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The horrible disconnect

Sep 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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Customer service is deteriorating. Exceptional customer service has become more memorable than the alternative. With hundreds of millions of dollars spent by corporate America to purchase and install CRM systems, a steady stream of best-selling business books about customer service and the bottom-line benefits of improved account retention, and the “customer service revolution” in which we reportedly revel, how is this deterioration possible?

The customer is always right

The music and the words, the sermon and the behavior are dissonant. While there are no statistics on the subject, I wouldn't be surprised if half the companies with a written mission statement refer or allude to the need to “exceed customer expectations.” Some of these same companies aren't even meeting customer expectations, and most make no investment in research to determine customer perceptions, attitudes and experiences regarding their firm.

Some of the reasons for dissonance between rhetoric and practice are obvious. Many organizations feel the pressure for short-term sales and profit performance, often sacrificing customer service in the drive to become a “lean machine.” In many cases, management simply might not appreciate the importance of doing anything more than delivering a satisfactory product on time at a competitive price. When people say, “Nothing is worth doing if it can't be measured,” they really are saying, “Nothing is worth doing if it can't be measured in the short term and with statistical precision.”

CRM software: problem or solution?

Many of these folks love customer relationship management (CRM) software. The costs are tangible, and that's very appealing to those who talk and think exclusively in terms of metrics.

I often use a saying that drives the metric fetishists to distraction: “It is better to be about right than precisely incorrect.” Customer satisfaction is more than the expeditious handling of complaints or the reduced cost of handling inquiries.

My disagreement is more basic than CRM software. It goes back to the value of the concept of customer satisfaction in a market infected by perceived commoditization.

It's more than a bit of a stretch to breathe organizational life into the “exceeding customer expectations” ideal if there is no organized effort to identify those customer-specific expectations or to measure customer feedback about perceived performance against those expectations. “Hypocritical” is a proper word when owners and managers of companies with mission statements referring to exceeding customer expectations buy and believe research sold by trade associations and independent researchers labeled as “customer satisfaction surveys.”

Strive for excellence

I've observed owners and managers of companies that promote the rhetoric of excellence who, upon reviewing the customer feedback, comment that customers are happy, satisfied or report no problems. There's no reason to find that feedback satisfactory if there is a corporate culture of excellence.

I've seen some companies that should modify their mission to meeting, rather than exceeding, customer expectations. That might be more honest but is not likely to be more successful. The reason: A customer-oriented culture is different from a sales, production or a financial orientation. It requires a shared focus by everyone in an organization. That focus is not a program, procedure, system or workflow; it takes time to build. Metrics are important and indispensable tools but shouldn't be confused with a profound belief by everyone in a company that he or she is in a direct position to win and lose customers.

Belief in a profound customer orientation isn't sufficient — it needs to be accompanied by a staff that intellectually and viscerally shares this belief. Some readers will interpret this column as a pronouncement that “the customer is always right.” That's not the case. The customer is not always right and most customers understand that. The customer, however, is always the customer, and is entitled to respect, education and a sincere interest in its success from a supplier.

I anticipate some vigorous disagreement with this column. I hope my views are misguided and welcome evidence of my errors. A word of warning: Please don't present “evidence” based on a few focus groups. Any professional researcher knows that, while valuable in identifying issues worthy of further research, they are not statistically reliable or even meaningful.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. He can be reached at