Customer Service

My first “job” was working as a shelf filler/cashier in a supermarket in Mayfair, London. We were just around the corner from the Saudi Arabian Embassy, across from the famous (at that time) Shepherd’s Market, 200m away from the (then still open) Playboy Club on Park Lane, and as far again from the world renowned Berkeley Square. Getting the bus to work or, on those days when we didn’t have enough money, walking along Park Lane, we developed a level of imperviousness to the wealth, prosperity, grandeur and opulence of our environment. It was just “where we worked”.

But looking back on that time, I have come to realise that we were actually quite privileged to have developed that immunity to perceptions of social standing through location, and we were able to see people of all social levels for what they basically were; people.

On a Saturday, you could just as easily be selecting the finest Tiptree jams for a local Lord or Lady from the Square, then scouring the stockroom for products for the “Female Entrepreneurs” from the Market. As shy young teenagers, it was always embarrassing when the Ladies spent a moment too long smiling at us. We knew what they did for a living; they knew what we did for a living. They were clearly earning more for their Customer Services than we were!

A bigger differentiator for us then was in how Customer Service was perceived and received. Admittedly, it wasn’t called Customer Service back then. It was “do your bloody job and the Customer is always right!”

The van drivers, other workers in the area, the Ladies, all treated us with the basic respect you would expect. “Please” and “Thank you” preceded and followed requests for assistance; a smile showed it was sincere and, occasionally, when we went that extra mile (usually carrying shopping out to the car or, even, delivering to a local home), might even be rewarded with a small tip. On the other hand, the more affluent clientele generally treated sales assistants as an extension of their own staff – with requirements barked as directions; payment made as if at gunpoint; and any additional services seen as part of our role rather than as help.

But we learned very quickly that there are two sides to Customer Service. There is the Customer side and there is the Service side. For a successful transaction to take place, these are equal. Without customers, who needs service and vice versa?

Without dissecting the transactional process into its (now) multitudinous parts (Requirements, Sourcing, User Interface, Customer Experience, Transaction, Customer Loyalty, etc), what did we learn?

Well, we learned very quickly and very simply that, in order to make a sale you need to understand what the customer wants, ensure that they too understand what they really want, and then provide them with that in a manner which will encourage them to come back (to you) the next time they have that need. I learned that at the age of 15, but you can now pay a major blue chip consultancy >£1,000 per day to tell you the same thing (granted, you will get supporting slides and references).

We also learned that making it easy for your customers to get to and at what they want (personally or via competent assistants’ assistance) generally has the benefit of making them want to repeat the experience with you. People are generally lazy and if you can reduce the effort AND satisfy the need, you are onto a winning formula.

We learned that people are prepared to pay a price premium, whether that is for convenience (we were the only supermarket in that part of Mayfair at that time open 7 days a week); for quality (Tiptree jams were and still cost a fortune but they are “worth it” – if you are into conserves); for service (staff HAD to be friendly to the customers and smart sales assistants learn how to make a customer understand when they are wrong without making them feel they are wrong). We lived by “the customer is right” motto, even when they were clearly wrong.

Sadly, without the benefit of formal higher education, we were unable to translate the experience of translating the interaction between people and service to generate revenue into academic papers. We missed the opportunity to “fill the educational gap” that would have granted us MBAs or Doctorates (well, PhDs) and, no-one suggested writing our experiences down. Until now.

So, why am I writing this now?

The last few years, and especially last 12 months, have emphasised the need for companies to engage their customers in a manner which they had hitherto not foreseen. The growth of research into factors such as CEX, UI, CU, CL and more has created industries and consultancies which aim to teach companies to better target, engage with and retain customers to generate profit. We have cross-selling, related selling, upselling, downselling and a host of other tools designed to do what we were taught to do as teenagers, i.e. find out what the customer wants and provide them with it. But has it got “better”?

My personal view is that it has not. Customers have lost the “always right” pedestal and become commodities who can be targetted, leveraged, monetised and then discarded when their perceived or potential value is no longer sufficiently profitable for the effort required. Their value is measured by potential – how many of us can a company credibly say it has; value – how much we can realistically be expected to spend; and longevity – how long can we be expected to be retained? We are no longer “right” and have become “right now”.

Some companies are utilising the Tribal Concept. That is, “buy our product and you become like one of us”. Look no further than Air Jordans, Converse, Gucci and Cartier as examples of how the brand is designed to make the customer feel part of a team amongst others, so that their desire is driven, rather than by need but now by aspiration to be and remain “in the Tribe”.

The emergence of Sustainability, Environmental Friendliness, Renewable Natural Resources as both industries and tribal affiliations, show how the customer’s role has changed in the sales environment. As we become more educated – in the broadest sense of the word – companies can now refine and sub-define these Tribes even further. But does it enhance the overall Customer Experience? Again, I do not think it has.

So, is there a fix?

We could go back to basics. We could encourage the expansion of human interactions at the point of sale and, while not stifling the growth of Artificial Intelligence (ANI and/or AGI) and the power of Machine Learning, look to develop human skills which are more collaborative and less for-profit driven. With the introduction (or is that replacement by?) robotics into the business process, humans are being replaced in the drive for greater profits. Where will it end?

In his 1909 work, “When the Machine Stops”, E.M. Forster describes a scenario where the human race becomes a commodity that is merely used for the generation of ideas to further the progress of the Machine. As we allow, indeed encourage, the greater integration of Machines into our everyday lives, how far are we on the journey and, more worryingly, is it already too late for humanity to take back control?

In James Barrat’s book “Our Final Invention – The Last Complication”, he finalises by suggesting that the drive towards greater integration of AGI into society may lead to: 

“The failure to explore and monitor the threat is almost society-wide. But that failure does not in the least impact the ineluctable growth of machine intelligence. Nor does it alter the fact that we will have just one chance to establish a positive coexistence with beings whose intelligence is greater than our own.”

So the next time you check-in online for your flight or book that hotel room or order your Prime package, remember that, in times gone by there was a person who you could talk to, a person with a job, whose purpose was to provide you with that satisfaction. The Machines do not care who you are; they are only interested in delivering your requirement for the profit of their owners.

And if that is your definition of Customer Service, so be it. But remember, there may come a time when that Machine may replace YOU.

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