I’ve had a bad customer service week. Actually, a bad couple of months. And by “bad customer service” I mean that I have been treated poorly by an awful lot of “customer service” representatives working for a wide swath of different types of companies.

To be short, this really irks me; not just because it is totally infuriating to be treated rudely by someone who is supposed to help you, nor because these representatives are often our only conduit to address our grievance with a company, nor because they are often powerless to do anything to help us or correct a problem, citing “company policy,” “lack of power”, or the all-too-common “that’s not my job.”

No, the trend I have witnessed irks me because for every bad customer service rep out there, there is a manager who isn’t managing, a company that isn’t sending the right message to its employees, and usually a business owner or executive who is too far removed or is too restrictive to make it possible to provide good customer service.

When a customer is treated poorly, sure, there is a low-level employee we can blame, and even fire, for the transgression. But the fact that it happened at all suggests that the employee may be unhappy, or was never trained properly, or that management hasn’t emphasized customer service. There is plenty of blame to go around and it almost never stops with the person who actually deals with the customer.

When the current economic recession first hit several years ago, I had similar feelings about my customer service experiences. It seemed that too many companies had grown too quickly, experiencing impressive growth and gains from an American populace that was addicted to spending and was propped up by temporarily cheap credit, inflated home values, and an artificially low cost of goods in the US (thanks to government subsidies, lax import policies, and of course, cheap labor overseas).

Companies didn’t have to supply good customer service, because customers were lined up 10 deep waiting to purchase their goods. Sure, some companies who went out of their way to try harder might have done a little better than their competitors, but it seemed as though compared to the costs of hiring a competent staff, training them well on service, and paying them a wage that kept them happy enough to smile when they greeted a customer, the return on investment simply wasn’t high enough.

Then came the tumble in 2008 and every company was scrambling for business. I thought, “It’s about time! Now we consumers get to be treated like kings again! They’ll be fighting tooth-and-nail for our business!” I hoped and even expected that the recession would cull most of the poor retailers and service providers from the market. Those that remained would once again recognize the benefit of return customers, especially those that can pay, and would redouble their efforts to find good people, train them well, and retain them.

Three years later, it appears that I was wrong. In fact, it seems that the reverse has happened. Rather than promoting a renewed sense of service and satisfaction, in my experience the recession has driven service to an even more dissatisfying low.

This shocks me because we know that last fall the ratio of unemployed to available jobs in the US was roughly 5 to 1. That means that, loosely speaking, any given customer service job has a host of applicants to choose from.

And one must assume that, in general, companies will choose the best applicant for the job. Granted, customer service jobs are not exactly a career aspiration for most of us. The work can be stressful and unsatisfying and therefore may not attract the absolute cream of the crop. But it is not, say, meat cutting, or fat-rendering either. And we can probably assume that there are enough unemployed out there who just want a job that a CS opening would draw at least some capable applicants. Unless, of course, the jobs didn’t pay well, or provide benefits, or offer full-time employment. And it would not surprise me if this were the primary cause of the downward service trend.

It seems rather than investing in quality people to supply good customer service, many companies have instead identified it as a place to save money; offering low wages, part-time status, and of course, no benefits for customer service positions. In short, the workers who fill these jobs are seen as disposable, since there are stacks of people behind each one waiting to take their place (see this article from Bloomberg Business Week). And who cares if the body provides poor service? Eventually they’ll fill that job with someone who does it mediocre, at least. And until then, customers be damned!

Yes, rather than investing in employees, thereby attracting better ones and retaining the good ones, a labor surplus seems to have reduced the importance of having good workers, resulting in lower wages and benefits, and logically, in turn, attracting less-than-thrilling applicants.

It’s a vicious circle. Reduced revenues result in lower wages for employees which results in dissatisfied workers and poorer applicants which results in poor customer service which results in unsatisfied customers which results in reduced revenues.

So, employers, here’s an idea: break the circle.

If quality customer service is truly your goal (and almost every retailer or service-provider claims it is) then those can’t just be words on a website or painted on your store’s wall. It has to be part of the culture of your entire business; that means your management policies, your training system, your hiring practices, and especially your compensation package. Here are my suggestions:

You’ve got to spend money to make money
If you want happy customers you’ve got to invest in the idea. Too many customer service jobs are entry-level with low compensation and no hope of advancement. Start by offering a competitive wage in order to attract good people. Have a clear track from part-time to full-time based on performance. Reward those that do well by accepting them into the next echelon and providing benefits and an incremental but not-infrequent system of potential pay increases.

Train consistently and effectively
Once you’ve got them, you have to make sure they know how important service is. You can’t simply hire a body, tell them “be nice to customers” and set them on their way. You have to train them, encourage them, reiterate to them, demonstrate through example, and check up on them regularly. Promise rewards if they do well. And when they do, make good on that promise based on individual achievement.

Empower your employees
Give your service people the tools they need to supply it. Empower them with the ability to offer concessions, expedite solutions, and make their own decisions about what a customer needs to feel good about your company again.

Expect it from your managers first
The message from management must be clear and consistent; customer service is an absolute requirement. This must be ever-present in the workplace, and not just through training and enforcement, but primarily through example. In addition to consumers, managers have another customer, employees. It is your managers’ duty to make sure the employees are supported, instructed, and see an example set by those above.

Reiterate the message and reward the behavior
Once you’ve got someone going strong, make sure you re-emphasize the importance of good service regularly. No amount of reiteration is too much, be it monthly, weekly, or daily. And along with that emphasis, throw them a bone now and then, especially when you witness them doing well. Offer a raise, a day off, lunch, or even a $5 gift card to somewhere the employee likes. It doesn’t take much to make them feel good, and the happier they are, the better they’ll be at keeping customers happy.

In the long run, you can make or break your business based on customers coming back. When customers are treated well by an employee, they start to develop an affinity for them. They like seeing them, and that draws them back even more often. And since it costs money to train an employee, you can actually boost your profits by retaining good ones.

So go on, business owners, I dare you. If you really want to offer remarkable customer service, put your money where your mouth is. Find the best people to do it, train them well, and do everything you can to hang on to them.

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