The Opinion Page
News and comments about the issues facing today's SCM and Inventory Management professionals.
My submission, as follows, was published in the September 2011 edition of the Durham Business Times, for your enjoyment!
The challenge of customer service is as old as trade itself. With thousands of years to perfect it, it might be a mystery why many suppliers appear to ignore it, take it for granted, or otherwise allow service quality to atrophy to levels that threaten their viability. How can a business enterprise begin to improve its service quality from being merely adequate to being truly great?
Businesses often struggle to find balance between conflicting objectives. Delivering higher service levels to customers might involve greater investment in inventories, systems, staff, or merchandising which in turn may dampen short-term financial performance. Cultivating soft service skills may distract the business from other pressing concerns. No single objective can be pursued in isolation, and total resources available are always finite.
The business-to-consumer commercial environment, where the customer and end-user are effectively synonymous, poses challenges that differ somewhat from those in a business-to-business context. With thousands of customers - rather than dozens in B2B - understanding the Voice of the Customer and developing performance metrics can be tricky.
Consumer advocacy enjoyed its renaissance in the late 1960’s and 1970’s largely due to the efforts of Ralph Nader (Unsafe at Any Speed, 1965) and his “Raiders”. Pressure on firms to deliver products and services of acceptable quality continued with heightened levels of competition, technological advances, business process improvements, Total Quality Management, and economic globalization. Further, the internet and social networking has allowed the Voice of the Customer to boom like thunder through cyberspace. Service industries must pay attention.
CustomerServiceScoreboard.com is a web-based service that invites customer feedback for over 430 companies in a variety of industries. In overall customer service ratings, only 32 companies out of the 436 companies rated currently rank as acceptable or better. This is only 7%!
Author and small business advisor Alice Bredin commented recently in Bloomberg Businessweek that recent surveys of 12,000 consumers around the globe revealed that while over 60 percent of US respondents ranked great customer service as important, “a majority of Americans feel companies either haven't changed their attitude toward customer service or are paying even less attention [than in the past]. Just 37 percent [of people surveyed] believe companies have increased their focus on providing quality service in the current economy”. She added that “business owners, despite their best intentions, don't always know what it is that will most satisfy their customers. They might think it's price, when really it's personalized service, like customers being able to quickly find what they need in the store. I think a second reason is that business owners haven't put in place the systems and processes to ensure that they can provide ongoing service easily. Business owners in these challenging economic times are working more hours and having to lay people off. They're not as focused on things like service.”
Improving customer service starts with leadership. Whatever the catalyst, change must be championed by senior management. Through its vision, statement of core values, and strategic objectives, ownership and management must infuse the passion for service into the company’s culture. Leaders must then construct a customer service framework, along with the impetus and tools to drive the service culture forward. Management must actively engage in the process, leading by example.
Great service companies develop a structure that supports informed decision-making. There's no excuse now for not knowing what your customers are thinking about you. Web-enabled customer feedback tools, such as SuggestionBox or IdeaScale, are examples of how current technologies can help. Services such as Google Alerts or TweetBeep will alert you when someone online is mentioning your company. Encourage satisfied customers to share their experiences with friends or on sites like Angie's List or Yelp.
Renewing a service culture requires placing the right people in the right place. Hire people who will serve customers as if their lives depend upon it. Renewal is fostered by a belief in the capacity of people to rise to new heights, to care about excellence, and to become role models and teachers. Great service demands integrity in keeping the service promise: a commitment to fair play, and doing the right thing – even when no one is looking.
Let’s face it: delivering great service is a lot more fun than being simply average. It is dull and mundane work that deadens the workplace. It is through a culture of achievement that work becomes truly rewarding.
John Skelton is the Principal Consultant and founder of Strategic Inventory Management.