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How Confused Are We About Customer Behavior?

Factors That Confuse Businesses’ Understanding Of Customer Service And What Customers Want

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Another Problem: Effects Of Customer Service Probably Long Term, Not Short Term

Another reason why it’s difficult to determine both what customers “want”, and how they react to changes in customer service quality is that you wouldn’t expect even a significant upgrade in customer service quality to have an immediate and visible effect on customer behavior. While it’s possible to tie certain aspects of marketing to business outcomes, and to to quickly determine what works and what doesn’t, that doesn’t apply to customer service. That delay in seeing results is problematic for several reasons.

A Tale of Three Cities

I was born and raised in Montreal, a city unique in all of Canada due to the influence of French culture and a history quite different from anywhere else in Canada. The American equivalent might be New Orleans if that helps. I then moved to Toronto, a metropolis with a distinct international flavor, but one more influenced by a British heritage. For American readers, think New York, but not so much fun. Finally, I moved to Winnipeg, a prairie city quite a bit smaller than the other two. The best American analogies would be cities of less than one million people in the agriculture based midwest. I lived in each of these locations for a minimum of ten years each.

When I got to Winnipeg, I was driven crazy by some of the customer service practices. My favorite example was going to the local convenience store to buy milk. My past experiences in both Montreal and Toronto was that convenience stores existed for…well, convenience, and that meant fast service. In Winnipeg, I’d constantly get frustrated because I could walk into the local store for my milk, and while there might be three staff members behind the counter, it seemed like I’d always have to wait and wait to get my milk, and get the heck home. They’d chat with each other. If there happened to be a customer or two in front of me, staff would chat with them. Friendly I suppose, but slow, by my standards. I used to joke that buying my milk involved lining up, even if there were no other customers in the store. Then I realized the problem wasn’t so much with “them”, but with my expectations, conditioned by growing up in Montreal, and then by living in a huge city. Montreal, in case you don’t know, has a quite different way about it. Outsiders, visitors would consider many of the customer service staff to be rude, abrupt, and unfriendly. Bus drivers yell at you. Staff in many stores treat you as if you are an inconvenience, and their goal is to get rid of you as quickly as possible. Sounds terrible? For some, maybe. The other side of the coin is that I found, comparatively speaking, that customer service staff in Montreal were exceedingly fast and efficient. Probably because they really did want to get you out of the store fast.

The thing is that customer expectations were simply different in Montreal than in Winnipeg. What worked for customer in Montreal wouldn’t work for those in Winnipeg, and vice-versa.

Here’s an example. In April of 2013, McDonald’s announced a renewed and heightened commitment to better customer service. McDonald’s often weigh in at the bottom of the “fast food pack” when it comes to survey respondents’ evaluation of customer service quality, the chief complaint being rude or unfriendly staff, while wait time is also mentioned. The underlying assumption for this renewed commitment is that customers want certain thing from McDonald’s when it comes to customer service, and that McDonald’s will benefit financially if it can become the industry leader in giving customers what they want.

If sales go up, and complaints go down as a result of this new initiative, it would be fair to conclude that their customers “want” certain things they have not been getting, and are getting those things as a result of this commitment. That, in turn helps us understand what is REALLY important to their customers.

There’s a problem though. How long must McDonald’s wait to see results if in fact there are positive results? Six months after the “change” gets implemented in its outlets? A year? Longer? We don’t know how long exactly, but it would certainly involve a considerable period of time. It’s not immediate as would be the case with results from a very specific marketing campaign. While the delay in seeing results from a customer service initiative is problematic for corporate decision makers in any company, our focus here is simple: When there is a long delay between altering customer service, and seeing measurable, and financially relevant results, it makes it exceedingly difficult to understand what customers “want”, and in particular, what they “want” so much” that they will alter their buying behavior. While it’s possible to get faster answers by asking customers about there perceptions of service quality, we’ve already suggested that perceptions can have little to do with actual buying behavior. In a nutshell, then, McDonald’s may never know with certainty that the changes to improve sales were a result of meeting the demands of their customers. If they do learn something, it will take a long time.

The Myth of “Customers”

If you look at media stories about customers, research reports, and what customer service experts are saying, you will see headlines and countless explanations about “what customers want”. It’s like there is this imaginary melting pot full of billions of customers who want the same things, and who react identically to good and bad customer service. The mistake of lumping all customers into the same pot, as if it’s a homogenous bunch is called over-generalization. These general statements are in fact, almost always wrong, when it comes to accurately describing the customer “space”. That’s because generalizing involves losing or ignoring specific information. Let’s look at how complex the situation is, and why companies can be mislead in their decision making by over-generalization.

What Does Friendly Customer Service Mean? Culture Matters

It’s probably safe to assume that, if asked, customers will tell us they want “friendly” interactions with business staff. In fact that is what they say. If one accepts that on its face, one ignores the possibility, in fact the reality, that what constitutes “friendly” may be much harder to definethen one would think. How can this be? Isn’t “friendly” universal?

No, it’s not. Consider making eye contact during a customer service interaction. It’s often mentioned in discussions about what constitutes rude or friendly service. Yet, people differ significantly in terms of how they react. The most obvious differences can be found between people from different cultural and national populations. In Japanese culture, prolonged eye contact is considered rude, and according to cross-cultural experts will often cause discomfort, with the individual responding by looking away. Aboriginal/Native culture has been described in a similar way — that in fact looking away is a sign of respect. Experts advise that in Turkey it’s wise to make eye contact since it implies sincerity.

While there may be some element of stereotyping on the basis of culture going on here, one thing is clear. There is no universal perception of eye contact that applies to all customers. Lest you think that it’s just national culture that creates these differences think again. Not only does the meaning of eye contact differ by national culture, but it changes by context. If , in your local country and western biker bar, you stare at some fellow across the room, your eye contact could cause a completely different result than if you did the same thing at a bar in the Ritz-Carlton.

There are also differences in how eye contact is used, even city by city in the same country. For example, let’s take two large cities in Canada, Montreal and Toronto. Both are multi-cultural cities, quite large, but they differ in their cultural histories. Walk down the busy streets of Montreal, and people look at you. They make eye contact. They check you out. Sometimes you get a smile, for no apparent reason. It’s as if Montrealers are… well… somehow curious or interested in you. Trek through the busy streets of Toronto, and it feels quite different. People do NOT make eye contact nearly as often. They seem to avoid it as much as possible.

The same issues are in play when it comes to what constitutes respectful, or rude behavior. While the prescription “Treat customers with respect” sounds like a no brainer, when you think about it you realize the behaviors that constitute respect will be different for different customers and different customer sub-groups. In the USA, directing a customer to a particular product by pointing would be common, and accepted. In Japan, doing so would be considered rude and dis-respectful.

…click here to continue to learn about the difficulties of understanding customer thought processes

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