• Andy Cooper

Skimping on service



I will know when austerity is over not when the Chancellor of the Exchequer tells me it is but when I go more than a fortnight without seeing an absence of properly resourced service in a business I encounter.

If ever there was a barometer for how well a business regards its customers then it is the levels of service it offers. It’s easy to skimp on service levels to save a few quid because it’s a ‘quick hit’ saving and the negative sides of the equation are perhaps not immediately seen.

Because that CEO looking satisfactorily at the balance sheet and reporting back to shareholders on ‘maximising efficiencies’ wouldn’t look so smug if they were at the sharp end of some of the encounters I have had of late.

I am talking about the obligatory six-minute wait on the end of a phone to a call centre of a major comms business (having already failed once to negotiate the multiple choice push button exercise to get through to the right department and been summarily cut off).

I am talking about the long, long wait to get service at a High Street restaurant having been seated in a rather perfunctory manner already by a waitress who looked like she was at the wrong end of a nine-hour shift where two of her colleagues had phoned in sick, her line manager had already ‘had a word’ about her attitude and she hadn’t received a decent tip from a diner all day.

Easy though it would have been to vent my spleen at the call centre operative (as I think we are meant to call them) or the waitress, I didn’t. Because the appalling service I received was not, in truth, their fault. They’re just the patsy for their organisation’s wider failings.

Why is service often the poor relation in business? I guess everyone knows product and pricing need to be spot on in order to succeed but some think service doesn’t matter. Wrong and wrong again.

Because repeat business is surely the holy grail for everyone? And poor service kills repeat business.

I mentioned austerity at the start of this piece and I think at present with the pincer movement of the Government practising austerity (and it still is, despite any number of politicians insisting it is over) and Brexit uncertainty, many businesses have taken the knife to service levels in order to maintain profit levels.

And interestingly, my experience seems to demonstrate it’s the big corporates that are most keen to cut service levels. It’s a rather cynical ploy because they know they have the mass of staff overall to absorb the hit while the business still functions at ground level, albeit stutteringly, whereas smaller businesses don’t.

Try telling the proprietor of that independent café in Exeter that they will need to cut back from three waitresses to one, or not bother smiling and passing the time of day with that regular customer who comes in for their skinny latte and cupcake every Thursday. They would know that tactic would be madness in the long term – even though it might increase profitability temporarily.

Because outstanding and well-resourced service is the USP of the smaller business. And these bigger businesses, slicing at staff costs (because staff ARE service, after all, despite what some will claim about Artificial Intelligence being just over the horizon and “here to help”) feel they can ignore that because their size and structure will still allow them to win the day.

But in a social media and ‘shareable’ age I believe this attitude is in the last chance saloon. It is very easy now to tell the world in a heartbeat just how poor service levels are – and conversely how great they are – and as consumers become more and more promiscuous with their purchasing habits then we may just be about to enter a New Age of service first.