Is the customer really always right?

In an age of social media and review sites, customer service can make or break a small business. Here’s some advice from the experts.

“Australians aren’t good at customer service” is a widely held belief but is it true? The 2014 American Express Global Customer Service Barometer found that Australians were disproportionately likely to believe local companies were paying less attention to customer service than those in other countries but the rest of the survey didn’t reveal Australians to be particularly aggrieved with how they are treated. It is also worth noting that plenty of foreigners seem perfectly satisfied with the service provided by the many Aussie baristas, waiters, hotel staff and tour guides scattered across the globe.

A recent survey by True Local indicated Australians were happy with the types of customer service they experienced most commonly, rating, in order, restaurants and cafes, medical services, automotive services, hair services and professional services as the top five industries for customer service. Retail was sixth.

“It’s telling that 62 per cent of local consumers in that American Express survey said Australian businesses were meeting their expectations when it comes to customer service,” says Anouche Newman, head of consultancy and education for the Customer Service Institute of Australia (CSIA). “While the True Local survey is interesting, I’m not sure it’s easy to make comparisons and declare certain industries are ‘better’ than others, given the criteria for judging what’s good service can be very different.”

The CSIA compares customer service processes within and across industries and hands out annual awards for the best customer service in the land. The digital and inbound marketing agency Reload Media, which is based in Brisbane and employs 75 staff in four countries, won the National Small Business and overall Best of the Best awards in 2014.

“Many of our competitors focus on the technology and have customer service as an afterthought, but we made it part of our DNA from the start,” Llew Jury, the company’s managing director, says. “We developed a customer service charter, which is on our website, based around being ‘a progressive team partnering with smart organisations to achieve their goals’.”

Jury is quick to point out that isn’t just another meaningless mission statement. “I presume we won the CSIA awards because we aim to leave the customer with a lasting positive experience. We look at the whole customer journey as a streamlined process, rather than a series of individual touch points. We treat each customer as unique and strive to align our KPIs with their overarching business objectives.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Jury takes an old-school view of customer service. “A lot of businesses don’t seem to realise the internet is just another channel to purchase goods and services and you’re still dealing with a human. The online businesses that are reaping the rewards of getting customer service right, such as [shoe-buying site] Shoes of Prey or [wine-buying site] Vinomofo, have worked out offering personalised customer service is what will allow them to grow their market share.”

Montania Cafe Bar and Restaurant owner George Dimitriadis shares Jury’s laser focus on getting all the little details right, so as to create a customer service experience that ultimately rises to the level of the extraordinary. Dimitriadis won the national 2014 Australian Achiever Award for excellence in customer service and when he describes his efforts to keep his patrons happy, it’s obvious why. “As soon as someone arrives we greet and seat them. We’ll bring menus and water with ice and a slice of lemon right away and provide colouring books and, with the parents’ permission, marshmallows for the children. We try to make customers feel like a regular from their first visit and, once they have come in a few times, the staff remember things such as how they have their coffee or what they always eat for lunch. We always ask if they want cracked pepper or parmesan on their meal. Individually, they’re all small things but we try to tick every box.”

Newman, Jury and Dimitriadis all insist time and effort spent improving customer service results in much more than just warm and fuzzy interactions. And good customer service, like good manners, needn’t cost anything, or at least not much.

“The American Express survey indicated that 70 per cent of Australian consumers will spend an average of 12 per cent more at a business where they’ve had a seamless customer experience,” Newman notes.

“It’s not like we spent huge sums of money building a great customer service brand,” Jury says. “And certainly the time and effort we put into training staff and developing processes has more than paid off.”

Dimitriadis agrees: “You need to employ passionate staff and have a good induction process to train them well but it’s not rocket science.”

Newman says if you start with the customer, everything falls into place. “And small businesses, which are able to relatively quickly change their organisational culture and address changing consumer needs, have a big advantage over their larger rivals there.”

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