Top Customer Service Providers Value Their Front-Line Employees

March 29, 2006

We've all been there: We need help from a business, so we call the help line, ask a worker hurrying by, click on a link for customer service.


And unfortunately, we've all been here: The wait time on the phone makes us think about trying later (thus wasting the time we've already spent listening to on-hold sales pitches); the customer service person is rude, bored, monotonic, or some combination of the three; the store clerk is uninformed, discourteous, uninterested, unable, or some combination; the online solutions require a call to a help desk anyway.


Happily, at other times we have found friendly, speedy, spot-on satisfaction from those who guard the critical border of customer and company.


Cynics would say we remember because those experiences are the exception. Good businesspeople would say those experiences are not just about good feelings, they're about increasing loyalty and profits, and strive to make them the rule in their companies.


The state-of-the-art customer service performers, firms like Whole Foods, Netflix, Best Buy, Craigslist -- some of the winners of FastCompany Magazine's 2005 Customer First Awards -- use not just friendliness, but customer data, to put the "custom" in customer service.


"Companies have as a strategy to provide customized customer service," says Mary Jo Bitner, a professor of marketing at the W. P. Carey School of Business. "While they have that as a strategy, it is employees on the front line who have to implement the strategy."


Bitner -- with W. P. Carey School colleagues Stephen Brown and Ajith Kumar as well as Kansas State University professor Kevin P. Gwinner, an alumnus of the W. P. Carey School's doctoral program -- are co-authors of a 2005 paper titled "Service Customization Through Employee Adaptiveness."


Published in the November Journal of Service Research, the report used the call center of a Fortune 100 company to study the nature of service-employee adaptive behavior and what personality traits might predict a model of an adaptable customer-service employee.


Employees volunteered (and were paid an hour of overtime) to take a survey evaluating their motivations, self-knowledge of work-related skills, and ability to adjust on the fly to meet individual customer needs.


The authors split customer service customization into two realms: interpersonal -- how an employee reacts and adapts to each customer's history, personality and issue -- and service or product. The study sought to do two things: to focus on employees' ability to customize both his personal interaction style with the customer as well as service or product offering itself, and to help managers by closing in on what type of person makes an adaptable employee, so that they may recruit and/or train more effectively.


"While many companies were espousing 'flexibility, adaptability, and customization,' these terms can be perceived by employees and managers as vague. We didn't really know what that means, to be adaptive, and that was one of the primary aims of the research -- to get a better handle on just that that means from an employee behavior perspective," says Bitner.


They chose a telecommunication company because the customer-service employees were expected to not only resolve issues but to sell company services and products. Sometimes fixing a problem was achieved by offering company services and products tailored to the customer. In all cases, solutions had to be identified quickly and customized to the individual.


"When you think about it, it's a big responsibility," Bitner says. "It's amazing they can find people for these jobs that frequently don't pay that well."


Or, it's amazing, considering the seemingly-obvious importance of customer satisfaction, that these jobs aren't more highly paid or valued more often. It's a cliché of business -- the people who spend the most time with the customer are often the lowest-compensated.


It starts with a company culture and philosophy, says Bitner.


"[Customer service] is so, so critical, you want to make sure you know what you're doing," says Bitner. "Some executives refer to it as "the front door," or "the face," of their company. Some look at it merely as a place to focus on productivity and cost savings."


The latter are the ones who might outsource their help lines to far-off countries to take advantage of lower-cost labor, without considering all of the ramifications of doing this. Netflix CEO and founder Reed Hastings told Fast Company magazine, "You read a lot about outsourcing of customer support -- send it to India, save $3, all this stuff. That's totally uninteresting to us. We're focused on much higher leverage and avoiding issues and fixing them at their root cause."


When a problem does arise, however, what type of person can most effectively help a woman who's angry not only because of a billing error but also her wait time, who's being tugged on by a three-year-old, threatens to change providers in a highly-competitive industry, and also shows on her billing history that she's a good candidate for an upgraded calling plan?


As Bitner says, "First you have to figure out the customer, then you have to figure out what they want."


The study found that customer knowledge was the only one of six employee traits positively associated with adaptability (sensitivity to others, modification of self-presentation, customer knowledge, service orientation, tolerance for ambiguity, intrinsic motivation) that corresponded strongly with both the ability to adapt interpersonally and with service offerings. Today's emphasis on customer tracking and loyalty programs -- both enabled by technology -- reflects the business world's acknowledgement of this.


Not only can customers be more often satisfied with their treatment, companies can better and more intimately market their goods and services. Hallmark's Gold Crown Card program is a good example. Members can earn points for discounts and their purchase history, which are stored with the aid of data warehousing companies, enabling Hallmark to customize direct mailings and to track customers' reactions to that marketing. Enabled by technology, customer-service employees are then armed with all that knowledge when a customer calls.


In other words, says Bitner, "To effectively customize your services, you must as a company understand your market and your customers at a detailed level and then provide that information to those who actually do the customizing -- your front-line employees."


The authors crafted six suggestions for managers based on the findings:


1) Firms should use a variety of forms of customer research to gauge how their customers want customer-service employees to behave, i.e., they don't wish to chat at the counter of an in-and-out convenience store;


2) Design promotional materials positioning the service according to those customer preferences;


3) Emphasize the adaptive behavior requirements of employees in job announcements (so those less inclined to adjust will not apply);


4) Use structured interviews to choose candidates with the traits positively associated with adaptive behavior;


5) Educate customer-service employees about interpersonal and service-offering adaptive behaviors;


6) Show employees that being adaptive can lead to valued intrinsic rewards.