Good customer care requires actually caring first

Think back to the best recommendations for businesses you’ve ever heard from friends and colleagues, and you’ll probably find a common thread running through most of them: really great customer service. Maybe an employee was remarkably knowledgeable about a product someone was having trouble with. Or maybe a support representative went above and beyond to solve a thorny service problem.

Whatever their encounter with a business involves, customers best remember when people treat them with courtesy, empathy and a genuine interest in providing a service or solving a problem. It’s the human touch that wins customers over.

For some businesses, though, such a human touch is a time-consuming expense to be streamlined, sped up or eliminated altogether. Businesses like this might jump at the time-saving, cost-saving opportunities promised by automation and technological innovation. But intelligent software and machines are best used on top of a human-centered customer service model, not instead of it.

Consider the findings of last year’s survey by the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), which found that 75 percent of customer service professionals “knowingly hinder their team from providing the best customer experience.” The survey also found that less than 25 percent of organizations have a C-level leader focused on customer experience.

While C-level leadership is important for ensuring good service, so is competition. As a recent New York Times article noted, “The most egregious offenders are companies like cable and mobile service providers, which typically have little competition and whose customers are bound by contracts or would be considerably inconvenienced if they canceled their service.”

Another study, this one published in July by the UK’s Institute of Customer Service, found a similar problem among banks and building societies. While overall satisfaction among UK business customers rose since 2015, banks and building societies slipped in the rankings. The institute pointed a finger for those results at the sector’s traditionally “captive” audience, a situation the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is hoping to change by making it easier for customers to change banks.

“It’s evident that the retail banking sector is resting on its laurels, safe in the knowledge that customers are unlikely to switch their accounts,” institute CEO Jo Causon said in an announcement about the survey’s findings. “Aside from public services, banking has the highest percentage of customers who have used the same service for more than 20 years, supporting the CMA’s assertion that the sector suffers from weak competitive pressures. I believe the lack of improvement in the customer service offered by banks and building societies is a direct symptom of this complacency.”

It can be even worse when a business views customer service as just one more avenue for extracting money from customers.

“Don’t think companies haven’t studied how far they can take things in providing the minimal level of service,” ICMI researcher Justin Robbins told the New York Times. “Some organizations have even monetized it by intentionally engineering it so you have to wait an hour at least to speak to someone in support, and while you are on hold, you’re hearing messages like, ‘If you’d like premium support, call this number and for a fee, we will get to you immediately.'”

With service models like those, don’t expect artificial intelligence or bots to miraculously reverse a poorly performing company’s care for customers. Businesses have to actually care about their customers first before that can happen.

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