Customer Service In The New Millenium: The New Rules Of Engagement PDF Print E-mail

By Paul Dorrian
Chartered Marketer

hroughout most of this decade, and, on a global basis, there has been a preponderance of business literature in the academic, professional and popular press on the subject of customer service. None more so than in South Africa, where customers from all walks of business life continue to bemoan the deplorable service found in this country, despite some attempts to the contrary. Warnings have been issued from many quarters concerning the necessity for local companies to pay greater attention to serving the needs and service expectations of their customers. However, the truth of the matter is that most South African homegrown business organisations are still in a state of transition. Unfortunately, many local managers still cling to that old and arrogant Eighties mind set, and have foolishly closed their thinking to the need for competition. Instead, they seek refuge in the belief that South Africa is a unique environment, and overseas companies will battle to get even a foothold in their marketplace. Others though, are aware of the need for better customer service, but are caught up in the age-old dilemma that the behavioural psychologists refer to as the cognitive - implementation gap. In other words they may understand the techniques and concepts of customer service, may want to improve the care and attention given to their customers, but are not quite sure how to create even a modicum of habitual behaviour.

The net result of this is that many firms are not spending anywhere near enough time on customer service. This puts them at an immediate competitive disadvantage relative to international competitors, many of whom are old campaigners at fiercely competing in the global marketplace, and who view South Africa as easy pickings. Furthermore, many of these global gladiators have adapted and even redefined their entire companies around their customers' needs and service requirements. They make formidable opponents; ruthless in their endeavours at attracting and keeping customers. But that is the nature of today's global marketplace, and South African companies, whether they like it or not, will have to learn to compete within this scenario, or suffer the consequences.

The thought has often crossed my mind that many local companies will not make the badly needed service improvements until the ravages of what is now being called hypercompetition force the issue. A simple correlation exists between competition and the level of customer service one can normally expect. Usually, the more competitive a market or industry, the better the service levels customers enjoy. What appears to be happening in our local environment, is that many overseas companies are taking equity in or buying over local companies and making them wholly owned subsidiaries. In the process of doing this, they are bringing with them globally acceptable methods of looking after customers. The subsequent knowledge transfer is bound to have a positive influence on previously uncompetitive and sluggish companies, desperate to prove themselves in the international arena. In reality, these products of a ( previously ) protected, uncompetitive and highly regionalised economy have had no inkling as to what global competition really entails.

Thankfully, the South African marketplace is becoming more competitive. There are already signs that international investors are having the necessary effect on local business behaviour, and what was previously described as a wake up call has now become a culture shock of massive proportions. From fast food to financial services, South African business is being forced out of its cocoon and into an environment characterised by shorter product life cycles, the breaking down of previously strong entry barriers, faster design to market rates and above all fewer and fewer sustainable competitive advantages. Many global observers contend that in this type of environment, the best that firms can hope for is to create and then erode their own temporary advantages with the view to having their competitors play catch ? up. Customer service is often seen as a means of doing this, because it is the one area left in modern business practice that has a direct effect on the building of customer loyalty. However, for this to happen, companies are going to have to adhere to what I refer to as the new rules of engagement; the new means of engaging the competition via temporary advantages in the service arena. I have identified seven such areas of which South African managers will have to take cognisance, if they want to develop effective service initiatives in the years ahead.

Firstly, more attention will have to be paid to strategic planning from a customer perspective. There are still too many companies in this country who have an overreliance on financial planning, budgeting and even extrapolative thinking, in the development of their strategies. The South African customer already has a greater choice of products and services, a trend that is set to continue. That makes them not only more demanding, but also more discerning. It is therefore prudent to strategize around the development of customer loyalty, and the means by which the firm will attempt to outmanoeuvre its competitors to help that materialise.

Secondly, managers are going to have to become more people focused in their strategic deliberations on customer service. Put simply, that means bringing both customers and employees into the strategy development process. It means asking customers to define excellent service and then consulting with those customers as well as company employees as how best to attain that. Without this kind of advice, any customer service initiative will either fall short of its mark, or worse still, never get off the ground.

Thirdly, managers will need to be greater adventurers in the customer care arena, and commit resources to innovatively provide groundbreaking service. That often means redefining service within one's industry from a customer's perspective, as well as taking bold steps to prove to the customer how worthy their company is of his/her business. It means recognising that to develop a strong sense of customer loyalty, as a prime objective of a company's service initiative, each and every customer will require to experience a high degree of personalised service. Standardised service won't get you very far in the new competitive order.

Having developed a highly innovative and personalised approach to customer service, managers will need to be prepared to change company systems to reflect any new ideas and/or strategies, and in particular a high degree of personalised service. I am still surprised at how many organisations persist with outmoded ways of doing things, or try to mould their service initiatives around existing systems and company policies, many of which have been designed to serve the company and not the customer. A periodic overhaul of one's systems is like a tonic, clearing blockages that prevent the company from reaching out and winning the hearts and minds of its customers.

My fifth point concerns a strong reinforcement of service principles throughout the entire organisation. It never ceases to amaze me how many South African companies run a one off training programme for their staff and then expect an immediate behavioural change. South African companies still want immediate results. That may have been good and proper under the previous competitive (or lack of) dispensation where there was no one to compete with. But facing a customer who now has several choices, it is tantamount to wishful thinking and naivety. A regularly trained and motivated staff is a key input to achieving results.

My penultimate point deals with positioning one's company for innovative service thinking. It is no longer enough to provide a level of service that everyone else can copy, and then stick with it. In the new competitive dispensation, successful companies will be those that will develop new and innovative ideas and strategies faster than the opposition can, and in a manner that will give the customer evidence that the benefits of buying their product(s) are far greater than those of the opposition.

Lastly, successful companies in the new competitive dispensation will be those that ensure that service principles touch everyone in the company from the CEO to the most junior person. This can only be achieved through training, reinforcement, and encouraging people to have a caring attitude towards one another. Creating internal harmony ensures one has a better chance of impressing one's external customer. Managers who do not look after their staff cannot expect those staff to look after the external customer. Yet there are still too many managers today who cannot (or even do not want to) see that simple correlation. Autocratic management styles will have to be replaced with consultative and participative thinking, particularly with those staff members who are in positions that create the greatest impact with the customer.

By following these seven simple suggestions, South African companies will be able to position themselves more effectively in the global environment, and in the process develop business organisations that display cultures that are not only more caring, but also more globally acceptable than can be found at present.

Reprinted from Dorrian, Paul. Custom Made, Marketing Mix, Jan/Feb 1999