The Utilitarian Service Industry – putting the customer first, not on hold

Waiting on the end of a telephone line accompanied by the appropriate muzak is as frustrating for customers as it is risky for the service provider hoping to gain their satisfaction. If this scenario cannot be avoided due to the sheer volume of communication, then call centres need to come to an important realisation. It is not just by providing the right answers in the right length of time that customers will remain loyal. A better understanding of the expectations and emotions of callers may help service providers retain their customer base.

No sane customer likes to be kept on hold or forced to select half a dozen different options via an automated telephone service before actually being put through to a living, breathing person who will deal with their request. In an age where, to take the example of telecommunications, one can very easily walk into a shop and talk face-to-face about services and products but where after-sales service is dehumanised and available at distance, companies need to think very carefully about the remote process through which they put their customers. The potential level of frustration can, of course, depend upon the end objective. There is a world of difference between being put through a call centre to finalise a dream holiday and being kept waiting to rectify a faulty internet connection or phone line for which the customer is in no way responsible in the first place. From the company perspective, anticipating the expectation and emotions behind the call is paramount.

When loyalty comes at a higher price

The general misconception is that providing an effective and efficient distance service is sufficient to maintain customer satisfaction and loyalty. By re-establishing a customer’s defective wifi or finding a solution to their PC problems, the assumption is that the customer-service provider relationship will all be plain sailing. Not necessarily so. For one, when a service is sold to a customer on the basis of various promises and some of those promises prove short-lived, it is safe to say that the initial call for technical assistance will not be made in the best of moods. If such an incident should re-occur, service providers should be able to understand that they will be contacted with even lower expectations and a higher level of frustration. The call centre then finds itself in the firing line.
To overcome such thorny situations in theory and practice, greater attention needs to be paid to the emotional mind-set of the customer and the relative impact of positive thoughts about the service/product as a whole weighed up against the negative feelings provoked by malfunctioning, technical assistance that is only available down the end of a phone, and the satisfactory (or otherwise) nature of the solution proposed, It is only then that service providers can begin to think about building, restoring or improving customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Weighing up the positive and the negative

The utilitarian service industry, as represented by call centres, is an especially useful and revealing case in point as one would logically imagine the expectations of customers to be lower and therefore the emotional dimension less impacting. On the other hand, the frustrations often met by callers may tip the balance more quickly either for or against recommending a service to someone else or indeed remaining with that service oneself. To test the theory, a two-part research study was recently conducted with the telecommunications industry as its focal point. To begin with, interviews were conducted with 20 call centre customers in order to establish the predominant emotions experienced and set up an emotion measurement scale for subsequent application. This scale was then used during the second stage, during which data was collected via a survey sent out by a single telecommunications service within one week of the customer experience. 19,600 customers received the survey, of whom 1538 responded within 5 days, after which a final sample of 1440 was examined. Call urgency was included as a control variable.
Crucial to understanding the results of the study and the reality of call centres is the reason for a customer calling in the first place. The research revealed that calls for information and general technical support were much more likely to be met with positive customer emotions than more urgent inquiries about account management and line activation queries. Expectations were generally low in regards to call centre experiences, to the extent that actually getting ordinary service - the problem fixed- provoked positive emotions. However, negative emotions had a disproportionately strong effect when customers were considering recommending (or otherwise) a service and whether to continue themselves as customers. So what should a company offering this remote and potentially frustrating customer experience learn from this?

Know your customer in order to keep your customer…. and attract new ones

There is nothing new about trying to understand and anticipate what makes a customer tick. However, this represents a singular challenge when there is no direct, face-to-face contact with the customer in question and where emotion and expectations can swing things very much in favour or against the service provider. Therefore, while call centre managers should continue to monitor quality indicators - waiting time, average speed of answer, average abandonment by caller- customer emotions must be factored into the equation. Keeping customers happy clearly offers no guarantee of extended customer loyalty, whereas avoiding eliciting negative emotions is crucial. More than ever before, the emotional dimension cannot be overlooked, especially in the current climate where customers are far from reticent about giving poor experience-based recommendations.


This article draws inspiration from the paper "Asymmetric effects of customer emotions on satisfaction and loyalty in a utilitarian service context", written by Aude Rychalski and Sarah Hudson and published in Journal of Business Research 71 (2017).   

Sarah Hudson is an associate professor in the department of Management and Organisation at Rennes School of Business, France. Her research interests include CSR, sustainable development and the psychology of emotions.

 

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