Bedevilled by the detail

Read time 5min 40sec

The most important driver in a services-based company is not cost, profit or even revenue. These metrics, the yardstick of success in a bygone era, are today a dim reflection of a greater force, one that challenges the proponents of measurement. Just what is the measure that most effectively propels service-based companies to greatness? What makes Uber and Amazon more than just service providers of choice?

The secret of great service is the degree of engagement the recipient perceives.

The industrial age sought to reduce quality to a set of data points and statistical measures that went beyond telling yesterday's story and tried to predict tomorrow's output. Dr Deming, the guru of quality management in post-war Japan, is often quoted as saying: "In God we trust, all others bring data."

People ventured into the information age with the mantra of quantitative analytics and precipitated the avalanche now referred to as big data. From this potpourri of information, the hope is somehow to find the elixir that satisfies the expectations and hopes of consumers, thereby being crowned the services king.

Supernatural service

So, where is the magic? Is it possible to transform the ordeal of what the Department of Home Affairs imposes on the very people who pay its salaries, or what the licensing department calls customer service, into an experience that citizens could rave about? Why not?

Everyone provides a service in some way. Being on both sides of the fence should give people the knowledge of how to excel in service provision. In the quest for lower cost and higher productivity, everyone has all the latest tools, automation and technology to support customer service at their disposal today. Has the pursuit of this same quest actually robbed people of the ability to be human?

Analysts say the measure to watch is "customer satisfaction". Yet it is known from experience that satisfied customers are not necessarily loyal. Even delighted customers aren't. Conversely, dissatisfied customers often don't switch suppliers. Perhaps the concept of loyalty is dead in the modern day and its replacement is mercenary: commitment in exchange for perceived value (and value is itself a fickle measure at best). Why does Facebook absorb people's time and attention and maintain such a large and loyal following? Can service be remodelled by learning from this social media phenomenon?

I suggest the secret of great service is the degree of engagement the recipient perceives. People feel slighted when they are ignored. No one enjoys being treated as a number in a queue. "I am unique in case you didn't notice... Your marketing tells me that as your customer, I am the most important person in your business, but you don't treat me that way."

When a service engagement is unpacked, the recipient of a service is a person. If my attempt to obtain service is via a telephone call, there's potential for a whole new level of customer abuse. Call centres are a tough place to demonstrate great service. Call centres place me in a call queue, proudly tell me how many hundreds of others are ahead of me, confuse me with a bunch of IVR selections and then proceed to advertise all sorts of unwanted stuff, while I pay for the cost of the call. The first positive comes when I'm greeted by name (yes, that's not a typo, CLI makes that an expectation). While it's nice to know who I'm talking to, the agents rarely make their name intelligible. It is only useful to me if I can call the agent back directly anyway, in which case an automated SMS with the incident number, name and a contact number would save me from having to make a note I'm likely to lose.

Just saying...

As a paying customer, there is an account record with history (hidden in that big data) the service provider has, and the agent shouldn't need to insist on asking for the same information every time I call. And when I'm following up on something that hasn't been done, respect my intelligence and offer a meaningful update. Better still, avoid my having to call by keeping me appraised of progress through notifications or a courtesy call. And while I am about it, a survey call to assess a company's service usually interrupts something more important, so why not send me an invitation which I can accept at a convenient time, with two options; either an electronic rating or 'one click' to speak to a quality consultant, without joining another queue, and at company cost.

Maybe the pain of trying to make a call centre human is why more companies are opting for a chat option or specific downloaded application interface with their customers. This intentionally mechanistic approach eliminates much of the opportunity to annoy customers, improves the experience, and honestly, makes the somewhat anonymous agents more productive too. There is always the option to initiate a call from a chat or app and that skips the queue. It works.

The self-service portal takes this concept to a new level, and, when deployed with the customer in mind, can be a personal and content-rich experience. Hours of service are no longer an issue. I'm immediately recognised and presented with a personalised view of my world in the company. I can report issues, review progress on existing requests or issues; the company can communicate with me via notifications or share information with me from its knowledge base in a trusted environment. The company can also engage with me without the communication being intrusive, and I can initiate a one-on-one call with a named agent at the click of a button. The fancy tools behind the portal technology even tell the company about my experience on its portal and allow it to improve it over time.

Perhaps the magic lies in realising no amount of technology replaces a caring human being in the service game, but technology and the mass production service machine can be leveraged to produce acceptable customised service in unitary quantity. Why not?

Allan Wattrus

programme director for Outsource Optimisation at Bytes Technology Group (BTG).

Allan Wattrus holds an MSc in engineering and serves as programme director for Outsource Optimisation at Bytes Technology Group (BTG). This is a role that is focused on enhancing the value that an outsource contract delivers to BTG’s clients. Prior to joining BTG, he spent 25 years working for Unisys Africa, where he held a similar position, being responsible for service delivery and outsourcing in the Africa region, including the Indian Ocean islands. His vast experience in the field of outsourcing has left him with a unique insight into the challenges posed by a complex modern IT infrastructure, and means he is ideally positioned to elucidate on both the dangers and the benefits of outsourcing. When he is not deeply embedded in the outsource world, he enjoys woodwork, technology design and helping people to realise their greater potential.

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