Is Your Customer Service Staff in Jeopardy?

Customer Service
Customer Service

This is the second in a series of stories about how the economic downturn is affecting employees in various customer-facing job functions. Last week's article discussed marketing jobs/positions/executives; this week we discuss whether customer service professionals should be worried about downsizing.

If fewer customers are buying fewer things, does that mean fewer customer service employees can adequately serve them? The economic downturn has forced companies to make tough choices, none more difficult than the decision of whether to lay off employees. Many business leaders may be tempted to cut the customer service budget, but as a result may damage customer relationships by diminishing the experience.

"I don't think security is a word anyone can take ownership of right now regarding employment, but in customer service it's even more pronounced," says Michael D. Brown, author of the book Fresh Customer Service. "If customers aren't coming in, companies can only cut product costs so much before they sacrifice quality, and they'll look to customer service to do more with less."

Lucky for consumers, executives still do consider customer service an important function for long-term health. Recently Forrester Research authored a report that examined how executives felt the economy would affect their customer service spending (2008 Customer Experience Peer Research Panel Survey). Nearly two thirds of those surveyed said customer service will be even more important during the recession, and 90 percent said customer service will be either critical or very critical in 2009. Twenty-eight percent indicated they would cut spending on customer experience at a lower rate than everything else, and only 12 percent said they would cut that spending at a higher rate.

"The economy is making companies more aware of their customers because they aren't growing at the pace they used to," says Natalie Petouhoff, Forrester Research senior analyst for customer service and social media. "The financial, retail, and auto industries are failing in part because they weren't concerned about customers."

Steps to customer service success
Any enterprise considering a cut in service staff needs to consider how it will affect customers-thus, revenue. Efficiency and cost savings are worthy goals, but companies need to take a longer view to avoid repeating the mistakes that led to the current economic state. "I don't think reducing staff is the proper decision," author Brown says. "It's a short-term gain for a long-term loss." To avoid that trap, he has created six-and-a-half steps to help companies focus on customers.

  1. Side-by-side walking: Walk a mile in frontline employees' shoes to understand their perspective.
  2. Smart tasking: Define critical processes that support the customer experience and examine how efficient or inefficient they are.
  3. 'Making it right' power: Ensure employees are empowered to solve customer problems.
  4. The what-if arsenal: Give employees as many solutions to problems as you can that don't need approval.
  5. Bubble up innovation: Ask for ideas or suggestions from employees that help reduce costs.
  6. Focus on customer service: From the janitor to the CEO, make sure the organization is focused on making it happen.

    . Make an official commitment to customer service.

The increasing array of interactive vehicles for "broadcasting" one's personal opinions means that social media will receive many of these complaints. As a result, reps have the opportunity to demonstrate their value and diversify their skills simply by learning more about social media. "Social media is going to be like a megaphone for companies, so if employees want to become more involved that's the perfect opportunity," Petouhoff says. "Information found in an online community or social network is much more detailed than most knowledge bases."

While some companies have no choice but to reduce staff, the recession does have a silver lining, at least for customers. "It's scary to be in a downturn because everyone is afraid for their job, but I think this will make us all better," Petouhoff says. "We were too content before, and now I think we'll appreciate customers more and stop taking them for granted."