In a service context value is defined by the customer and is created at the interface of the customer and the service provider. Whether an organisation provides customer service excellence, therefore, is assessed by the customer at the interface of the customer and the service provider against the customer’s definition of excellence. This is often an implicit evaluation based upon the norm experienced by the customer when compared to the customer service provided by that, and other, organisations.
Whilst there are some generic standards for how customers like to be treated e.g. with respect and in a timely way; true customer service excellence can only be achieved if:
All of the above is represented in the Customer Service Excellence Framework at Figure One. The Framework, and the approach to customer service excellence, has to start with the customer. It is vital to understand who the customers are and the context within which they are interested in the products and services offered by the organisation. It is also vital to understand how the customers identify needs and desires in relation to customer service and what the expectations they have from the perceptions and experience created from the organisation’s published standards and brand values.
Customer’s expectations of an organisation’s customer service are impacted by the experience they have from contact with competing organisations and other organisations. In terms of public services the level of customer service from one Government Department or part of the public sector will create the benchmark for the expectations the customer has from all parts of the public sector. Similarly, contact with non-public sector organisations and the customer service received will create a benchmark for how customer service from the public sector is evaluated.
Figure One: The Customer Service Excellence Framework
Public sector organisations need to identify and evaluate both customer definitions of customer service excellence and the customer service provided by other parts of the public sector and non-public sector organisations. This will help the organisation to understand the customer’s context for comparing customer service experiences.
I have often seen public sector organisations state in glossy brochures that they aim to provide world class customer service. Regrettably, they often have not defined what world class customer service is other than in generic headlines. In these cases it is pertinent to ask:
Labelling customer service as world class when it isn’t undermines credibility and confidence in both customers and those providing services. Customer service excellence should be more than just a marketing slogan.
An organisation’s customer service involves ensuring that communication, behaviours, channel accessibility, products/services, physical assets/facilities, practical fulfilment and timeliness of services, technology/systems and brand values are all consistent with, and support the provision of, customer service excellence. These provide a challenging portfolio of tangible and intangible elements of customer service excellence.
Someone at the interface with customers will not be able to provide customer service excellence unless they are able and willing to respond to the customer within the parameters set by the organisation. This means that those providing customer service need to have access to information and knowledge and people to enable them to work with customers to identify what is required and what can be done to address the customer’s requirements.
The provision of customer service excellence requires linkages between all of the activities of the organisation with a free flow of information between them. Back office activities can affect the organisation’s ability to provide customer service excellence. The organisation needs to be able to learn from both internal and external experience and to act upon that learning. How can external customer service excellence be achieved if there isn’t internal customer service excellence?
Customer service needs to be embedded within an organisation’s culture, competencies and capabilities (function and organisation spanning systems and processes) if it is to deliver excellence. Similarly the organisation has to have the capacity to deliver customer service excellence.
All of the above requires leadership to recognise customer service excellence as a corporate strategic objective and organisational cultural imperative. Leaders act as a catalyst for, and symbol of, customer service excellence and enable the organisation to invest in, and develop, the culture, competencies, capabilities and capacity to provide customer service excellence. It is not just an activity to be treated as a front line activity but requires the commitment and input of all parts of the organisation. To achieve it often requires a change in organisational culture in many organisations.
Professor Malcolm Morley OBE
Chief Executive of Harlow Council
Visiting Professor at the Lord Ashcroft International Business School of Anglia Ruskin University and the Business School of the University of Bedfordshire.