Training customer service agents essential to economic growth and job creation

…jobs are being lost in South Africa because of bad attitudes to customers

Whether its slow delivery of infrastructure to people in poor areas, overcharging tourists or rude call centre agents, South Africa’s poor customer service is developing a reputation that is styming business.

By 2008, South Africa should have created 100 000 new jobs in call centres (according to McKinsey research), however, a lack of adequate training has seen often rude South African call centre agents receive short shrift from international investors in an industry that helped underpin India’s massive economic growth. Dimension Data executive, Martin Dove who helps oversee South Africa’s biggest call centre in Johannesburg which serves local and international clients has emphasized that without adequate training of customer service agents this cash-cow industry will not develop. “The long term damage and knock-on effect of training cuts will be the attrition of employees and a loss of intellectual property and reputation in the marketplace,” Dove has said.

Poor customer service and delivery failures have also been blamed for unrest in townships from Warrenton to Kliptown, Khutsong to Metsimaholo which have resulted in people being killed and property burned or looted. A survey, conducted by TNS Research Surveys, showed high levels of dissatisfaction with municipal delivery - a third of black and coloured residents in Gauteng were dissatisfied with service delivery and 44 percent of blacks in Gauteng towns were dissatisfied. In Metsimaholo in the Free State where an angry mob killed an ANC councilor in July, research group Municipal IQ, said although Metsimaholo ranked 21 out of the country’s 231 local councils in terms of ‘good management’ 40% of households have no access to refuse removal and 40% of the economically active population are unemployed. The Human Sciences Research Council said: “Ordinary residents’ frustrations can be due to a variety of problems: the unavailability or erratic provision of infrastructure; high price of services; rudeness and shoddy treatment by front-end municipal staff.”

Good service pays dividends, for example, South Africa has more than 1 700 conference venues and hosts more than 860 major conferences every year with international delegates. The world market for conferences and exhibitions is expected to make up 10% of the estimated US$672 billion generated by the travel and tourism industry globally each year with that figure doubling by 2013. South Africa is ranked 23rd by the Union of International Associations as a top meetings destination and 31st by the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA). It’s critical to keep and grow this business and to make South Africa a customer-friendly nation.

Debbie Hunt a facilitator for training group BizTech which has a course on Critical Customer Service Skills for Frontline Staff says, “generally SA customer service is pretty bad and there are a number of reasons for that. Based on feedback from people on courses it may be that managers send frontline staff on courses, while those at top level may lack sufficient experience of good customer service and cannot motivate and direct staff appropriately.

“Bottlenecks in decision making from the top hamper the capacity of people on the frontline to help customers or clients. Too often a customer service agent will say, ‘I’ll get back to you’, they then have to get a decision from a manager which is not always forthcoming and so customer frustrations escalate.”

She gave her own example, “we are going out of town for a wedding. I phoned to book accommodation. I asked for confirmation in writing, an email with price, deposit and banking details, the person I booked with said he could not send the email he would have to ask someone else to do it. Two weeks later I realised they still hadn’t contacted me, I phoned them back and after a long search they found the booking. The average customer would go elsewhere and tell his or her friends about the bad service they received.”

Hunt says there are six essentials they teach on Critical Customer Service Skills for Frontline Staff:

  • Attitude and manner are critical. Smile, be efficient, use the client’s name, and make them feel important.
  • Always be respectful regardless of how the customer treats you. Do follow ups, if a customer sees you are going the extra mile they become more patient and appreciative, it adds value and ensures customer loyalty.
  • There is no quick fix, remain calm, it is very easy to get worked up if the customer is angry, breathe deeply, stay calm and be rational, by doing that you will hopefully calm the customer.
  • Don’t take things personally especially if a person is being rude or shouting, focus on solving the issue rather than getting annoyed by their opinions.
  • Never tell a customer to “calm down” rather recognise their frustration and anger say: “I understand that you are frustrated, let’s see what we can do to sort it out…”
  • Practice listening skills and personal self control. Focus on the facts. Often customers phone an organisation and get shunted from pillar to post, ideally someone should say, ‘let me find out and call you back or get the right person to phone you.’ That promotes customer satisfaction and enhances the reputation of the company.

Hunt says that although South African customer service representatives have in many instances developed a bad reputation, “more companies are doing their best to remedy this, awareness is increasing and that can be seen by the number of people sent on training.”

Liza van Wyk, CEO of BizTech says that as an organisation where a positive customer experience is critical to its success, “we choose staff and train them for their willingness to go the extra mile for the client. It’s important to have staff with a positive attitude, optimistic people who are willing to help people satisfy their needs. We select staff that are willing to learn and improve themselves. People working at the frontline are the face of the company, they are critical to how successful an enterprise is.”

Celeste Allen, a labour lawyer and facilitator on BizTech courses says, “irrespective of what your business is you need to give the client what they want and when they want it. Always provide service and if you cannot give it, be open to help the individual find the best person possible to assist them.”

Two recent examples from the United States show how important good customer service is. Netflix Inc, formerly the top online DVD rental agent in the USA this year saw the first quarterly customer losses – some 40% - in its history. The reason? The New York Times said, “Netflix has been having trouble signing up subscribers since late last year,
when Blockbuster began giving its online customers the option of swapping DVDs at one of its stores instead of relying on the mail and waiting at least two days for another movie.” Blockbuster simply gave better service, faster.

Pepsi has in recent times managed a dramatic resurgence in sales globally, its new philosophy is to “engage with customers” the organisation says, “with engagement, you're on your way to a relationship instead of just a sales transaction." Customer loyalty is guaranteed when a client sees you as a friend who is always willing to help, if you see only their credit card, chances are they won’t see you either.

Biz Tech Fast Facts:
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Issued by MediaOnLine