked and hardly paid a wage on which to survive. The corporate position: save payroll and we will cut costs.

    The model is upside down. Your most important people are the ones infront of the customer. Until we change that model our service industries will contine to decline.

    Thanks for the great blog.

    Tom

    • Thanks Tom, you’re right about the upside down part. I’ve told many executives that the most important person in their company (other than the customer) is the receptionist or person answering the phone. They touch many more customers than anyone else.

      Not too many of them like hearing that :)

  4. loai mustafa permalink

    Its very valid and good point, thank you for highlighting it. But the problem that employees dont say enough, always they want more directly or indirectly and its very difficult to satisfy them all the time. So the result usually that they are unhappy and making you customers unhappy. Also you cant forget your competitors as they are targeting your good employees more than targeting your customers. I think this point needs more analysing to reach the balance.

    Thanks again and regards

    • Employees often ask for more and the more they ask for is often money. Yet money is a very poor motivator, working only in the short term.

      What employees really want is recognition and respect and yet they seldom ask for that. They don’t ask because it is “weird” and they just aren’t comfortable talking about the feelings and because the company most likely measures everything in terms of money. If money is a company’s only measure of success then that is what the employees will use as well.

      When respect and recognition of employees go up so do the efforts of the employees. Unfortunately, too many “leaders” say they don’t have the time to give that respect and recognition.

      They doom their customers to continued poor service.

  5. loai mustafa permalink

    Agree 1000%
    thanks

  6. Jeff Head permalink

    I believe it’s the narcissism of the individual that has pushed this beyond acceptable. The focus of “all about me” has left many a customer in the dark wondering why they are there. It’s up to the leaders to lead and if they don’t know how then to train themselves. “Everything rises and falls on Leadership” – John Maxwell

    • Good point! Every time I hear a “leader” say that their people don’t get “it” I ask what the “it” is. Most of the time they don’t get it because they haven’t been given “it”

      If you want your people to provide great service then don’t tell them to do it, show them how it’s done.

  7. Steve, you have hit the nail on the head. How you treat your staff is how they will treat customers. Too many CEOs ignore people these days – customers and staff. Great article.

    • Thanks Vince, you’re right of course, too many “leaders” forget their only as successful as their people allow them to be.

  8. John M. Harris permalink

    I think your analysis is true, but something I think most people miss with issues like this is, paying the CURRENT employees more won’t fix the problem. Say, for example, the customer service people make $10 an hour. Well. They are $10 an hour people. Paying them $20 (more than they need) will not make them better (think TSA). What needs to happen is to fire bad customer service reps and only hire $20 per hour people (who currently won’t do the job because the pay is too low). Every job has a value, it is what a qualified person is willing to take in compensation to do it. So practically, here’s how you do it. Make it easy for customers to provide feedback. Give them free stuff to fill-out mobile surveys online. Then announce “we’ve decided to double the pay of all our customer service representatives” you’ll be a hero. But then tell them with new pay comes new standards, 3 negative reports in a week (or whatever) and you’re fired. The $20 an hour people will adapt, and most of the people will be gone in a month.

    • Thanks an interesting thought John. It has been tried often and only worked short term. History has taught us the money isn’t enough, if you do not care about your people then your people simply will not care about your customer.

      If only it was as easy as throwing money at the problem. It takes much more than a cash investment; it takes a leader willing to invest themselves in their people.

      Customer service is a people business, cash doesn’t “fix” people, people do.

  9. shoeb permalink

    Hey Steve, its been 8 years now i hav benn working with service industry, in which i was a trainer for almost 4 years.. This is a nice read, you wont imagin i was discussing the same thing with my ofice frnd on how or rathr what we can which shall improve the csat score for or industry, may be this shall help… Nice read..thanks for sharing..

    • You’re welcome, and good luck with improving the csat scores. I always share with customer service leaders that they need to always keep in mind, if you want your people to SHOW the customers that they are cared for then you must SHOW your people that they are cared for as well.

  10. Strange customer service from BHS a few years ago when i had to wait for staff to finish a discussion on a BBC programme on customer service before they would serve me.

    • Oh that’s funny! When I do customer service training I always insist that the organization split their team into two groups so customers are taken care of at all times.

      Sometimes it’s the little stuff that makes for big memories :)

      Thanks for sharing your experience. That’s a classic :)

  11. Right on Steve! It is about more than pay, however…. people simply want to be respected, empowered to actually get things done and ideally inspired to make a difference. Pay can certainly be a factor, but leader behavior and culture are also critical. Great post,,, thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Lisa, it a fact that money is a very short term motivator, respect however is a life long motivator.

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