Never Ending Interviews: The Three Different Worlds of Customer Service Perceptions — The Twain Shall Never Meet

customer service, quality, satisfaction

View from the “top” explains why customer service tends to be so horrible even in 2024.

Q: When I read online accounts of both poor and good customer service, I’m amazed at the diversity of views. It’s almost like people come from entirely different worlds and perspectives on customer service. Have you got any ideas on that?

Robert: Yes, and apart from it being of passing interest abstractly, the “different worlds” problem contributes to a customer service future where actual service gets worse.

Q: How is that?

“We need to stop ‘uttering simplistic childish garbage’ about customer service and why it is so terrible, and start thinking in more complex terms if we want better customer service. And the first group of people who need to get their brains going is the customer service ‘experts” and advocates who frequent social media.”

Robert: Whenever you have “players” (actually stakeholders and customers) who are unable to understand each other, it’s almost impossible to improve the process in which they have some investment and control. For example, typically in an organization, executives have trouble understanding line manager concerns, and both have trouble understanding employee concerns and vice versa. The result is that any attempts at change get crushed by people pulling in different directions or “blaming” the other stakeholders.

Q: Could you explain that in terms of customer service?

Robert: Let’s take a look at the “players”. First, but not necessarily most important are the customers with their needs, wants and expectations, which, by the way vary from low demand to ridiculous levels of demand. We’re all customers so we all have some understanding of that position from our own experience (which is usually not generalizable).

Then you have the employees who “serve” them — the line people (Customer Service Reps, retail staff, call center employees, etc) who also have their unique roles and understandings.

Now you have two “players” whose perceptions and behaviors need to “coincide” for customers to perceive good service.

Next you have line management, often promoted from within from lower positions, but not always, who are sandwiched between executives and employees. Their concerns and perceptions are yet again different. For example, a manager of a retail store has to schedule staff so that customer demand is met WITHOUT paying staff to stand around. Employees don’t always understand the constraints which interfere with their desire to earn (or have time off), while customers don’t much care at all about the manager’s problems.

Throw in the third level, the executives to whom the managers report (and above) and now there’s another layer of people who are far divorced from the “floor” and tend to have perceptions of the line process that are completely out of touch. Their decisions are made on completely different criteria than that which the line employee might use if he or she wanted to improve customer service.

If you want to throw in customer service advocates such as you read online, who think they understand all those levels, and blame almost everyone at the levels for poor customer service, you actually have four levels, but let’s leave that for another day.

Q: Phew. I can see each set sees things differently, but what implication does that have for customer service?

Robert: It’s one reason why customer service levels haven’t improved, and why they won’t improve. The problem is a system problem — an issue having to do with the human systems that comprise customer service delivery. For example, the executive looks at the numbers and tells the store managers payroll is too high across 20 of the lowest stores in the region. “Cut”, he says. “Your sales aren’t enough to justify ten staff.” The managers know full well that cuts will alienate employees and create further customer service issues, but in order to survive, less staff are available on the floor.

The employees now have to do more work with more customers and continue to stock shelves, price items and so on. They blame the problems on the store manager for not standing up for them, and getting minimum wage, they are fed up with what they see as unfair treatment.

The customers can’t find anything, can’t get help, and see the stores as shoddy and messy. They complain to the employees who, not having enough time to do even 50% of their jobs adequately, “blow them off” and appear uninterested.

It simply doesn’t work, and the result is a blaming fest. Executives and managers snap the whip and push employees harder, or even fire a few for effect. That makes things worse. Customers cease to do business with them, thus the revenues fall further, continuing the cycle.

Not only does this continue but the agendas and perceptions of each of the levels is SO different, most attempts at communicating within to solve this kind of problem will only yield frustration.

Q: I never really thought of it that way. It accounts for why, when customer service advocates talk service, they implicate and blame pretty much everyone and everything, when in fact, it’s not the VP or the HR department per se, but the entire system of understanding (or the lack of it).

Robert: Exactly.

Q: Are there solutions?

A: Yes, but in the case of the example I used above, which is a real situation from a large retail company (which has, for all intents and purposes, failed and has been bought out), you need a cadre of people who can bridge the perception differences across all levels, facilitate proper communication, and modify the system so it actually meets the reasonable needs of customers. To create a customer service culture requires creating common understanding, and sometimes it requires outside help — a qualified consultant, not in the nuts and bolts of customer service, but someone familiar with how organizations work as systems. They are hard to find.

The common “solution” is to send the employees to training, then send them right back into the dysfunctional human system.

Q: Thanks Robert, this has been a rather long discussion, so I hope readers enjoy it.

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