Generation gap threatens customer service meltdown


With Christmas on the horizon and the retail rush beginning, many customers are increasingly vocal in their complaints that customer service just isn't what it used to be. But according to U.S. researchers, it's only get to get worse – much worse.

Dr Bill Withers and Dr Patrick Langan of Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, have spent the last few years studying customer service. What they predict is that dramatic demographic shifts and changing social values is going to cause a veritable customer service train wreck by 2010.

"We're reaching a critical point demographically where baby-boomers will make up roughly 47 per cent of the total U.S. population and hold about 65 per cent of the disposable income," Dr Withers said.

In other words, while the baby boomers will be doing much of the shopping, Gen-Y workers will make up a substantial proportion of those serving them.

And therein lies a big problem – not just for shoppers, but increasingly for retailers and, in particular, harassed retail managers.

According to Dr Withers, the fundamental issue is that baby boomers' concept of how a customer should be treated is entirely different from that of the Gen-Y workers behind the counter.

"People born between 1980 and 1996 are coming out of far different family dynamics – many single-parent homes, many double-working parents, pervasive technology use, et cetera," he said.

"Because of these factors, the new generation of service workers struggle to make connections with customers and meet their service expectations."

Compounding the problem is the fact that many retailers simply don't have the time or the resources to offer as much customer service training as they would like.

A study by Withers and Langan completed in 2005 revealed that though eight out of 10 companies surveyed said they provide "some" customer service training, two-thirds would like to provide more if they had the means.

So can the looming customer care crisis be headed off? Withers says that it can, but only if retailers acknowledge that "awareness and training" are the keys.

"I also recommend looking to retirees as a possible service workforce, thereby bridging the gap," he says.

"Some McDonald's restaurants, for example, routinely place retirees in their drive-ups to now avoid dealing with quirky youth-workers who just don't get it."

The same tactic has already proved successful for several retailers in the UK. One in five of the workforce at national homeware and DIY chain B&Q are aged over 50 - and the oldest is 91 - and customers report improved perceptions of service.

But for frustrated shoppers confronted by a retail generation gap, what can they do?

Dr Withers has little in the way of good news. We just need to adjust our expectations and acknowledge that we get what we pay for.

"Consumers will often times find better service in higher-end retailers," he said. "These retailers tend to have the time and resources to train well and usually pay better, thereby attracting better workers."