Understanding the critical role of customer service

In the past the slogan “customer is king” was just another nice sounding cliché full of best of intentions but often observed more in breach than in conformity. This was because most businesses were virtual monopolies or indeed monopolies in their respective areas of operation.

The modern business environment is defined by cut-throat competition. This requires the business to be alert at all times. Consumers are today spoilt for choice. As such mistreatment of the customer is bound to have disastrous consequences.

Furthermore, a dissatisfied customer is more likely to relate his experience to others than a satisfied one. This is made worse in this era of social media whereby the message can not only spread far and wide but can also go viral eroding in its wake a reputation built over many years.

Recently, a local airline was accused of mistreating its physically challenged client by failing to assist him disembarks from the plane thus forcing him to crawl out. The situation was made worse by the fact that the client in question is a father to a local celebrity. The story was covered by all the major media houses and the group known as Kenyans on Twitter (or simply KOT)

had a field day crucifying the airline for its supposed heartlessness and carelessness.

The company went into great length to explain the situation surrounding the incident even providing sensible reasons as to the risks that would be associated with the required help if offered e.g. injury to the client which is outside the scope of insured risks. These efforts did little to manage the damage which had already been done.

This case highlights the increasingly complex environment in which the relationship between client and company is being exercised. This is not the traditional situation where issues were handled away from the public glare. The company therefore needs to understand that it faces a much wider audience in its dispute resolution. As such the interests of the third party can no longer be taken for granted.

Issues ailing customer service in


Many books and articles have been written about customer service providing all manner of tips on the best approaches. I would however wish to approach the issue differently by focusing on practical incidents from my own experience and perspective.

I have had many issues with Kenyan companies especially in the financial services and telecommunications sectors. The following are some of the issues I have experienced and which require customer service managers’ attention to ensure service improvement.

  1. customer service personnel Incompetent

There are many cases I have encountered whereby customer care staff is ignorant of the issues that customers’ experience. What would be a straightforward matter is magnified by the incompetence of first contact staff.

In one case, I went to a bank intending to open an account. I had searched their website and found the various accounts available. However on going to the branch, the staff managing the account opening desk told me that the account I preferred to open was not available. Yet on calling the bank’s customer care department, they insisted that the said account option is available and there should be no problem.

This case interested me as a marketer because it exposes a number of issues. First a person charged with advising customers on the banks products did not even understand what options are available. Secondly the staff fails to understand that this is the information age and by the time the customer comes to open the account, they already have enough information on available options. To make matters worse, the said staff did not even have any brochure or write-up on available account options and their opening requirements. It was her word against mine.

Often in marketing we say that “the first impression is the last impression.” One wonders what awaits them were they to open the account and encounter problems. Businesses need to train front office staff thoroughly on their products. Such training should be done regularly so that the staff is updated on the latest details of the product.

  1. Lack of professionalism by staff

Some customer care staff is often rude and careless when dealing with customers unaware of the consequences of their conduct. Some are also casual in their approach. I once had an issue with my modem whereby every time I tried to connect it would bring an error coded as error 678 with the message “the remote computer did not respond.”

This error took me through hell and back. The customer care staff was totally clueless. They would offer guesswork solutions e.g. try restarting the computer, try uninstalling then reinstalling the software etc. From my own analysis of the situation, I could tell it was something to do with the network in my area because I could use the same modem elsewhere and it would work but never at home. I had also ruled out a problem with the computer I was using since it was not the first time the problem was occurring and after sometime it would be sorted by the service provider and things would work out. It was laughable when the technician told me to go with my desktop to their offices. He also told me that he was the best in the company and if he couldn’t solve my issue I had run out of luck.

This situation demonstrates the need for a customer service to be manned by people who have varying levels of experience. For instance, I have seen a case where a company has various level of experts in its customer service whereby if one level is unable to resolve an issue it is escalated to another level with more experienced staff. This is important especially in technical services whereby customer care staff may not have the necessary capacity to tackle all issues. I find it intolerable when a company can’t explain why you are facing a challenge

using their services.

  1. Lack of clear dispute resolution mechanism

Cases abound whereby you face a problem and you are hurled from office to office in the company without any clear mechanism of how the issue will be resolved. I recently had an issue with the mobile banking service of my bank. When you dial the numbers provided the system keeps on asking you to open an account.

If the system is working properly it is supposed to recognize your phone number and take you straight to the service menu yet in this case it treated me as a stranger with no account in the bank. According to the bank’s customer service staff the system apparently deactivates the mobile account if not used for some time.

Interestingly, the said staff can’t tell how often you need to use the service to avoid deactivation; they can’t define what they mean by “after sometime.” One also wonders if this is the case, why they can’t send an SMS advising one that his mobile phone access has been deactivated. Mobile phone access is supposed to come in handy in an hour of extreme need yet the staff does not seem to understand how inconvenienced one can get if he had an emergency and needed to use the service.

The long story does not end there since the customer care staff advise that the procedure to activate the mobile banking service involves travelling to the branch to fill a form so that a new PIN can be regenerated. Weeks after filling the said form I am yet to hear from the bank or to receive the said new PIN.

Issues like these can be easily handled if there is a clearly outlined mechanism of tackling them with proper timelines and guidelines in terms of what action one can take if he feels the issues haven’t been tackled to satisfaction.

  1. Poor supervision of staff

The issue above has made me come to the realization that most customer care staff members are poorly supervised. Customer care centres when called claim that the calls are being recorded for quality control. This to me is just a formality since you would expect the services to be improving in view of the feedback collected. In my view, these customer care centres need to provide other layers of supervisors who can tackle issues that the centre fails to handle properly, quickly or conclusively.

Some of the local companies have managed to resolve this by ensuring they make a call back to confirm that you have been assisted to satisfaction. First, contact staff should know there are consequences for unresolved or poorly resolved disputes. This is the only way to ensure the customer care centres work as intended. A company may also decide to make random call backs from a sample of customers who had called with issues just to confirm that all is well or even to apologize in case of any inconveniences or omissions.

  • Lack of responsiveness

Companies need to respond to issues quickly. Most importantly, they need to resolve the issues within reasonable time. It makes no sense to run a call centre which provides no solutions or takes too long to resolve them.

I have had many experiences where you write an email to a company using the address they have provided for customer complaints or information only for it to never get a response. I also had an experience with one of the local mobile phone service providers whose calls to its call centre would rarely be answered or sometimes one would be kept waiting for so long that you would end up giving up.

The above are just cases I have experienced. Readers have their own scary tales to tell. As for those in customer care management they need to know that today’s customer is well informed and more demanding. There is also no business that is too big to fail. Impunity can never be a good strategy. As I have always said, when a business stops listening, it starts leaving. The motto for any business should be; “listen, respond, resolve.”



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