New survey highlights the challenges facing customer service provision in the UK

Considering the amount of media attention given to the current economic crisis and the importance of customer satisfaction and retention, new research paints a worrying picture of consumers’ perception of customer service in the UK. 

The survey, conducted by YouGov Plc on behalf of Jacada, a provider of unified desktop and process optimisation software for the customer service market, questioned more than 2000 UK adults on a number of key customer service issues.
With modern-day call centres often vilified as a common enemy that everyone loves to hate, perhaps some of the less-than-stellar findings in this area were to be expected.  Even so, it seems surprising that almost two thirds (63%) of the survey's respondents admitted to "giving up" when accessing customer service online – and almost a half (48%) when using the phone – without having their issues resolved.

"Let's face it, nobody actually wakes up in the morning wanting to call a company’s customer service department; we do so when we have to," says Guy Tweedale, Senior VP of European Operations at Jacada, the company that commissioned the survey. "A lot of people are working long hours and enduring a horrendous daily commute.  As such, most of us simply don’t have the time to call customer services, be held in a queue, and then passed around numerous departments in order to get our problems solved.  If you think about it that way, then it's no wonder that surveys like these reveal that the general public are routinely giving up on customer service."

According to the Jacada/YouGov survey, even when customers did finally manage to make contact with a customer service representative, nearly half of those questioned ended up feeling "frustrated or annoyed" by the experience – regardless of the channel used to resolve their issues. 

"Of course, most customers will feel frustrated if they feel that someone is simply reading to them off a script," says Duncan Baker, Director of Strategic Marketing and Communications at the Institute of Customer Service (ICS).  "This approach might work for very simple problems or queries, but as customer enquiries get more complex, customer service staff need to demonstrate that they truly understand the problem, and that they have the resources, know-how and authority to do something about it. In other words, good customer service is about empowering staff to understand the customer's needs, and then giving them the confidence and resources that they need to deal with customers effectively."

Marcus Hickman, Executive Research Director at the Customer Contact Association (CCA) agrees. "A crucial part of an agent's ability to be effective is whether or not he/she understands the products and services being sold, as well as the specific problem at hand," he says. "You'll hear customers talk a lot about price, but in the end the product, the brand, and the service are also important factors when making the decision to buy."

Of these three key factors, Baker believes that customer service is in a league of its own. "Enlightened companies are starting to realise that nothing else [apart from customer service] gives market advantage anymore," he says. "Products can be replicated, prices can be matched, technology can be copied.  Customer service remains as the most powerful way for a company to gain a competitive advantage over its competitors, and I think that businesses are starting to realise the influence that this area has over the bottom line."

EXAMINING CUSTOMER SERVICE WOES

With good service clearly playing such an important role in the overall health of the business, it is even more surprising that only 20% of respondents surveyed by YouGov reported feeling satisfied by their suppliers' customer service efforts in the past year when accessing a telephone help line, and that only 15% said they were satisfied following online contact.

"In my view, the whole area of customer service has been neglected for years, as those running the business either don’t understand or don’t appreciate the impact of satisfied customers on the company’s success," according to Guy Tweedale.  "Any consumer can tell you that good customer service is an important part of the decision-making process for their next purchase.  And common sense tells us that reduced customer churn – and the associated reduction in customer acquisition costs – will be beneficial to a company’s bottom line."

So, where is this process breaking down?  If businesses want to offer good service, and customers are looking for the same thing, then why are these customer satisfaction figures so low?

For a start, simple things like checking a bank balance or submitting a meter reading can now all be done via Interactive Voice Response (IVR), which means that the calls with agents are now being reserved for the most complex and complicated calls, which are often much harder to solve. Not only that, but many calls are now being made after other self-service options have failed in some way, which changes the caller's perception of the interaction as well.

The Jacada/YouGov research supports this theory, with more than a quarter of online contact (29%) and a third (34%) of phone contact failing to resolve the issues of those questioned, and therefore requiring another contact – by telephone – with customer service.   These results provide further evidence of why customer service departments can't rely on process alone;  callers need to speak to someone who understands their exact needs at that given moment, and that can be difficult to achieve by relying on a generic script.

IS CUSTOMER SERVICE GETTING BETTER OR WORSE?

Although this highly personalised level of service should be the goal, many companies are still missing the mark in this area.  According to the Jacada/YouGov survey, nearly 40% of those questioned felt that customer service has become worse in the last 12 months. But why? During a recession, in particular, surely it would seem prudent to improve service in ways that will help to strengthen the brand and protect customer loyalty, and yet these findings show a deterioration in this area.

"For a start, I honestly don't believe that customer service is necessarily getting worse," says Duncan Baker.  "We conduct our own survey on this subject, called the UK Customer Satisfaction Index, and our findings have actually shown an increase in customer satisfaction over the past two years.  Having said that, I certainly don't think that means there is any room for complacency in this area, because clearly there is not."

Based on a representative sample of 25,000 adults surveyed over the internet, the latest (July 2009) UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) – the National Measure of Customer Satisfaction for UK organisations – shows the UK achieved an average rating of 74%, up from 72% in the study conducted six months before.  Plus, despite difficult trading conditions, almost 40 organisations or professions achieved a customer satisfaction score of 80% or above - the benchmark for world class customer satisfaction.

And therein lies the problem with statistics:  for every poll that reveals a negative perception of customer service, another comes along to contradict it.  The difference with the Jacada/YouGov poll, however, lies with the specific questions being asked;   this research is unique in that it explores a number of interesting areas that many other surveys have missed.

For example, according to the Jacada/YouGov survey, only 1 in 12 consumers questioned reported feeling "valued as a customer" following their contact with customer services.  By any standards, that figure seems surprisingly low.

"Feeling valued is a very subjective measure and, whether an organisation 'values' its customer or not, for customer service to be perceived as excellent, many things must fall in to place at the same time," according to Ann-Marie Stagg, Chair of the Call Centre Management Association in the UK and Secretary of the European Confederation of Contact Centre Organisations (ECCCO). "For example, even if the organisation values its customers highly, it is still possible for the individual to feel less than important if they cannot contact the organisation quickly or have their enquiry dealt with efficiently.  Not feeling 'valued' may well be the symptom of a much larger problem."

"AVOIDABLE CONTACT" REMAINS A BIG PROBLEM

Of all the trends highlighted by the Jacada/YouGov survey, the reasons given for making contact with customer services in the first place were some of the most shocking: an unbelievable 76% of those questioned had to contact customer service because of an error made by the company in areas such as billing, technical issues, problems with delivery, or a missed service call.

This drain on customer services has become known as "avoidable contact", since businesses can avoid it by taking greater care with their own internal policies and procedures.  And, unsurprisingly, it’s these apparently avoidable contacts that are most likely to engender the greatest levels of frustration and dissatisfaction with the organisation. Worse still, the majority of people questioned (53%) by YouGov stated that they believe the frequency of this type of contact has actually increased over the last 12 months.

"In my experience, a great deal of work is going into minimising avoidable contact that is often caused by broken administration processes, unclear customer communication or goods supplied that are not fit for purpose," says Ann-Marie Stagg. "Dealing with calls that could be avoided is very expensive for every organisation, and it is therefore normally a high priority for the organisation to fix these things."

However, this spectre of avoidable contact remains, creating additional expense for companies who are being forced to invest even more in their call centres in order to deal with the raft of issues that could have been avoided.  Not only that, but businesses also need to consider the potential impact on revenue of upsetting – and possibly losing – customers as a result.

Even so, there may be a silver lining to this problem.  At some point, for any business out there, something is going to go wrong, so tackling the issue of avoidable contact is not only about preventing mistakes, but also about recovery.  Even the most demanding customers understand that no company is perfect, but they will nonetheless judge their supplier on how they deal with any problems that arise. 

The good news for businesses is that this part of customer service – recovering when something does go wrong – can actually strengthen the bond between customer and supplier, and can increase both customer loyalty and the positive perception of the brand.

THE IMPORTANCE OF CUSTOMER PERCEPTION

Good service clearly has the ability to build customer loyalty, and yet anyone who has been to a dinner party in the last 12 months has probably been regaled with at least one customer service "horror story". Possibly as a result, 34% of those questioned by YouGov said that they now "expect" poor service when they contact customer services, which means that many businesses - both good and bad - are being harmed by this negative image, leaving enlightened companies with a massive hill to climb.

At the same time, one needs to remember that UK businesses receive millions and millions of calls every year, and the vast majority of these are handled efficiently and with little fuss.  But that is precisely why people don't talk about these interactions. 

"One of the oldest bits of research in this area confirms what we already know:  that people tend to share the details of their most frustrating customer service experiences with others, and so there is the possibility that some research into customer service simply reflects this phenomenon," says Marcus Hickman from the CCA.  "In our own research, we have found that 84% of customers reported feeling satisfied with the customer service they have received from CCA members, and so I am not convinced that customer service is nearly as bad as the media and anecdotal evidence suggests – although there is always room for improvement, obviously."

Ann-Marie Stagg agrees.  "We tend to remember the instances of poor service, of course, or the meltdown that crises can sometimes bring," she says.  "The media often love to stoke the flames and use these kinds of examples to paint the call centre as the villain of the piece, but it is very important to remember that the call centre is not an industry or a business in its own right, but rather just the customer-facing manifestation of one particular organisation's customer service efforts."

Interpreted that way, the findings from the Jacada/YouGov survey would suggest that most of the problems with customer service go well beyond the contact centre, and much higher up in the organisation. The views of the UK consumers surveyed by YouGov support this theory, with more than a third of them stating that they believe most agents are trying to be helpful, but that they seem to struggle with company policies or technology.

This is an important point for UK businesses to understand.  Even though most organisations continue to say that their customers and employees are at the heart of their business, it can often be difficult to find proof of this.  In general, many modern companies seem to be far more "company-centric" than "customer-centric", and nowhere is this more obvious than in the absence of a customer champion on the board of directors.  Without this board-level support, many companies suffer from a disconnect between what management is saying and actually doing with regard to the importance of the customer.

CUSTOMER SERVICE:  FROM THE TOP DOWN

A lot of the frustration with customer service has trickled down from management's attitude on this issue, according to Duncan Baker from the ICS.  All too often, businesses are so consumed by how decisions will affect the business, that they forget about how it will affect the customer, and that's a serious mistake. 

"Even for seemingly small decisions, it is a good idea to take a moment and look at that decision from the customers' eyes, and to consider what impact it will have in terms of their experience of dealing with the company," Baker says. "Employees, too, should be consulted in this regard, since they can often provide some important insight into what customers are saying at any given moment."

Ann-Marie Stagg echoes this sentiment.  "Excellent organisations make sure that customers and employees are well treated and that their views are well represented at the highest levels. There are many examples of the first-class use of customer feedback to improve business processes and service standards, both in the public and private sectors.

She points to Apple, in particular, who is beginning to do more than just listen to its customers. The company has become famous in recent years for working with its customers on co-creation of the future products and services, many of which are being facilitated by the Internet and social networking tools.  And all of this is coming from a company that is perceived to have product superiority.

This kind of enlightened attitude is coming at just the right time, since customers are becoming a lot more demanding in this area.  In fact, the majority (56%) of consumers questioned for the Jacada/YouGov survey stated that they are less willing than they were a year ago to put up with poor customer service.  

In other words, customer expectations are growing all the time, and the businesses who can identify, understand and meet these demands are the ones that will prosper. Good customer service is not about finding out what works and then sticking with that;  good customer service means understanding and responding to customer expectations, even as they continue to rise.  In other words, it requires a commitment to innovation and a real desire to improve upon things that are already working quite well. 

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