Back in December I visited the hairdresser, not something I particularly enjoy, due to my own shyness and an empathy for the hairdresser who faces client after client, engaging in the same small discussions. My stylist, a young women in her late twenties (the girl that was free in that slot) greeted me by extending her arm for my coat to hang it up. That detail sorted, she lead me to the chair to discuss my needs. The girl told me I was her first appointment and wished she could have stayed at home and settled in with some videos. Perhaps not the most appropriate thing to say when delivering optimum customer service, but I appreciate how it might feel to want to stay at home in the downpour vs. coming in to cut head of hair after head of hair for hours on end.
She asked if I want a tea or coffee, but I said no, I didn't want to put her to the bother. Do I want a magazine? I shook my head but she piled them up in from of me, a barrier between her and any possible chit-chat. But I have long since stepped into her shoes, adapting to the signals I have received. I get that by not engaging she can delay reality and the impending tedium of those conversations. I understand too that as individuals each of us arrive from our own places; an argument, bad news, great news, on top of which are our own personal journeys that make us who we are; shy or buoyant and all the variations of temperament in between. She cut the hair silently and I mirrored her tone, trying to minimise my presence not intrude upon her. I wanted to check some detail and dared to ask as we approach the end, but she shrugged in reply, picking up the hairdryer confirming we are at the end.
Afterwards I stood at counter to pay, for once I didn't add a tip to the fee. This was difficult for me and made me feel awful, but somehow I couldn't validate the customer service that I haven’t received. Or I am confusing the concept of customer service for something else. Courtesy or kindness perhaps? Or simply how it made me feel? After all my hair is cut. Customer service, I found out after a little research, is defined (in one of many examples) as the provision of service to customers before, during and after a purchase. The success (or perception thereof) of such interactions it seems often rests on employees who can adjust themselves to the needs of the customer, which may account for the variety in expectation and delivery. So what did I expect? At a basic level, beyond the haircut, to be treated as a human being. At the most evolved level, I anticipated an awareness of how the client is received and an effort to make him / her feel welcome and acknowledged. Value is key, at least for me, because I suspect all customers need to feel valued to want to return, or at least to enjoy returning. Will I return? Yes, but probably only until I get a recommendation from a friend, because loyalty is not a given. If I left feeling like a valued customer, well…that would be a different story.
People of course have down days, which I completely understand and my natural reaction is to empathise, and to ask less of the sales person, often to ask nothing at all. What I see on the high street, however isn't an epidemic of down days, it's an apathy owing to a lack of awareness of the customer experience. I watched as staff were irritated to be bothered, while customers apologised profusely for interrupting, ending up baffled and over-thanking them for the service they didn't receive. This is bizarre in an era where internet shopping is a serious contender to the high street store (especially the small store that doesn't have any Internet sales function). Surely the customer experience is the greatest differentiating factor, especially as online returns become easier and easier. There is something here about customer service not having a language or framework that could spell out to retailers what it is exactly and how to deliver it. There is also something about customers understanding what to expect, otherwise we blame and / or question ourselves. Competition may be increasing, but this is not being matched in customer service, experience economy or no.
Next up, the clinical white backdrop of the health services, which provoked me to identify another intrinsic element in customer service: the relationship. The care and kindness I received from the health professionals left me with a feeling of being valid, of value and human. I walk away and feel we were working towards the same goal. I felt relieved, grateful and supported. The irony being…that that is exactly the kind of setting I'd expected to be treated as number 0324! What made the difference, I discovered, was the ‘relationship’, which in many ways is very much a key feature of this ‘service’. There is a cultural or industry understanding that the strength of the relationship results in a more effective intervention. So, how then is this not being applied across all commercial services?
At the end, I discovered that customer service for me largely boils down to on-the-ground experience, the people you deal with and how they deal with you. I learned that I can be somewhere amazing, with fab decor - salubrious chandeliers, all experience evoking, but if someone is rude to me, or worse doesn’t treat me as a human being, the decor doesn’t really matter. The aftertaste is always the same - a desire not to repeat the experience. Time will tell, but in the meantime, I can’t help but feel that changing this aspect alone would change everything, even if the salubrious light fittings never feature as part of the experience.