I'm feeling a little jaded at the moment, a little disillusioned with the modern world. My ennui is the result of yet another training course and yet another whiteboard crammed with meaningless buzz words serving to remind me of nothing but the surprisingly limited vocabulary of most of my contemporaries. Every course I have attended in the last fifteen years has resulted in random delegates writing “motivation, consistency and positivity” on a flip chart and mistaking the tedium of these repeated efforts for innovation. On this particular course I was asked which word patterns I use with my customers. When I replied that I don't use (and have no intention of ever using) word patterns my comment was met with genuine surprise. Apparently making things up as you go along (you know – thinking...) is frowned upon these days. If it isn't written on a post it note, stuck to your computer and trotted out in every single interaction it isn't good service.
Deeply frustrating and as the course coincided with a diet, deeply irritating....However the course did sharpen in my mind my many frustrations not just with the individual training in which I had to participate but in the lack of empathy with the modern customer and the homogenisation of customer service which so many companies hold as their goal. The ultimate objective as far as I can make out is to remove every aspect of individuality from the person serving the customer. Only if everybody walks, talks and smiles the same can we be certain of achieving the much sought after consistency that appears on every one of those flip charts of boredom in training centres of (I suspect) pretty much every company in the country. Certainly of the five blue chip companies I have worked for the training has been pretty much identical.
Personally I despise the whole concept of consistency. I couldn't give a toss if I'm served in a different manner when I walk into a Costa Coffee in London or in Manchester. Really – let me emphasise that - I absolutely could not care less... However my own opinions are largely in discord with the CEOs of most major companies who seem entirely convinced that removing individuality and changing their staff from people to robots is the way forward. These days employees are trained to repeat stock phrases and to believe that the insincerity of the mindless rote is giving good customer service.
I'm obviously frustrated with the micro managed minutiae of the process I am trained to follow in my own job (and bear in mind I'm a professional, I'm not working on a till here – even at my level the homogenisation is creeping in...) but when I look at examples in the world beyond my own work place I become even more frustrated. I was actually asked in Sainsbury's the other day if I needed help packing my bottle of wine. No, I think I can manage to put a single article into a plastic bag – Just how incompetent at life do you think I am? And of course the most famous example of the stock phrase - “Have a nice day!” If I was naïve enough to believe the bored gum chewing cashier actually wanted me to enjoy my day I'd probably be better off being locked up for my own safety. She doesn't care and I know she doesn't care. How anybody interprets this as me, her customer, having a positive experience I really can't imagine.
The basis of all these troubles is that the service industry is very slowly being trained not to think. Companies are confusing the words their staff say with the genuine sentiments that ought to be behind the words. The effect is however entirely negative. Mindless lip service to polite phrasing does not create either a positive interaction or a genuine experience for the customer. It creates frustration across all parties. In some people, myself included, it goes so far as to create rage, sadness and despair. I look at the cashier mindlessly mouthing the words she has said to every customer since her shift started and I wonder why we have our heart set on a world where the very heart of customer service has been ripped out of the service industry. I wonder when we stopped caring about people as individuals and started thinking about them as profit generating machines. I blame mystery shopping actually. (I'll be writing about that another day) - To my mind any company who uses mystery shoppers is giving the clear message that they care less for the genuine experience of their customers than the security of a tick box metric. That poor cashier daren't deviate from her script in case I happen to be a mystery shopper with my pen poised to put a cross in the “friendly greeting” box. It's no wonder really that she looks as miserable as she does. She's on auto pilot with the stock phrases and living in fear of a mystery shopper lurking down every aisle. Customer service for her has become nothing more than the job safety of a tick box exercise.
The thing that really gets to me is how few companies are seeing it. Do they look at their bored, unengaged and disinterested staff and think - Great – these ideas are really working! This is who I want serving my customers! I was in a KFC restaurant the other day and through the door to the staff area I saw a poster demonstrating the type of smile they wanted to see on the faces of their colleagues. Their poor staff have to compare their smile to the chart before going on the sales floor. Somebody at KFC seriously thought that this poster might have a motivational effect on staff in their restaurants. In fact, for it to have been implemented, I would imagine quite a few people had to think it was a good idea. Sheer lunacy. I couldn't make it up and I'm a novelist!
Frankly I'm getting sick and tired of it all. I'm sick of being told to: “Smile before you dial” and to “Work smarter not harder” (Ever tried challenging someone on that? They don't have a bloody clue what they actually mean by it...) I'm tired of being accused of: “Blue sky thinking” or worse: “Not thinking outside the box.” I'm fatigued and hopelessly depressed when a colleague asks in apparently genuine ignorance if we're all: “Singing from the same hymn sheet” and I'm bowled over with despair when somebody asks me what word pattern I intend to use today. The stock phrases that rattle in my brain even when I've drunk enough home made absinthe to floor a hippopotamus corrode my soul a little further every day. “Service, service, service” they cry....without a genuine sentiment among them...
Now it goes without saying that I don't personally do any of this. I'd rather rifle through bins for food than reduce who I am to a set of meaningless phrases. I actually take great pleasure in interacting genuinely with other people and taking the time to get to know them as people. If I believe I am a name and not a number then I owe it to others to extend that same courtesy to them. Ironically as the person who bothers to question the value of word patterns and buzz words and who attempts to interact with genuine feeling I'm actually the one giving the good customer service.
So word patterns – I'll never use them - and trust me, you won't make me no matter how many courses you send me on...I can promise you that... Buzz words? Never! I'm a writer, I have the entire English language at my fingertips and no way in hell am I going to limit myself to the oft trotted out twenty terms on that interminable flip chart. However on a more cheerful note - if I ever do wish you a nice day you can be bloody certain that I really do want you to have a nice day.
So companies of the world – you've got it wrong. You've made a monumentally stupid mistake in believing that you can program your staff the way you do your computers and as a result of your ignorance genuine social interaction in the service industry is a dying art. You probably don't like me but I would imagine if you've read this far then you do have to concede that I have a point. So listen to what I'm saying and take my advice – ditch stock phrases and lip service sentiments. Stop telling people what to do and what to say and start letting them behave naturally. Throw away your metrics, your tick lists and your smile charts and drown your mystery shoppers. Make your places of work a happy place to be and encourage people both to behave as individuals and to treat others as individuals. If you do, I promise you, your customer service will improve, your staff will be happier and the world will slowly turn away from the soulless scripted structures that customer service in the modern world has become.
You may even find your profits go up but then you don't really care about that do you, it's all about service these days.... Isn't it??
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