Five Reasons Why Customer Service Initiatives Fail

Last Updated Feb 10, 2010 8:41 AM EST

Some organisations are great at customer service; it's deeply embedded in their culture - it's "in their DNA". But for many organisations, delivering great customer service is an ongoing issue. Senior teams know it, but seem unable to do much about it. Initiatives come and go, but none really move the dial. Why?

Here are five common reasons that customer service initiatives fail. Do your plans fall foul of any of these?

1. Seeing it as an Initiative

Improving customer service requires a deep and ongoing commitment. It starts with a vision of how you want the customer to feel and to perceive the organisation and its people. Delivering it might require programmes of education and skills development, developing a new language and ways of working, and lots of communication and hoopla. Making a step-change in customer service really is like turning an oil tanker. And one thing that will guarantee failure, is trying to do it through a standalone initiative.

2. Starting at the Bottom

Service quality is a result of business culture. Initiatives that focus changes primarily on front-line teams, without championing real behaviour change throughout the organisation, will always be short-lived. True service culture begins at the top, and cascades through every layer of the hierarchy, supporting and serving those at the sharp-end. Stores with happy customers and unhappy staff are as common as hen's teeth.

3. Focusing on Stores

Customer service happens whenever the organisation interacts with a customer, supplier, investor, or even just a member of the public. It happens in accounts, in PR, in logistics, and HR. It happens on the website, on the phone, in reception and in the car park. Whether it's answering the phone promptly, replying to mail consistently, delivering on time every time, the same service ethic must pervade the organisation in order to guarantee the customer experience and to become self-perpetuating.

4. Prioritising Sales

Selling up, selling across and selling on may be great phrases for sales teams who have the service basics in place, but in order to effectively sell, you first need to gain trust. Good sales technique is good customer service: engaging with and listening to the customer, understanding the need, offering alternatives and suggestions, and going the extra mile. But where customer service is below par, pushing initiatives that are primarily around sales actually worsens the experience.

5. Trying to Eat an Elephant

Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One piece at a time.

The key to great customer service is consistency, but people are incredibly inconsistent, especially whilst they are still learning. The only way to deliver consistent improvements in service is to break it into chunks, and swallow them one at a time. Allow time for each step change to become second nature - an unconscious competence - before layering the next change on top. Businesses, and especially CEOs, need to work at pace: to measure, change and measure again. But customer service is 100% about people, and people take time, and care, and support, to adapt. Sometimes, more haste really is less speed.