Stick with me – this isn’t just a rant. There are some (hopefully) useful tips to follow.
I remember the days when you could call up a company for just about any reason and speak with a relatively polite and helpful person. Unfortunately those days weren’t too long ago. It seems, at least from my perspective, that the state of customer service is in decline. The chances of talking with someone who is both polite and helpful at any given company is a long shot indeed. However, this trend is not the rule in all cases. One of the few companies I have had a recent good experience with (there are more but I am at a loss right now) is Bank of America. I can call for virtually anything and be treated with dignity, respect, patience, and kindness, even if I call with a totally asinine question, which I occasionally will do.
As I discussed in my post, Outsourcing and the Economy, the current focus of our increasingly globalized world is centered upon low cost and fast turnaround. Unfortunately, the attributes often embodied by low cost and fast turnaround atmospheres will typically clash with the customer’s vision of good service. One only has to look to the local “department” store. I loathe going into Wal-Mart because of the emotional atmosphere that has been set by the lowest possible cost mentality. Likewise, I dread the customer service Nazis at Target when returning an item.
So what is the underlying issue here? Companies have come to focus more on one set of stakeholders than on another. As a customer I am a stakeholder in companies I do business with by virtue of my market transactions. Employees are stakeholders as they have a vested interest in the output of the company. Shareholders are stakeholders as they provide funding and expect a return on investment (ROI) from the company. Of these, who benefits most from customer service? Who benefits least?
What this really comes down to is a marketplace tug of war. Customers demand a certain level of customer service, which requires funding, while equity holders require a return on investment, which also requires funding. If the funds are at odds with each other the source that is able to keep the company afloat is typically going to win out. So this conundrum really has two facets. First, stakeholders must understand the importance of foregoing a portion of their ROI with the understanding that it is an investment in customer loyalty. Second, customers must understand the relationship companies carry with their shareholders and must make attempts to limit actions that will cause an unnecessary use of funds. This could be as simple as looking up store hours on the web instead of calling and speaking with an operator or could be as complex as not returning that item that broke because of consumer negligence.
So I filed this under both business and software and have posted this to a number of software related aggregators. Why? Because software is business too. If you fancy yourself the savvy leader of a software firm, have plans to launch your own software empire, or totally hate software but see or find yourself leading a company take this advice to heart: focus on the customer first and the bottom line will come. The goodwill gained will help in two ways. First it will gain confidence in the hearts of consumers. Second, and possibly more importantly, it will avoid negative reactions from consumers. I will remember the poor service that has caused me to shun BellSouth far longer than I will remember the good service that drew me to Bank of America.
Value the customer and profits will follow.