Service excellence is about doing the right thing for your customer, in the right way, at the right time. Do your internal and external customers perceive you to be adding product and service value?

If you were asked to describe service, what would you say? Is it about quality, accuracy, timeliness and access to information? Or is it possibly just a feeling? There are so many facets to service where expectations and priorities differ from person to person. In other words, service is based on perception. The first step in establishing a culture of service is to determine your customer’s current perception and expectations.

How does your external customer rate your organisation’s service, and how do your customers perceive the service received from colleagues and other departments? It is far too easy to make assumptions about what we think our customers want or expect from us. Let’s look at how we can address this.

The starting point is to first identify your customer touch-points within the business. In other words, if you look at the end-to-end service experience that the customer receives, where are the critical points of interaction? These touch points could be telephonic, face-to-face, via fax, email or a letter. A touch-point provides an opportunity to make the service experience magical. Once you have identified the touch-points, you can then establish how the customer perceives the service experience. Is it a moment of magic or a moment of misery?

Customer satisfaction surveys or “smile sheets” can be used to establish this. Alternatively, a more intimate approach can be adopted where you interview your customer. We recently did this at a cashier’s counter, interviewing customers as they stood in a queue waiting to pay their municipal bills. What a great way to get people to vent their frustrations, share their good service experiences (yes, there were some!) and their future expectations. An audit of service, using your chosen medium, can help you in defining a benchmark from which you can measure service improvements in the future, and it provides you with a blueprint for what your customers want in the future.

The next step is to align your people, processes and technology to support those expectations. When we talk about setting up an internal capability to support service excellence, we want to enable people and make them capable of delivering superior service.

However, setting up a capable workforce is sometimes a tricky task. It is far more than just providing people with the right training and tools to get the job done. Implementing the latest and greatest supporting technology and systems can certainly improve the service experience; however, if internal business processes hamper the service experience, the positive impact of new technology is greatly reduced. The three components of people, process and technology are dependent on one another at all times.

There is a world-renowned model that assists in identifying sources of poor performance. It is the Mager and Pipe troubleshooting model, and it was designed as far back as 1971. It provides you with the means to identify whether poor performance is as a result of a skills deficiency or other constraints and barriers such as faulty equipment, conflicting policies and procedures, rewarding of poor performance or the overloading of good performers, to name a few. Trouble-shooting poor performance leads us to removing the barriers that prevent us from responding to service expectations.

Processes that support service excellence should be defined. Likewise, policies and procedures should be changed accordingly, within the boundaries of legislation and regulations. It is recommended that this is a participative process with the employees of the business, so that they take ownership of the processes, policies and procedures.

Now that we know what our customers want and we have adapted and redefined our processes, policies and procedures to support their needs, we have the opportunity to develop our people and to secure supporting technology. When it comes to developing people, the starting point is to get the right people on board. Review your recruitment process and make sure you have documented the specific competencies you require for your frontline service positions. The competencies should include the desired skills, knowledge, and very importantly, personal qualities to support the job role. It is often said that you can always provide people with knowledge and coach them in applying that as a skill, as long as they have the right attitude and are willing and committed. Attracting the right people requires effort on behalf of the business to provide a work culture and environment that people aspire to be in.

When you have the right people on board, training them on the application of the policies and procedures the company has defined becomes a lot easier. Training techniques should vary to accommodate a multitude of learning styles. This could include theoretical information, practical application, observation, reflection and coaching.

Now that your processes are in place and your people have been trained, it is time to select supporting technology. There are many systems on the market that can support a customer service strategy. Select your technology carefully, ensuring that it enables performance. Systems should be simple and easy to use, yet effective. Upfront development provides automated tools to assess service excellence specific to people, process and technology, and to assess people’s understanding of policies and procedures.

If we follow the steps to improve the customer’s experience, how can we sustain great service? This process is a virtuous cycle that can be supported by implementing weekly service quality circles within departmental teams. The aim of a quality circle meeting is to address business pains that hamper great service and identify opportunities for improvement. Solutions are defined by employees and fed through to management for approval. Once accepted, the solutions are implemented and owned by the people.

To keep the service experience alive, continuously identify your customer’s needs and respond to those needs. So what is a culture of service all about? It’s about doing the right thing for your customer, in the right way, at the right time.

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Small Business Forum

The Small Business Forum is an independent network of entrpreneurs and small business owners established to encourage and support the creation, growth and development of small business in South Africa.

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