Customer service or just management babble?

2004

Organisations are still failing to realise the importance of customer service and effective complaints handling, according to a new survey, leading to increasingly dissatisfied customers.

The fourth National Complaints Culture Survey (NCCS), carried out by organisation and people development company, TMI, has found that half of customers believe that organisations are actually getting worse at handling complaints, and even customer service staff themselves are frustrated as they try to improve their organisation’s customer service procedures.

The report, which surveyed more than 2,000 consumers, nearly 3,000 employees and over 50 directors within 33 organisations, found that bad service seems to be having a knock-on effect, with more than eight out of ten consumers ‘very likely’ to tell others about a bad experience they have had.

Worse still, if they do receive a good service from an organisation, customers are growing increasingly reluctant to pass on the news. Only half said that they would tell others about good server compared to almost three-quarters in 2003. And to reinforce the popular stereotype, the survey found that the 'Victor Meldrew' generation aged 51-65 (especially retired people) are almost twice as likely to complain as those under 35 (especially students and those under 21). Men were also slightly more likely to complain than women.

The way in which customers' expect their complaints are actually handled also varies dramatically from the reality. Nearly all of the customers surveyed said they expected a response to their complaint within one week, but the actual experiences of these customers were far lower. Only seven out of ten complaints made in person and fewer than six out of ten of those made by telephone got dealt with within seven days.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, customers are also becoming increasingly prepared to pay a premium for good service – nearly two-thirds of recipients said they would be prepared to pay up to 20 per cent more.

The retail sector was voted the best in terms of service delivery. In the consumer survey, Tesco, Asda, Marks & Spencer and the John Lewis Partnership featured prominently on the list of companies seen as handling complaints well. Employees also rated the retail sector as being most effective in building a robust complaints handling culture.

At the other end of the scale, utility companies were slated by both consumers and by their own employees. Companies such as British Gas and Scottish Power were among those seen as handling complaints least effectively, while the sector was ranked bottom of the table by its employees, with only half believing their organisation's basic attitude to complaints is appropriate.

Meanwhile, although it is still one of the poorer performing sectors, the government and public services sector have seen some of the biggest improvements since 2003.

The management disconnect
On the flip side of the service equation, employees are clearly eager to deliver excellent customer service but are frustrated at the lack of support from their employers, both in improving training and acknowledging any suggestions they make to improve procedures.

Employees also feel under-appreciated when they do handle a complaint and often feel they do not have the autonomy to resolve it. And although they are willing to assume responsibility, only 63 per cent of employees say they are able to actually resolve 75 per cent or more of the complaints they receive.

This inability to effectively resolve the complaint increases in the energy and utilities and government sectors because far fewer staff feel they are empowered to make final decisions.

Employees who feel their recommendations for improvements to customer service are listened to have a more positive view of their organisation’s ability to handle complaints effectively, suggesting that organisations need to give their employees more recognition for their efforts.

The problem within organisations is compounded by the attitude of bosses. Although more than nine out of ten acknowledge that their organisation’s reputation could be affected as a result of their company’s complaints handling process, far too many are failing to see the importance of empowering their employees to handle complaints effectively.

And while bosses said that employee engagement and customer satisfaction were their top priorities this year, this contradicted with what their own employees said about their experience.

Only a third of employees surveyed believe that training for handling complaints is adequate in their organisation, while fewer than half believe their organisation will act on their suggestions for improvements.

“’Mind the gap’ is the overriding message from this year’s report," said TMI's Clive Hicks. "We need to challenge the culture of ineffective communication between employers, employees and customer.

"Organisations must rise to the customer complaints challenge and take responsibility for closing the gap by listening harder to both their employees and their customers to ensure complaints are resolved more quickly and effectively."

Paul Cooper of the Institute of Customer Service added that many firms have got to start doing better.

"Yet again the results indicate that the gap is widening between those getting it right and those who don’t. I hope that business leaders not only take note of these findings but also take definitive action to improve overall service."