customer service orientation is a misleading label

Customer orientation: not so easy to instil in an organization. I have some background in the hospitality industry. Can one get more prototypical as far as serving goes? The industry label itself is a one-word metaphor of what its members claim to stand for. But even on its home grounds, things often don’t work out as intended. Let alone in other sectors, that ‘traditionally’ are not organized around the concept of service. A major reason for this, I believe, is the misunderstanding that all is going to be well when your sales force treats customers well.

Before I continue, a caveat: the pic above is meant to be suggestive of the issue, not descriptive. It is based on research by a management consulting firm on how to achieve true customer-led growth, but that study is not in the public domain and firms like that tend to produce self-serving figures, so take them with a handful of salt.

I deliberately chose a provocative title. Customer service orientation strictly speaking, as a personal predisposition, is indeed an apt label. An accepted generic definition“the prioritisation of the customer at every point and  the motivation to deliver outstanding customer service that meets and exceed customer expectations”, describes a psychological orientation that it not all that common, in the first place, and, on top of that, quite difficult to protect against the corrosive cumulative impact of difficult customer interactions. And it is helpful to have a term for this attitude, which is crucially important for front-line employees within any service organization to have, for tailoring recruitment and on-the-job training processes to what matters.

However, from an organizational perspective, the term customer service orientation is misleading because of two connotations it evokes.

One is that it suggests a predisposition relevant to only particular positions within an organization, unsurprisingly called ‘customer service positions’. However, the proper way to think about it, is as described in this quote in a customer think blog post:

Hire service-oriented people, not only for the front-line positions, but for every position within the company. Front-line employees will not be able to compensate for decisions made elsewhere within the organization, that are not in the clients’ best interests. Who you hire within your organization will be the single most important factor in determining whether or not you successfully achieve a service culture. [emphasis is mine]

But that is the reality in hardly any organization, however loud they shout about their customer orientation. Different parts of organizations tend to have different objectives, often translated into some Key Performance Indicator(s), creating an incentives structure that is hardly ever optimally aligned, and in the worst case scenario – which is much more common than you would imagine – has different departments and/or hierarchical layers working at cross-purposes with each other, even fighting each other (sound familiar?….). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against trying to make performance measurable, I’m arguing against the often simplistic and myopic ways it is being done, and the ‘unintended’ consequences that that results in.

The other misunderstanding may be more surprising to you. It is the suggestion that we know who our customer is. Obviously (beware, intuition pump), organizations mostly have a pretty good grasp of who their customers, again strictly speaking, are: the people buying their product. But even in the prototypical hospitality sector, this group more often than not contains various sub-groups, whose preferences/needs may clash. E.g. regular hotel guests, and day-users of conference facilities may be after very different things. Or take the example of schools: parents pay, their kids are serviced. An unbalanced focus on either is a ticket for trouble. Unless the whole organization is aligned on how to optimize the customer experience for all of them, front-line employees will have a very hard time dealing with the resulting irritations. However, when one takes one step back, and looks at it from the perspective of why satisfied customers are important in the first place, things suddenly become a bit muddier. Happy customers means return business and, most importantly free promotion of your product, and thus new customers. Nothing works as well, transmits more confidence, than word of mouth.  So it’s all about reputation, it’s about feeling comfortable with a brand, it’s about getting the best for what you can afford.

But reputation goes way, way beyond the direct interaction between front-line employees and customers. The central concept here becomes stakeholders rather than customers, at least in management lit, but I fear that even that concept suggests more grip on the situation that reality often grants. Those earning a living of the insecurity of practitioners have developed elaborate instruments to map and analyse stakeholder interests. Now, I’m very much a theory person myself, so fully understand the urge to provide thinking tools for making sense of complex realities. I’m not trying to be disparaging here, just pointing out, if only to my own gullible self, that one cannot control the uncontrollable, whatever conceptual framework one employs to keep it out of the door. So, although I believe that having thought about who important stakeholders are, why that is the case, and what the consequences of that should be for an organization’s structure, policies,  etc, is essential, it’s not enough.


A stakeholders matrix showing which strategies to use source:

It’s difficult and often impossible to determine who is in which of these stakeholder categories, what avenues of influence they might have on your reputation amongst those buying your services, and how they interact with each other. That makes the assumptions underlying the strategic approach depicted above questionable. E.g. what the organization has identified as apathetics may very well, outside its purview, communicate with the promoters, and transfer an image of the organization that is very different from what it communicates through its own interactions with those promoters. And the sting of this is that, given the network nature of human interactions and the influential roles particular individuals play within them,  it is impossible to predict with certainty who might cause substantial damage if upset. It could be anyone, interacting with the organization as a traditional customer, or in any of the many, many other ways it links up with the outside world, some functionally well-defined, others innocuous to the level of not even being recognized as part of the relevant community.

This is where the two misunderstanding meet, because what is required for an organization to deal with the unexpected is the ability to identify issues quickly, and respond to them quickly. For that one needs an organization which is internally aligned in terms of its mission. All need to be on board, all need to be engaged. Communication must flow freely, and be seen to be taken seriously. It must flow up and down the hierarchy, and sideways between different departments. Employees must have considerable discretionary freedom to solve problems where and when they start occurring. It helps enormously when everyone shares common ground. That doesn’t imply that there shouldn’t be professional specialization, but it does imply team work to the extent that people in charge of very different processes have at least some basic understanding  of what all others have to deal with in their daily work. Because what is required is the ability to look beyond what-is-easiest-for-me and search for the what-makes-most-sense-from-the perspective-of-our-shared-mission.

What is required to work effectively within an organization, is very similar to what is required to work effectively with the outside world. The biggest problem to overcome for any service provider: not prioritizing the own organization but really prioritizing the customer. Embedding the right priority-setting within an organization, is already difficult to accomplish. The tendency to prioritize the interests of the part/section that you work for, above the interests of the whole, comes natural, and much in organizational design (I talked about the KPI’s already) reinforces that tendency continuously. Let alone, avoiding it in dealing with the ‘outside’ world, which unfortunately includes many stakeholders, including the customers, or sub-groups thereof. What one wants is an organization that delivers upon its promises, without outsiders, including customers, having to worry about how that is being accomplished. Never mind whom you engage with from the organization, that person will ensure that whatever you expect to happen will get done efficiently and effectively.

Unfortunately, the described kinda organizational structure is rare in the real world. I’ve written earlier about two main problems for good service provision caused by traditional designs of (professional) organizations, so won’t repeat myself here. I will say, however, that it would help, if we would start using a label other than customer service orientation for the psychological predisposition that is crucial for front-line client interaction. I feel that the biggest problems at the moment are to be found at the organizational design level, and this level is obscured by the fantasy that customer orientation is (only) something of the front-line staff.

To summarize, only if the organizational design isn’t too poisonous, and only if everyone, irrespective of position, treats everyone else, from inside and from outside, as a customer, or should I say guest, cause that is a much better label for the attitude required, only then is service going to be assured, do (unavoidable) cock ups not risk major damage, and does building a reputation for quality not need spin (which will sooner or later be recognized for what it is).

After all this lecturing, it’s time for something completely different. Don’t try to look for any connections, or hidden meanings, none are intended beyond the provision of some refreshing enjoyment:

Disclosure: the trigger for this post are the scratches on my ego caused by the way I am often treated when engaging, as a customer, or in any other capacity, with organizations advertising themselves as service-oriented. So one way to look at the content is as a rant. However, triggers don’t disqualify content.

To illustrate, I’ll feed you a rant by the famous vlogbrothers:

I would say that neither the rant format, nor any suspicions you have about the brothers’ political leanings, are relevant for what Hank Green has to say here. As I am on it now, and may not find another opportunity any time soon to share some more about this branding stuff (which, admittedly, is tangential to this post’s topic, but certainly not totally off-topic), I’ll also share some seminal analysis on branding, by agenda-setting Canadian activist-author Naomi Klein.

Fascinating stuff, but overly moralizing I would argue, discounting the role of consumers in all of this. But that really is content for another post.

About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
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