It’s About Time We Put the “Customer” Back in Customer Service

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January 16, 2014 by Rick Brammer

There has been an interesting development in the world of customer service. We are going to be taking a look at two companies from countries whose citizens have a reputation and history of being somewhat cold, impersonal, and indifferent; England and Russia. I find it interesting that countries not known for their warm-fuzzy interpersonal skills are providing us with two great examples of what customer service can and should be, and how making a commitment to customer service can mean increased profits.

First, Aeroflot Airlines, the largest airline in Russia, was voted in a recent survey to have the best service of any carrier in Eastern Europe. In another survey, Aeroflot Airlines was also recognized as having the best airline service for business customers. How did they manage this? The entire organization made a commitment to giving their customers’ the best experience possible. They’ve even put their commitment out for all to see. Here is the opening statement of Aeroflot’s Customer Service Plan:

“Aeroflot intends to ensure that your air travel experience will encompass, to the best of our abilities, the most comprehensive customer service possible.”

Simple, but keep in mind this is from a society that has sayings such as “laughter without reason is a sign of foolishness.” In fact, part of the training their flight attendants receive is a course on how to smile and interact with customers.

In addition to focusing on human interactions, Aeroflot also understands that the customer service experience encompasses much more. They have one of the youngest (and fastest growing) fleets in Europe, a great safety record, and advanced technology deployed for both the customer to utilize and for efficiency in operations. They have recently been recognized as one of the most innovative companies in Russia. How has all this worked for them? In the first 11 months of 2013 Aeroflot saw in increase of 18.5% in the number of passengers (as compared to 2012).

As I did research for this blog I noticed that Aeroflot listed their customer service telephone numbers right on the front page of their website. This really struck a chord with me because it’s getting to be more and more difficult to find telephone numbers to make an actual human connection. Everyone wants to handle everything with technology. Out of curiosity I checked several of the big U.S. carriers and not one of them listed phone numbers on the home page. In fact, only one provided a telephone number within one click from the home page. In the others I checked it took a minimum of 4, 5, or 6 clicks deep into a website before I could get a number. It’s as if they don’t want you to find this number. Of course there are opportunities to communicate using technology—and I do realize the Millennials’ (Generation Y) prefer to use technology over talking—but if you are someone who wants a human connection you are going to have to work to get one.

The second example is a company from England called Pret a Manger (French for Ready to Eat). They are a fast food restaurant with a goal of serving their customers wholesome food made from natural fresh, preservative-free ingredients within 60 seconds. Their requirement for their workforce to be bright, cheerful and happy—to keep smiling—has drawn criticism.

The chief complaint seems to be the issue of what is being called “emotional labor” which is the effort put forth to separate yourself from a situation in order to get your work done. I stopped to think about this and thought about my job as an owner of a business, did I display this behavior? The answer was a resounding yes. Then I started to think of other professions and if they required “emotional labor”, sales; yes, customer service; yes, nurses; yes, food servers; yes, police officers; yes, teachers; yes, and I quickly came to the realization that if you deal with people then you too probably use emotional labor.

The people at Pret a Manger want that short 60-second interaction with patrons to be filled with smiles, positive energy and a genuine human connection. The negative comments come from those who think this is ridiculous. I, personally, find this negativity to be as damning of a statement on our society as can be imagined. What these people are saying is in essence, “please don’t treat me nicely and with respect, and for God’s sake don’t smile or enjoy your job”. Really?

So how is their customer-friendly strategy working out? After seeing profits increase by 17 percent in 2012, Pret a Manger had a goal of adding 1000 new jobs in 50 new stores in 2013.

I have to admit, I like being welcomed when I visit a business—it makes a difference to me. I’m not surprised to find that warm human interactions are not only good for the soul, but also for the bottom line.

Let’s hope that other companies look at what is happening with Aeroflot and Pret a Manger and decide that it is time to really invest in the customer experience. Not the way that so many companies talk about or give lip service to, but in ways that can be measured by actual customers.

And hey, I would like to personally thank you for reading my blog. I appreciate your time.

Rick Brammer is president and co-owner of United Credit Service, Inc.
Founded in 1950, United Credit Service, Inc. is a full service revenue cycle management and debt collection agency in Wisconsin providing highly effective, customized one on one management and recovery solutions for our business partners. We offer pre-service collection solutions as well as traditional back-end collections. Visit our website at http://www.unitedcreditservice.com or call 877-723-2902.

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