What sits behind the poor customer service ethic and why has service gone backwards, even with the pandemic recovery, asks Liezel Jonkheid, Director of the Consumer Psychology Lab
The state of customer service is even worse than pre-Covid. That seems to by my experience and most people that I talk to these days. The frustration with lousy service is palpable. You see it manifest on social media platforms which people turn to and vent out of frustration of not being listened to, you hear it in casual conversations at work, around the dinner table and on the shop floor.
Looking at where service delivery no longer stacks up, more attention should be given to how businesses respond to and approach customer service since the onset of the pandemic, and now in the recovery stage. Much has changed over the last two and half years – legacy business models were disrupted overnight and there was a mad dash to stay accessible, relevant and desired in order to survive the economic destruction of lockdown.
But since the frenetic focus on meeting customer needs in those early pandemic months as a means of business survival, it now seems that the ability and willingness of business to deliver great customer service has since dissipated. Many businesses have sunk back into service complacency believing that things have gone back to ‘normal’ – however the changed service technology landscape and customer expectations have not reverted back to pre-pandemic times. If anything, the pandemic’s repercussions in terms of service delivery and design are huge – customer expectations have been fundamentally altered, and business seems to be missing the service plot.
So what exactly sits behind the current sorry state of customer service?
Here’s my take on the most pressing issues, with insights gleaned from personal experience as a customer experience specialist, observation, as well as from the CX market research that we conduct as the Consumer Psychology Lab…
Is there a link between under-developed people skills and tech-savvy Gen Z?
A Deloitte study created an informative picture of Gen Z and its skill with technology – Gen Z has grown up with a variety of technologies such as smartphones, tablets, laptops, social media and video calling. The study also highlights the generational and technological challenges in entry-level jobs that GEN Z and employers face as a result.
Many Gen Z will find themselves starting off their working careers in the service sector as the barriers for entry in terms of technical skills are relatively low. The same Deloitte report points out though that Gen Z is concerned about their ability to communicate and forge strong interpersonal relationships, due to the fact that technology has impaired their cognitive skill development, and they recognise that their social skills, like critical thinking and communication, are weak. So where does this leave them in terms of customer service where interpersonal communication is key?
Gen Z to a large extent has grown up in a digital world where device-led interaction is the norm and face-to-face, in-person engagement is the exception, resulting in under-developed skills to deal with conflict, raw emotions and real-time problem solving. In many respects, Gen Z is also emotionally immature due to the protective shield of their upbringing in a modern world fraught with risks and dangers.
It is these traits and mental frameworks of Gen Z that present unique challenges when it comes to customer service delivery. The key question for every business leader is whether their younger, front-line Gen Z employees have the ability to practice empathy, perseverance in the face of adversity, good (human) communication and problem-solving skills?
While Gen Z brings an unprecedented level of technology skills to the workforce which is a bonus, businesses will need to invest significantly into training and development of the interpersonal communication skills of their frontline people – the so-called soft skills and EQ that no academic qualification or tech brings you – or risk being left with a workforce poorly equipped to drive lasting success on the customer service front.
Customers are angry!
Consumers are fighting to be heard, and not always in expected ways. Several recent articles on bad behaviour of customers, including the Time’s‘Why is everyone so rude right now’, point to customers in exceptionally high states of intolerance and behaviour displaying fury, aggression, violence and abuse. Some articles include statistics on the escalating number of ‘customer abuse’ cases being investigated, even in industries such as airlines and hospitality which regularly experience customers behaving badly.
From a consumer behaviour perspective, this phenomenon requires more exploration, especially considering the impact of the pandemic on the deeper psychological states of people. Some authors predicted that ‘post-pandemic’ reintegration of consumers into the in-person environment, would be far ‘gentler’ and people would welcome the return to in-person, human contact. Yet, two years later, we see consumers behaving very differently, with high levels of emotion underpinning behaviour. So, what is driving it?
Many recent studies revealed interesting findings, some of which are mentioned here.
- Pent up emotions – people had to internalise much of the collective angst and frustration since the pandemic started and had to adjust to a new reality with little warning and having to deal with uncertainty, which is not a state humans thrive in. As people became more isolated, it resulted in the inability to release the tension in constructive ways. These pent-up emotions may be contributing to the current and often over-the top response to poor service delivery.
- Dehumanised contact – much of the current aggressive behaviour towards service providers may also be related to an extended period of limited face-to-face contact. For instance, it is easy to switch off the face-time function during online meetings, hearing only voices, and not seeing (or sensing) the reaction of their words in others – in essence ‘dehumanising’ the person on the other side. NOT seeing people or their responses to the interaction (body language) has removed many filters of behaviour towards others. Notably, this applies to the younger generations too, where device-led communication tones down or removes emotional engagement. Growing up in a world where people’s reactions are filtered through emojis and screens, and not experiencing the real emotional responses – in words and body language – has resulted in an under-developed ability to interact with challenging situations, especially when emotionally charged.
- Fear – It is argued that fear is driving extreme consumer responses. From the typical flight-fight-freeze response to fear, ‘fight’ seems to be the strongest contender. The excessive responses often relate to illogical rules or procedures that are not customer-centric and leave consumers feeling unheard. It is also a fear of freedom being taken away or being marginalised and ignored into insignificance. People are fighting to be heard in a world where ‘multichannel tech communications channels’ are drowning out their voice. In the absence of competent (interpersonal and communication skills) service staff, the fight reaction is hyper-charged.
- Despondency – Do not underestimate the impact of global and local events and circumstances on people’s psyches. People are feeling despondent! This is due to too many factors creating bleak pictures of the future. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and its dramatic impact on the cost of living globally, are only some of the factors contributing to an extended period of ‘not so rosy’ current reality. In South Africa, the state of the country in terms of power supply, basic infrastructure, corruption, political uncertainty and soaring living costs also exacerbate the sense of despondency of its citizens.
It stands to reason that people are reacting more strongly, and often out-of-character, to poor service delivery with beyond seemingly ‘normal’ responses to dissatisfaction, disappointment and unmet expectations. However, looking at the consumer behaviour described, one must also consider if consumers have moved on at a much faster pace than many businesses? The risk is that it would be easy to justify such angry responses as simply a consumer behaving badly, rather than the result of a service delivery failure that pushes an already strained customer over the edge.
Businesses need to look critically at whether service delivery has kept pace with the changed dynamics of the last two and half years. Where it no longer stacks up, business leaders need to ask whether the business and service delivery responses since the onset of the pandemic have evolved to meet customers where they are NOW. Customers no longer simply compare service delivery between comparable industries or businesses but expect the same instant service and gratification that they get from their online banks from their insurer, their telecoms provider, restaurant and retailer.
The big question is this – is business paying attention and understanding the shift in their customer’s expectations and aligning their service delivery models accordingly?
What can companies do to improve service?
#1 Refocus attention on customers and their needs, because customers are more vocal and less forgiving than before, and will walk away to other providers who do listen. Ask customers more questions, listen and adjust the service delivery according to their needs.
#2 Invest in training frontline staff with not only ‘what to do’ but ‘HOW’ to deliver the required service. The generational shortcomings that technology brings in relation to intuitively knowing how to connect with customers on a human level presents a significant gap and requires development of the right capabilities and communication skills.
#3 Review service design as legacy systems no longer cut it for customers’ needs and expectations today! When new systems and tech platforms are introduced to seemingly improve CX, be sure that it does not in fact have the opposite effect. For instance, using AI to personalise communication with customers, but the messaging is inappropriate [offering a benefit that does not apply to the customer] will ultimately create indifferent customers who have zero affinity to the brand.
Similarly, deploying chatbots to save on call centre human resources and forcing customers into self-service as the only option to solve problems only serves to infuriate customers. Do not leave customers stranded in a linear bot-thinking process, especially with more complex problems that need human intuition to resolve. Even the most intelligent chatbot cannot deliver on your customer needs and experience as effectively as a well-trained service agent. The challenge for all businesses is to strike the balance between machine and human service delivery, deploying the right technology AND people in the customer service journey, at the right time, with the right objectives.
As a business leader in a very different world, take another look at the past two to three years, and how your business had to change, adjust and reposition. Your customers have done the same. The traditional approaches to customer service can no longer be applied to the present situation and customer psyche. The time to restructure with a more customer-centric, empathetic, forward-looking approach that is hyper-aware of your customer’s changed realities is long overdue – failing which you may very well be kissing the customer service plot goodbye.