Have we become too familiar with our customers?

Have you experienced any of the following recently in conversations with friends or relatives – sarcasm, flippancy, disrespect, unhelpfulness? Perhaps the relatives out-stayed their welcome when visiting over Christmas; or perhaps a friend got a bit too merry at the Christmas party and came across in a bad way.  Whilst we (for the most part) love and respect friends and relatives, at times, we display “complacent” or “disengaged” behaviours.  But because we have a broader and deeper relationship with these individuals, we will invariably overlook such minor points.

Now, thinking about recent interactions between you (as a customer) and suppliers, service providers, retail assistants, waiters, drivers or call centre staff, I’ll ask the same question.  Have you experienced any of the following recently – sarcasm, flippancy, disrespect, unhelpfulness? In last week’s post, I mentioned a dawning awareness that perhaps we are becoming too familiar with customers when delivering service, and in this post, I thought we could explore the topic further.

As formal means of communication (letter, phone call) are replaced with less formal (email, web chat), and as the expectations around speed and reliability increase significantly, our product differentiation is often more based on the service experience than the product itself.

Being able to engage with customers in a human and natural way and using “normal” language that they would use is a great leap forward.  It feels as if we have made a connection and become closer to our customers – and ultimately we categorise and treat them in the same way that we treat a friend.  But the reality is that customers have driven forward this agenda, not us, and whilst they like the softer tone and quicker response, I’m not so sure that they like the more relaxed attitude, especially when things go wrong and they are looking to us to fix it.

Some business saw fit to offshore their customer service, so that the customer would be served by someone who did not speaking their native language, had never used the product and could not culturally connect with the customer.  Despite the passion from offshore workers, most customers would rather receive poor local support than best efforts from offshore.  At least with a locally provider service, there is cultural empathy, but that is only a starting foundation.

The customer is alway right, right? No, but the customer shouldn’t be made to feel that they are wrong.  Whether it’s because your people are disengaged themselves, underpaid, under-skilled or just plain wrong fits to face customers, you don’t need to be face to face to experience complacent and disengaged behaviours.  The lack of training and ongoing investment in frontline customer people is really beginning to show.

Without a proper reference or framework, your team will go with what they know, and treat the customer in the same way that they would a friend or relative.  If you shout at them, they will shout back; if you show frustration, they will respond in kind – and why wouldn’t they?  Most business still don’t have proper criteria and hard metrics to recruit, assess and develop the real soft skills required to service customers.

Treating customer as you would a mate or buddy is plain and simple wrong.  We need to distinguish between the good behaviours we use with friends and relatives, from the more negative behaviours that customers really don’t want to see.  I don’t have all the answer to this conundrum, but it’s something that I shall be closely working on with my own teams to ensure that we establish the right balance between respecting the customer and treating them as human beings.

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