At the top end of customer service, airlines such as Etihad and Emirates are world leaders. In hospitality, service in nearly all five, four and three-star hotels is outstanding. This quality is not reserved for the private sector. For example, renewing my passport or driver’s licence is now pure joy compared with a decade ago.
At the bottom end of customer service there is a wide range of culprits. One of the banks that I deal with repeatedly calls me ahead of when a credit card is due, to tell me that the due date is approaching. Worse, it calls at all hours – not only during working hours – and calls repeatedly even if you reply. Even worse, it often uses an automated system to call, and when I answer a message tells me to hold the line while they connect a call agent. This insanity repeats itself right after I pay – the bank wants to thank me for paying. I do not see how any sane executive looked at the proposal for this service and decided that, yes, this would improve customer satisfaction.
Another bank I use has an internet banking application that allows me to log in using a code that is texted/emailed to me or generated via an electronic device. Most banks do this. They also use a virtual keyboard whereby I have to use the mouse to click on the keyboard on the screen to enter my password. Many banks use this. What drives me crazy? This particular bank positions the keys randomly on the keyboard so that I have to spend five minutes playing “Where’s Waldo?” to type out my password. I now fear having to access my account online. This approach to security has been dropped by everyone else.
The problem with customer service is that there is little incentive for decision-makers to do anything about it. Consider companies and government departments of old, where there was no queuing system for clients. It was a mob scene, but it did not affect the employees that much. It takes a brave executive or technocrat to request a simple system, queue tickets on arrival – that costs money but the return is to the brand and not easily measured. I for one would like to thank all the decision-makers who put such systems in place, thus ending chaos and frustration.
Etihad, Emirates, the Jumeirah Group and others all understand the value of customer service to their brand and the value of their brand to their profits. The stronger the brand, the more it can charge for services and the less it has to pay employees and suppliers who benefit from working for a company with a brand.
So how can you avoid the mistakes of the two negative examples used above? The first is a little common sense. For example, tacking on mountains of supposed internet security systems may seem to make things safer, but in the end they also make things unusable. Managers should use the services of their competitors just to get a first-hand feel for what is happening in the market.
Another tool is an effective customer survey. To be effective, such a survey must first attract a representative cross-section of the client demographic. For example, it does not help the banks above if a client, such as myself, simply leaves, thereby denying the original bank the chance to rectify an issue.
More importantly, for a survey to be effective the executives of the company must do something with the results. A good way to encourage this is for companies to publish the results to their clients along with a plan to rectify the issues followed by a post-plan survey to see the results. This approach not only keeps management honest but also engages clients by showing them that they have been heard.
Customer services does not begin with the magic that is Etihad, Emirates or Jumeirah Group. It begins with simple steps: a queue ticketing system; virtual keyboards with keys in the normal positions; effective capture and remediation of client complaints.
These simple steps are not where client-service gurus usually start. They begin at the advanced stage, talking about interpersonal relationships, the psychology of managing an irate customer and, invariably, a client-orientated culture. These are important points but only relevant after the systems, processes and procedures have been fixed.
Sabah Al Binali is an active investor and entrepreneurial leader with a track record of growing companies in the Mena region. You can read more of his thoughts at al-binali.com.
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