Disappearing Act

How to bring back high-quality customer service

by Les Schnoll

We have all heard the adage that the customer is always right. It’s been drilled into our heads, and we are told that we will experience significant consequences should we fail to abide by that philosophy. Unfortunately, in the United States and most of the rest of the world, customer service has all but disappeared.

You’ve probably heard of poster children for poor customer service—Comcast and United Airlines, for example.1 You also have likely experienced poor customer service in the past. It becomes more difficult to deal with each time you experience it.

Personally, I’m at a point where I will not put up with the nonsense any longer. Organizations doing business in the United States must get their acts together and learn what customer service and satisfaction mean.

Service standards

One of the lesser-known series of international quality standards is the ISO 10000 series, which relates to customer satisfaction. These standards can be used individually or in combination to maintain and improve an organization’s customer processes.

ISO 10001:2007—Quality management—Customer satisfaction—Guidelines for codes of conduct for organizations2 contains guidance on codes of conduct for organizations related to customer satisfaction. These codes of conduct can decrease the probability of problems arising and can eliminate causes of complaints and disputes that can decrease customer satisfaction.

ISO 10002:2014—Quality management—Customer satisfaction—Guidelines for complaints handling in organizations3 contains guidance on the internal handling of product-related complaints. This guidance can help to preserve customer satisfaction and loyalty by helping organizations resolve complaints effectively and efficiently.

ISO 10003:2007—Quality management—Customer satisfaction—Guidelines for dispute resolution external to organizations4 contains guidance on the resolution of disputes regarding product-related complaints that could not be satisfactorily resolved internally. ISO 10003 can help to minimize customer dissatisfaction stemming from unresolved complaints.

ISO 10004:2012—Quality management—Customer satisfaction—Guidelines for monitoring and measuring5 provides guidance on defining and implementing processes to monitor and measure customer satisfaction and is intended for use by organizations to satisfy customers external to the organization.

These topics are lightly addressed in several other International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards such as ISO 9001 and ISO 13485, but they are of minimal impact when it comes to organizations’ day-to-day activities.

Trends and analysis

While these standards may be a great place to start to build an organization’s processes for meeting or exceeding customer requirements and expectations, it is basically left to an individual organization to implement those processes and determine suitable metrics. Unfortunately, most domestic organizations fail to measure the right things.

This is where an organization such as the Institute of Customer Service (ICS), based in London, helps to fill a void. Every January, the ICS publishes a report, The State of Customer Satisfaction in the United Kingdom. In the 2015 report, ICS’s CEO Joanna Causon said:

U.K. customers are now, on average, less satisfied with the service they receive than at any point since July 2010. I believe that these results reflect profound shifts in the market environment. Customers’ expectations have evolved rapidly, leading to an ever-growing desire for convenience, speed and value. Moreover, we expect the service experience to be more personalized than before, with organizations expected to anticipate our current and potentially future needs.6

Several key findings in this year’s report include:

  • The downward trend in customer satisfaction continues.
  • Only two sectors have improved customer satisfaction.
  • Customer segments offer contrasting levels of satisfaction.
  • Service drives customer engagement, trust and loyalty.
  • Satisfaction ratings related to speed, complaints and staff issues have fallen.
  • Employee engagement is strongly linked with customer satisfaction.

The report further concludes there is a range of environmental factors that are forcing organizations to fundamentally rethink their relationships with customers. These include:

  • Decline in trust.
  • Diversity of customer segments.
  • An intense focus on value.
  • Changing attitudes to ethics and sustainability.
  • Emotional factors.
  • Multiple communication channels and technology.
  • Employee management.
  • Levels of investment in customer service.

The report includes an analysis of trends impacting customer satisfaction. Figure 1 (p. 55) depicts 11 (of 28) metrics that have most contributed to the decline in customer satisfaction scores. Speed and responsiveness, complaint processes, and employee behavior and attitude were the leading causes in the decrease of customer satisfaction.

Figure 1

Finally, the report recommends which areas organizations should focus on to enhance their levels of customer satisfaction. These 11 areas are:

  1. A strategic leadership commitment to customer service.
  2. Measurement across the whole
    customer experience.
  3. Consistency across channels.
  4. Investment in customer insight.
  5. Co-creation of services.
  6. Proactive employee engagement
  7. Equipping people with skills and
  8. Problem prevention.
  9. Benchmarking organizations from other sectors.
  10. Collaborating within and beyond the organization.
  11. Increasing agility and innovation

Downward spiral

So, where do we go from here? In 1986, the Technical Assistance Research Programs Institute published a report that concluded that at any one time, 25% of customers are dissatisfied enough with service to stop doing business with an organization.7 Yet, only 4% will complain.

The research also indicated customers change suppliers for only a few basic reasons:

  • Someone dies (1%).
  • Change in geographical location (3%).
  • Friendships (5%).
  • Competition (9%).
  • Indifference by an employee of
    the supplier (68%).

It’s been almost 30 years since the report, and conditions have not improved. In fact, they have probably deteriorated. Individually, it is difficult to change poor attitudes and even worse treatment. Poor publicity and a significant event are the only ways organizations providing poor customer service will change.

I continue to insist on outstanding customer service and, fortunately, I can find it in some businesses. If I am incensed enough about how I’m treated, I simply find another place to spend my money.

As a business owner myself, I certainly don’t want to become known as the "Comcast of consultants." Let’s not forget: Quality includes customer service. As QP readers and members of ASQ—an organization with quality in its name—it is up to us to lead the way.

References and note

  1. Max Nisen, "The 15 Worst Companies for Customer Service," Business Insider, Jan. 8, 2013, http://bit.ly/worstservice.
  2. International Organization for Standardization, ISO 10001:2007—Quality management—Customer satisfaction—Guidelines for codes of conduct for organizations, http://bit.ly/ISO100023007.
  3. International Organization for Standardization, ISO 10002:2014—Quality management—Customer satisfaction—Guidelines for complaints handling in organizations, http://bit.ly/ISO100022014.
  4. International Organization for Standardization, ISO 10003:2007—Quality management—Customer satisfaction—Guidelines for dispute resolution external to organizations, http://bit.ly/ISO100032007.
  5. International Organization for Standardization, ISO 10004:2012—Quality management—Customer satisfaction—Guidelines for monitoring and measuring, http://bit.ly/ISO100042012.
  6. Institute of Customer Service, The State of Customer Satisfaction in the United Kingdom, January 2015. A complete, free copy of the summary report can be accessed at http://bit.ly/icsexecsummary.
  7. Technical Assistance Research Programs Institute, Consumer Complaint Handling in America: An Update Study, U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, 1986.

Les Schnoll has more than 35 years of experience in industries regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. He is a senior member of ASQ and an ASQ-certified quality engineer, auditor and quality manager. A former member of the U.S. technical advisory group to International Organization for Standardization technical committee 176, Schnoll wrote The Regulatory Compliance Almanac (Paton Press, 2001, 2008). He is the principal of Quality Docs LLC, providing quality and regulatory consulting services to FDA-regulated industries. He also teaches several courses in master’s degree programs on regulatory affairs at Arizona State University in Tempe and Northeastern University in Boston.

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