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    The Sorry State of Customer Service

    In 1976 the movie Network was in theaters.  There is a famous scene in the film where the lead character, Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) implores Americans to shout out their windows “I’m as mad as hell, and I am not going to take this anymore.”

    So often after being victimized by a customer service rep whose idea of assistance is reading from a script, or getting bounced from menu to menu by a customer service system that refuses to let me speak with a human being, I feel just like Howard Beale…mad as hell, and I don’t want to take it anymore…

    Let’s face it, what passes for customer service today is abysmal. The product of any number of cost saving strategies, most companies have rung out whatever pleasure there once might have been in the experience.  Today’s “customer service” is fraught with moments of supreme frustration and despair requiring prodigious patience from the customer.  Is this what we want for our businesses?  What good does it do us to spend our careers working to drive waste out of our production and administration processes in an attempt to better service the customer when our customer service functions are driving customers to the brink of insanity?

    As consumers, we all know what constitutes good customer service. It is not a complicated thing. When we need assistance we hope to speak with someone who can quickly and easily take our order, update our account, or resolve our problem in a patient and polite manner. It is no more complicated than that. Why then do companies so often get customer service wrong?

    The problem really stems from a lack of appreciation for the real value of customer service and a misunderstanding of the function as non-value adding (wasteful). This often leads companies to blindly reduce costs without an appreciation or understanding as to the consequences these changes have on their customers’ satisfaction and the true impact to the company’s bottom line.

    Given the reality that providing customer service is a necessary part of running your business, it is imperative that you develop an appreciation for the substantive value of good customer service. Service which is both efficient (without waste) and effective (value adding) is a strategic advantage. All things being equal, customers will naturally gravitate to a company that provides a better overall experience because that has real value for them.

    Investing in customer service is no different than investing in any other part of your business. You would not purchase new machinery based on cost alone. The cheapest machine is not always the best option. When purchasing a new piece of equipment, you buy the machine which balances value and cost; the one that has the potential to maximize the return on your investment, providing the maximum profit to your bottom line. Customer service is no different.

    If a company is unable to reconcile the expense of providing good customer service with the cost of providing bad customer service, then it will continue to focus on minimizing the expense of delivering customer service thus further alienating the customers our lean efforts work so hard at satisfying.

    Contact with the customer is an opportunity to reinforce a positive purchase experience as well as provide you with a feedback resource which can allow you to refine or redefine your products or services on an immediate and continuous basis. The needs of the customer should never be perceived as a burden or marginalized in an effort to squeeze as much cost out of the customer service process as possible.

    Happy, satisfied customers are repeat buyers. They generate positive word-of-mouth advertising, and can build a positive reputation for your company. But it is not enough for the customer to be satisfied with the product you provide, they also need to be delighted with the process of purchasing it, with the interaction with your service representatives during the set up process, and with the service provided by technical support in the maintenance of it.  The value of exceptional customer service should not be overlooked; it is immeasurable. Conversely, the cost of unhappy and unsatisfied customers can be devastating.

    With “delighted customer” stated as goal of our improvement efforts, companies must start to mistake proof their service processes with the same vitality they approach the production process while developing a genuine appreciation for the true roll customer service plays in the success or failure of business.

    If we in the Lean community take steps to improve the customer service experience for our own customers, perhaps we can turn what has become a painful and dreaded interaction, into a pleasant experience that benefits both our customers and our companies.

    In the meantime, the next time you are a victim of poor customer service, run to the window, stick out your head and shout “I’m as mad as hell, and I am not going to take it anymore.”  I can’t promise great change will come from your declaration, but it will make you feel better.  Oh, and if you haven’t seen the film Network, I highly recommend it.

    Maureen C. Fahey
    Managing Partner

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