What came first, the bad customer or the bad customer service?

Source: PSE Feb/March 20

Stephen Bahooshy, Senior Commissioning Manager and Nicky Selwyn, Carer and Service User Group Chair, Croydon Council.


Here it is, that age old question: What came first, the bad customer or the bad customer service? (Or maybe we just made that up, whatever). But it’s true though, right? We work in public services and regularly come across these so called ‘bad customers’, the angry residents who give us a hard time.

As you are reading this, I know you can imagine the person I am describing. They have a poorly worded letter in their hands from the council, it is not clear what it is saying, it has big black bold capital letters across the top so it looks like we are shouting at them and then it is telling them something that they might not want to hear or that they might not believe is fair. So, they call up and they are angry.

Then they have to queue (and there’s always some kind of irritating music that doesn’t quite sound right over the phone, so it just squeaks and spits noise into your ears), then an automated voice asks them a series of questions, press 1 for this, 2 for that, 3 for the other until they reach 7, which is the number they needed to speak to someone, so by this point, their anger is building.

Then, more waiting, more waiting, until finally, they get to speak to a representative and they just release their frustration, telling you how they have waited for so long (people’s expectations on waiting times have changed significantly with the development of social media and because companies are beginning to understand the importance of good customer service) and that they don’t agree with you.

The operative doesn’t like being spoken to like this (who would?), so they say Mr Smith (not his real name), if you keep speaking to me like this, then I will have to hang up. So, Mr Smith, already annoyed and not liking being treated like a child, gets angrier, until the operative hangs up.

The problem isn’t dealt with, Mr Smith is angrier and then complains to the council in writing. Not being an expert on complaint writing, Mr Smith writes down parts of his experience, sends it to the council, then 30 days later, he receives half a response (because it wasn’t quite clear what was wrong), then Mr Smith, still unsatisfied, continues to be angry, writes to the Ombudsman and tells everyone he knows how bad the council is and how they don’t do anything for him.

So, whilst this describes probably quite a common phenomenon in local authority and indeed public sector, we can see that a relatively small issue has turned into a formal complaint simply because of the person’s experience, not because of the issue.

Looking across public sector, there are some areas of good customer service and some bad. We believe that this is an under-invested method of resident satisfaction which could pave the way for improved public perception in public service. And not just that, but improved staff satisfaction. Let’s be honest, people join public sector because they want to do a good job for their community, so why don’t we as leaders and managers facilitate them to be able to do this?

Improved staff satisfaction will reduce staff sickness, so investing in customer service is cost neutral, if not a saving as it will reduce work further down the line.

We must create the right environment to support good customer service practice, which in the case above, will mean that Mr Smith, whilst he may not have agreed with what was actually in the letter, had an experience that was positive and helped him to understand the changes and supported him.

You only need to look at the Ombudsman complaints to see that a high number of complaints are related to issues that could have been resolved if only the local authority had responded more promptly.

As a commissioner, I have presided on NHS Complaints contracts and gathered my own data from resident focus groups. The majority of the issues that I have identified have always arisen because of the way someone was spoken to by the council or the NHS, for example; “and the nurse just told me I’ll just have to get used to being a carer”, or when trying to get a handrail to support the person go out into their garden, they were told “well you can just look out of the window”.

Neither of these should have been issues, however poor customer service is the root cause. Furthermore, from a service user group Chair’s perspective, every failure to connect positively with a client loses you a potential ally. A little sensitivity and some common sense can make every exchange work better. And we want you to be honest.

Honesty (especially when tactfully and sympathetically shared) shows that you respect us enough not to make empty promises just to get us off the phone. And actively seek out our concerns: see them & embrace them for the priceless learning they can provide. Look how Channel 4 turned all the negative cover about ‘empty chairing’ to their advantage. They took a full wraparound cover of the Metro newspaper saying essentially, “Channel 4 WANTS your complaints” with a big, clear email address.

So how can you stay angry with someone who has a great sense of humour and actively makes themselves available for brickbats? (How interesting that this advert made me view Channel 4 as a person and not an organisation!) Times are tough for organisations and individuals alike: let’s not make them tougher by setting ourselves up as two warring factions. Respect service users and we can work with you to become joint problem solvers.

Research does show, that if a local authority improves their complaints process, they will receive more complaints. But this is exactly what we am trying to avoid – complaints in the first place! If we think about the resident or the person first, and what they have experienced. People don’t wake up and think, I want to be a bad customer today. Something would have happened along their long journey with public service.

If you look at everything that public sector does to support people, it is huge! So many opportunities for something to go wrong. Council do schools, refuse collection, social care, planning, council tax etc., it only takes one negative experience to change someone’s perception from positive to negative.

Then it takes five positive experiences to reverse this. So you can see why, Mr Smith when calling about the letter (that read as though it was shouting at him), had probably already experienced bad customer service in the past, then when the person he spoke to wasn’t particularly welcoming, it just further reinforced his negative prejudices about the authority.

Much of what we know about relationship building, stakeholder engagement, negotiation and influencing is based on positive experiences with people, finding common ground and working together. Everyone is only human. The top selling book by Dale Carnegie “How to win friends and influence people” is a whole book about how to work with people, go the extra mile, use their name (not a reference number), listen to them, understand, empathise, show willing, and be clear. These are all the hallmarks of good customer service, management, and leadership. It can be hard to be polite to someone who is being rude to you, however, they will soon find that it is really quite difficult to continue to be rude to someone who is trying to be reasonable to them. And that’s all we can do, be reasonable to people and they will afford us the same courtesy.

 Perhaps not this time, but next time, either way you know you’ll have done your part in that person’s journey to help change their perception of you, the authority you work for and perhaps even the public service as a whole. So in answer to the original question; what came first, the bad customer or the bad customer service, well of course the answer is that the bad customer service came first.


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