Why do businesses put so much emphasis on technology to tell them all about their customers? Derek Williams, customer service expert and CEO of The WOW! Awards, argues that the human touch is far and away the best way to keep customers happy and generate more business
Let's not get confused here. Databases and technology are tools that we can use in our businesses. There has been a lot of emphasis on customer relationship management recently which is very much about using this technology. But what has this got to do with customer service? Absolutely nothing. Not unless the people running that business are motivated and passionate enough to use that information in the right way.
I see fabulous examples of customer service from all over the world. And the amazing thing is that, in most cases, it comes from businesses that have no technology. Little shops and restaurants, taxi drivers, libraries, one-person businesses. They have found a way to dazzle and delight their customers that has nothing whatsoever to do with technology.
And yet the larger businesses put so much emphasis on technology. "Let's profile our customers. Let's monitor their spending patterns. Let's change the layout of our shop so that they spend more. Let's give them reward points."
This is not customer service. This is a misguided attempt to increase sales without understanding that customer service is about dealing with people. We buy from people we like. We want to fall in love with the businesses that we buy from. And love doesn't come from databases.
The elements of great customer service
My research into hundreds of businesses has identified a number of key elements that I believe combine to create a great service experience. They are like pieces of a jigsaw; the more that you can assemble the clearer the picture becomes. But let me tell you about just three of them. The three that I think are the most important.
The first is communication. How do we communicate with our customers? And I don't mean email or letter or telephone. What I mean is, do we really make an effort to get on side with our customer? Do we look at things from our customer's point of view? Do we understand all the things that our customer is feeling, seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling? Do we communicate in ways that our customer understands? And do we listen? Really listen?
The second is systems. I don't mean computer or technology systems. Just simple systems. How do we do things? How do we treat our customers? Think about all the businesses that you have ever worked in. Did any one of them ever say to you on your very first day, "This is how we treat our customers here"? More likely they probably said, "This is how you take the money. This is how you chase up payments. This is how you operate the computer." Most employees do what they think is expected of them.
The third element is leadership. There is a direct correlation between strength of leadership and the amount of extra effort that people put into serving customers. Great leaders understand their internal customers - their employees. They understand what motivates them, what inspires them, what pleasure they can get from giving great service.
Apply the human touch to generate referrals
Great leaders also understand what huge benefits customer loyalty brings. The very best customer service businesses don't need to advertise. They don't lose customers and they get huge numbers of referrals.
Business leaders in the UK need to wake up to the fact that the best technology will not replace simple human understanding. The greatest database will not replace some basic customer service training. I worry that UK leaders are simply too reserved and too conservative to ever fully grasp this issue. We dismiss as "too American" anything that appears to break the rules. "Have a nice day" might not be for us. But understanding how to make our customers smile would be a huge step forward.
Derek is creator of The WOW! Awards, as well as an international speaker and author on customer service. He is the past chief executive of the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Europe.