The customer is always right.
That’s the way it is in some parts of the world, at least.
According to US resident Tony Dandrea, the oft-heard business philosophy is regularly put into practice in his home country.
“We as a culture are very competitive and also very customer service oriented,” says Dandrea, the US Sales Manager of Australian brand Unit Clothing. “So businesses have to have the best customer service possible, and in doing they are trying to out-service the next guy, keep the customer coming back and gain loyalty.”
Expecting a similar attitude on a recent business trip to Australia, Dandrea was surprised to find the level of customer service to be in stark contrast to that of which he was accustomed.
“Being my first time in Australia and knowing how good-natured Aussies are and how advanced the culture is, it surprised me that there was not a constant level of customer service,” says Dandrea.
Shocked by what he described as “the worst display of customer service” he’d ever seen during a dinner meeting, Dandrea was even more taken aback by the lack of surprise shown by his companions.
But what do Aussies think?
It seems as though we Australians have come to expect an inferior level of customer service here at home.
“As a customer I find myself constantly comparing the service in Australia to the USA and Asia and we are falling a long way behind,” says Australian marketing manager Jessica Hannant.
But while Australians have come to expect a casual approach to service, visitors aren’t so forgiving and the with the rise of the increasingly educated consumer, even locals have had enough.
“Having recently been on a conference to Hawaii and lived in New York for a period of time – the standard of customer service there is great, staff actually want to help you,” says Hannant. “Here the sales assistant doesn’t get off the phone to her friend to even serve you at the checkout.”
Blame it on the GFC
According to business growth specialist Catherine Palin-Binkworth, this growing sense of dissatisfaction is due to the recent significant decline in local customer service, with standards sinking well below casual.
“I have definitely noticed the shift to poorer service,” says Palin-Binkworth. “I believe the 2000 Olympics were our high peak and we have gone downhill since then, but anecdotally the biggest downturn has been in the last two years.”
According to Palin-Binkworth, many Australian businesses deemed customer service training an effective cost-cutting measure during the Global Financial Crisis.
“Most small business owners in Australia see training as a time and dollar cost, rather than a major revenue and referral generator.”
In addition, an increasing absence of on-site monitoring and mentoring means often disgruntled customer service staff are being left to their own devices.
“Sadly, we see customer service roles as low-paid and unimportant – where the personnel don’t have to be well educated, and are therefore easily replaced,” says Palin-Binkworth. “Because customer service personnel are often not valued and trained, they lose interest easily and move on, so it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and an expensive cycle for business, and for the country.”
Worse service — or more demanding consumers?
Adding fuel to the fire, those who plan and manage service systems are often too far removed from the customer interface and experience.
“Prevailing wisdom seems to be that most customers won’t pay more for better service, so why bother?” says Market researcher Dr Stephen Downes. “But the real losses are in lack of loyalty and repeat business.”
What’s surprising though, says Dr Downes, is that we now know more about what drives customer satisfaction in service encounters and service relationships, yet consumers have never been more unhappy and cynical about service performance.
“There’s a huge volume of well-established studies and thinking about service quality but it feels like many service businesses have never read it.”
But Dr Downes questions whether or not Australia’s customer service standards have declined as significantly as it appears, or if in fact, consumers are the ones who have changed.
“Part of it is probably attributable to consumer confidence, empowerment and assertiveness – we used to just take we got.”
As they say though, perception is reality. And customer service is only as good as it’s perceived by the customer.
Room for improvement
But if the Australia’s level of customer service is so consistently low, is there any incentive for businesses to improve?
“Only if you want to make a profit and stay in business,” says Palin-Binkworth. “If it’s poor, customers walk away and complain. If it’s great, they come back and refer others. It’s a no-brainer.”
A high level of customer service is also essential if Australia is to become the tourist destination it wants to be.
“For people to spend the time and money it takes to get here, we need to treat them like the gold they are, and largely, we don’t,” says Palin-Binkworth.
“Even local businesses don’t really understand that high quality service gives their customers a different value proposition – and if that’s missing, they just deal on price.”
According to Dandrea, the importance of customer service goes without saying.
“I have always been in the customer service business so it is engrained in me,” he says.
“It’s important to treat people how you want to be treated, and if you live your personal life that way, it will naturally spill over into your professional life.”
Nicole Madigan Everest is a journalist, feature writer and columnist. Previously employed as a newspaper journalist for News Limited and a television reporter with Channel Nine, Nicole is now a freelance writer and is the Director of Stella Communications, a boutique public relations and communications consultancy.
Image by Michael Coté