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Service quality and the role of employees in the customer experience

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Previous posts have dealt on several occasions with the important topic of service quality. After re-reading what we had written we found out something important: employees are crucial.

Employees are of course important to deliver the service quality that customers expect (although we still need to explain you what service quality really means). However over the last few years what we have noticed that firms tend to describe how employees should behave to deliver the requested service quality.


To standardize service or not to standardize. That is the question.

At first one may think that describing precisely what employees should do when in contact with customers, in other words how they should behave, is a good thing. We know firms (big ones actually) which actually go so far as to put on paper what employees should say to a customer and when. Exki for instance has a 3-step rule that tells employees what to say to customers according to the time they have entered the store and to the distance they are from the employee. Other firms request that employees address customers with “hello Sir” or “Hello Madam” rather than with “hello” (this is a über-polite way to address customers in French language). Last but not least, Abercrombie & Fitch demand that employees welcome customers with a trendy “hey, what’s up?” (the latter work only in the US, not in Europe where culture doesn’t permit such a short “distance” between employees and customers, i.e. between strangers).


Let it be : the first step to empowerment

Rather than standardizing and describing the tiniest details, another option is to give freedom to employees. One famous example (over researched actually) is Nordstrom where employees can decide almost on their own how far to go to satisfy a customer. This business case is very much known in the US, far less in Europe. It deserves actually that you invest a little bit of time to investigate about Nordstrom and the urban legends that revolve around it (for instance those about products that were returned years after their purchase to the store, completely torn, for a full refund). This is what we call empowerment.


Let they be who they really are: the second step to empowerment

Another, more hazardous, way is to let employees express their personality and their passions. This goes beyond mere empowerment since you are suddenly allowed to let your private sphere merge with your professional attitude and emerge from your behavior. Examples are much rarer. Yet we came across some interesting ones that we think you’d like to reflect upon.

Let’s begin with the oldest example, that of Apple. When we visited the 5th avenue Apple store we noticed that some employees had a very unique look and were behaving distinctly. A short interview revealed that Apple allowed them to come as they are in real life. This certainly enables those employees to connect with customers sharing the same beliefs. A few pictures are included in the gallery below.

Another example was found when we visited l’Imprimerie (see earlier post about it) where employees were actually belonging to the overall  customer experience. They were representative of the urban culture that the brand wanted to penetrate.

The last example, and perhaps the most achieved one, was found in Brussels in a vintage fashion shop (see our previous post). In this store we were struck by the very role of employees. Although they were still at the service of the customers, the way they were dressed, behave and moved in the store, gave the impression they were act playing. They were actors belonging to an overarching scenario, to a well designed overall customer experience.



Advice for your marketing strategy

Would you dare rethinking the role of employees? What is actually the value brought by employees: is it mere transactional or also relational? Most firms tend to avoid risks and have homogeneous approaches to a lot of different issues. Employees recruitment and service quality are two of them. Differentiation is also about employees and the long-told motto of “recruiting for attitude and training for skills” has much weight in this context.

We urge you to also recruit people for who they are and to try to find fits between your customer segments and what your employees care about, what they love, what they are passionate about. Human beings tend to feel good with people who are like them. You probably also hang out with people who resemble you (in terms of attitude, education, culture, …). Why shouldn’t it be like this in a firm setting? Why should firm standardize and give an homogenous (and sometimes boring) mage of themselves.

Recruiting employees for the bonds they can make with segments of your customer base is a first step for changing your company in 2013.

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Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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