A television producer called me recently to discuss a story she’s working on around declining customer service levels and what to do about it. We agreed that there’s been a big drop in customer service over the past two years.

I believe this problem is rooted in three common causes:

Misuse of Technology – forcing customers to use technology when they just want to talk with someone. This is often done by burying phone numbers deep in websites. Or customers are made to stumble their way through a maze of phone menu options to find someone who might take their call (“Press 1 to spend your money, 2 for a no, 3 to get ready, and 4 to go… away”.) In other cases, customers want self-serve technical options but are completely baffled by the twisted geek logic needed to find and follow the steps needed to solve their problem.

Inadequate Training – too many customer service providers are thrown into their roles and it’s left up to customers to give them on-the-job training. This often stems from short-sighted managers who don’t feel that investing time and money in proper training is worthwhile – especially for part-time or low paying service jobs. Often that’s because they’re feeding the Turnover Tornado; we don’t train servers effectively so they get frustrated and leave, which means we need to go hire more servers who we don’t properly train, these ill-equipped servers deliver poor service which causes frustrated customers to yell at them – or complain to management who then yells at them too – so they quit (“they don’t pay me enough to take this abuse”.)

A Culture of Not Serving the Server – frontline service providers reflect the service and support they are getting from their organization. Disengaged, demoralized, and dissatisfied servers don’t produce satisfied customers. Managers wanting to improve customer service levels need to start with a deep and honest look in the mirror. In a poor service culture, people are often de-humanized and seen as just another set of assets that happen to be wrapped in skin (“we need more warm bodies, let’s get more bums in seats, we’ve got to reduce our head count…”.) Servers often pass along the disdain, neglect, or abuse they get from their manager.

Improving customer service and quality levels isn’t as simple as dunking service providers in a training program and throwing some incentives at them. Sustained and continuously improving service/quality is the result of strong leadership and organization effectiveness. You can review past blogs on customer service and a series of articles and steps on taking the service/quality improvement journey at Customer Service.

There are hopeful signs on the horizon for better customer service. As companies look for growth opportunities in stagnating markets, higher levels of customer service is a sure path to greater customer attraction, retention, and expanding “wallet share” with existing customers. Is your company one of the few that are waking up to the benefits of giving customers (internal or external) better choices between dealing with people and technology? Are you effectively serving your servers? How do you know?