Alert: What I am about to share will not only show my age but will also reveal my opinion on a subject I am passionate about. Some will disagree, but let’s discuss:
Several times a week, no matter what country I am in, or which company I am working for, when I am speaking to a large group of people (taking my class), the topic turns to customer service. I work as a subject matter expert in the field of service and sales in the luxury market. Every day I address an audience of skilled, vetted, and experienced employees working in the hospitality industry. Typically, 50% of the participants have Bachelor’s Degrees in Hotel Administration, Tourism, or Hospitality Management. Generally, the audience I am working with are dedicated and professionally driven 20-40-year-olds. As I prepare to ask the inevitable question, I brace myself for their answer by fixing my expression to neutral, not wanting to reveal frustration or disappointment. I ask, “Where is your favorite place to shop, and where do you receive the best customer service?” 99% of time they say, “I shop on-line and don’t really care about customer service.” In fact, many in the hotel business say, “When I travel, I like to rent an apartment. That way I do not have to deal with anyone (-it is less formal, or it feels more authentic).”
WTH? I also shop on-line occasionally for convenience, but the fact that people choose to work in the customer service and major in it in college would typically be an indicator that customer service is important to them, right? Right?
It was not always this way. I started asking these questions in classes as far back as 1996, and up until 2009 or so, their answers followed a similar pattern. Participants used to say, “I shop at (fill in store here). They are attentive and (fill in name here) always takes care of me.” The names of the stores would shift slightly based on region or country. In the U.S., Nordstrom, Apple Store, and LL Bean were usually mentioned with equivalents in other countries being sited. It would often trigger discussions on the worst customer service, where other brands were mentioned - many of those have since closed.
How did this happen? While it is wrong to blame Millennials; it is their generation that has had to suffer the consequences of this shift in human interaction, as anti-social behavior happened as they came of age. An older generation developed the tools to put this change into motion, and it gets worse each year.
Don’t believe me?
Walk by a playground on a Saturday morning and observe the people there. My children are now 21 and 17, but I remember going to the park when they were little to socialize with my friends. We let our kids play together, talked, and pushed our kids on the swings. No one back then (1998-2006) had a mini-computer attached to their hand. That did not happen until the unveiling of the first iPhone in 2007. Now, I see most parents on their smartphones, often sitting together, but not talking. That ability to check out, look busy, and be pacified (kids are also using mom’s cell phone in their stroller) is a new development and it is changing everything about the world we live in.
How does this relate to customer service?
Go to an upscale restaurant and look at your fellow diners. Recently in Rome, I observed a family of U.S. tourists (I heard them ask for menus in English), eating an entire meal in silence. Everyone at the table was looking at screens, picking at their food while scrolling, and living in their own worlds. They will not remember the meal, atmosphere, or how each family member felt about what they had seen that day. You might be thinking my judgement is unfair? Perhaps. They may have had a fight that day or they were simply exhausted. But it seems unlikely that every family and couple within my view are in a fight – if so, then we have more issues than I thought.
Still unsure that things have changed? Ask yourself why people feel the need to take pictures of their food (even unremarkable dishes) and take pictures of art in a museum (instead of actually looking at the art itself). The ‘likes’ and <3’s have taken over where interactions and self-reflection used to be. I have been guilty of this too and recently set limits on my own social media use.
The servers and customer service workers I train see this behavior too, and report that it often makes them feel awkward and superfluous. They hit the industry standards that were set fifty years ago, which can feel robotic and staged, while stuck interacting with a person who does not bother to look up and acknowledge them as human beings. This makes them feel more robotic and staged. In fact, the words employees commonly use to describe this feeling is “fake” and “forced” which is hard to argue considering the circumstances.
Now that I have revealed my not-so-secret feelings on the societal evolution in the technological decade, there is one more piece to add to this puzzle. Customer service has declined lately due to another, more obvious reason:
Less people are being hired to do effectively the same or more work than ever before. Often, they are replaced by the very technology the customers hold in their hands.
In order to be more profitable, companies worldwide save money by hiring less full-time workers. Technology streamlines procedures and software allows companies to forecast demand then staff accordingly. Based on projected business levels, the bare minimum of workers is scheduled for that week. Over time, the quality of the employees hired becomes an issue, as the most talented opt to work for a guaranteed number of hours (salary) per year. Historically, service industries were already at a disadvantage in the labor pool due to the long hours, comparatively low starting wages, and unusual shifts that needed staffing. Now businesses cut hours whenever possible, combine positions, and ask employees to cover an ever-increasing scope of responsibilities. I caution business owners against this practice whenever possible. While it is clear that they are not doing this out of malice but often out of necessity, saving money rarely makes money.
Need an example?
“Think back to a great restaurant experience you have had.” I say this in my classes too, and then follow with, “What made that experience great?” Their responses again are predictable, “The server was interesting and/or friendly, there was some effort made to make the dinner special, the ambiance was beautiful, and the food was good.” Food is always mentioned last – usually fourth.
Amazing right? In the same session where the majority of participants say they ‘don’t really care about service,’ they also say that it was the service that made the difference in their experience! The interactions and recommendations by the server (often selling a better bottle of wine, making appetizer suggestions, or offering an interesting detail about dessert) is what the diner remembers. For servers to converse with the guests however, they need time (aka staffing), training, managerial support, and confidence to do so. Most companies are trying to save money, but in the process, they are forgetting to make money.
Hire employees who show a passion for the industry and continually give them opportunities to grow their career.
Stabilize (and maximize) their earnings to be the best in the field.
Allow employees to be a part of the process to innovate new ways of communicating with their customer.
We can save the service industry and still be financially responsible to ownership by doing one more important thing: teach employees to sell and strategically increase customer loyalty.
When training managers, there is one more point I make:
“Treat your employees like your business partners. They are after all, in direct contact with your clients. If you treat them like they are disposable, they will act accordingly.”
We will never stop using technology, but there is no substitute for human interaction. I believe in the service industry and am confident that if we put the “Human” back in Human Resources, we will succeed.