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The Outstanding Customer Service Blog

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Is Customer Service Getting Harder?

Yes – Here’s why, and what you need to do

No, it’s not your imagination.  Customer service is, in fact, getting harder – and it’s going to get worse. Why? Is it yet another hideous effect of the global pandemic? Not exactly. While COVID-19 was certainly a factor in our declining relationship with customers, the actual root causes are much deeper, wider and aren’t going away any time soon.

A Perfect Storm is Battering Customer Experience

There is, right now, an insidious perfect storm brewing in our relationship with our customers. It consists of five somewhat unrelated trends which are beginning to collide with increasing force. This storm has been sneaking up on us for a while, and most organizations are already experiencing the effects without realizing the cause.

Five Trends Creating Unhappy Customers

Have customers become grouchier?  Less patient? More fickle?  Yes to all. In 2018, while we were doing our annual research for the best and worst customer service stories of the year, we noticed an uptick in over-the-top negative customer behaviour. In 2019 the uptick became a tidal wave.  When we started digging into the causes, we found these five trends:

1. Technology is getting more complex

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, but a week doesn’t go by without us being faced with at least one new, unexpected learning curve with a phone, a computer, a new app or a new workplace tool.

2. The trend toward minimalism continues

Looking for instructions on how to use something? Have a question about a product you’ve purchased? Good luck.  Companies are doing the bare minimum to help customers succeed with their products, forcing customers to rely on Google, visit on-line forums or worse – to pay extra for the service they should have received in the first place.

3. Customer service is getting worse

A lot worse. In 2023, 63% of customers in North America experienced rage at the way in which they were treated. That’s double the 1976 number, when W. P. Carey School of Business conducted their first Customer Rage Survey.

Why? Want some help from a live human being? That’s a unicorn hunt of the highest order. Trying to live-chat with someone or reach out on social media? Only if you can navigate their chatbots first. It’s just a matter of time before AI technologies such as ChatGPT get rolled out in the same self-serving, ham-fisted manner.

The reality is that companies — particularly digital companies — are actively creating barriers to human contact. They really don’t want to talk to customers. Even Amazon, often lauded as a customer service role-model, insists on throwing up an equestrian-worthy battery of customer hurdles for anything but the simplest of queries.

We have an emotionally exhausted, aging customer-base increasingly unhappy with how they're being treated, and we are presenting them with rapidly changing, complex learning curves with little to no real support. What could possibly go wrong?

4. Our population is aging

The largest cohort of adult consumers is getting older, and the sad reality is that that many of our cognitive abilities begin to diminish with age. (For example, our ability to process auditory information starts its decline at around the age of 30).

Now, this little demographic tidbit may not seem like a big deal.  But before your dismiss it as irrelevant, take a strategic look at how it impacts the other four trends.  Huh.  Yeah.  It’s a big deal.

5. Emotional Exhaustion is Everywhere

Now we throw a pandemic into the mix. In addition to the terrible physical toll it took, it has also led to the very real, ongoing physiological effect of Emotional Exhaustion in all of us. (Take this simple assessment to see how it has impacted you)

To summarize:  We have an emotionally exhausted, aging customer-base increasingly unhappy with how they’re being treated, and we are presenting them with rapidly changing, complex learning curves with little to no real support.

What could possibly go wrong?

Companies that are proactive will have a huge advantage

It turns out that there’s a lot that can go wrong. Not the least of which is the loss of customer loyalty. Customers only have one nerve left, and we’re getting on it.

The good news, though, is that those companies first learning how to navigate this storm will have a huge advantage. The only question is, given that many of these elements are outside of our control, how?  How can we adapt to improve our relationship with our customers?

3 Steps To Successfully Navigating the Storm

Customers becoming increasingly disenchanted with other businesses gives you the opportunity to stand out in their minds.  To do this, you need a strategy that includes three steps.  Think of it as a 3-stage vaccine that inoculates you against customer defections.

The first step is accepting the reality that you will have service failures. You will have increasingly grouchy, impatient, and demanding customers. It is an inevitability of this perfect storm.

Second, you need to create your advantage by embracing and championing service recovery. If you’re working directly with customers, this means an absolute commitment to creating positive outcomes.  If you are in a management or leadership position, give everyone in the company the skills, tools and empowerment to succeed in service recovery. Service recovery training is essential. They also need to be supported by processes and policies that enable them to turn poor experiences into great ones.

Finally, you need to proactively mitigate the impact of emotional exhaustion.  If you are a leader, you need to focus on creating a workplace with adaptive resiliency.  There is no way your team can effectively deliver customer service – or service recovery – when they have lost their adaptive energy.

Next week we’ll get into exactly how to do these things. Stay tuned!

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