SME Chamber

The Road to Revival: Redesign Customer Service

I have over the last 10 years witnessed a tremendous change in the whole spectrum of service provision. Customer care has become more and more important. The next five to ten years will see even more dramatic changes as enterprises learn to develop pro-active, one to one, relationships and partnerships.

For many traditional Maltese retailers and service providers this will pose great difficulties, since to live one to one marketing and service delivery, enterprises will need to become more flexible. This, at a time, when under the pressure of cost cutting and vanishing operating surpluses and increased state bureaucracy induced costs, local businesses have been forced to reduce flexibility and introduce systems that rely less and less on individual attention and one to one service. These are two forces pulling at opposite directions – one to treat all customers as one to cut on costs, the other to service each customer individually to meet current customer service trends. But the radical change that will underpin customer management will happen as more customers enjoy heightened market awareness and more customer emphasise individual pro-active customer care albeit at increased price.

The economists tend to generalize and assume that customers have a perfect knowledge of what is on offer on the market as ready access and increased knowledge and the relative speed by which customers decide among alternative choices, are more and more fundamental to customer wants and decisions. The enterprise that will do well will increasingly be the one that recognizes that selling is not merely understanding customer wants and customer needs and satisfying these needs with the range of products and services on offer, but more and more, through emphasizing the pro-active one to one relationship. This is the relationship that narrows consumers’ choices, speeds consumers’ decision-making process and satisfies best customer’s satisfaction. This is the trend that will lead to more orders.

More and more consumers prefer alternative purchasing strategies to traditional retailing, precisely because they hate the perceived price fixing on a wide range of products and of the meddling and perceived gross commissions of middle-men. Consumers are increasing moving to electronic channels and are seeking all means to circumvent the traditional retail system. They are preferring to visit showrooms, see products, talk to dealers, but then not liking dealers to push them to dealer-preferred decisions, move on and make their decisions elsewhere. Many dealers of high value products including automobiles and property are not realising what is happening. They are not realising that customers feel more confident when they own the decision and they are increasingly resenting to much pressure from dealers and sales people. Electronic channels have empowered the consumer. The new mentality is that “I can decide for my self”. This is today true for products and services that are costly but will become more widespread in the years to come.

The retailer has to face this reality. The informed customer cannot be held simply because a product is shown and a price is fixed. Retailers complain that too many customers, especially on the big occasions – Christmas time, Trade Fair time, and other special occasions – do a lot of window shopping and retailers and service providers never know when and how the decisions to purchase has been taken.

Retailers think that since the order was not done with them, so the order never happened. Wrong. Customers simply bought elsewhere. The empowered consumer takes his decision differently then what happened before, when access to information was limited and distance and ease of access to information was not facilitated as it is today. When the consumer has the means to know when he or she decides, the consumer decides quickly. The role of the modern retailer is to cause consumers to decide in his favour. The retailer must convince the customer that he is being offered all the information, correct and abundant, that helps him decide quickly and correctly, both on quality, suitability, and above all, the price of the selected items.

So customer care today is not simply eyeing, smiling and being polite to customers it is much more than what is normally dished out in customer care training programmes. Retailers need to understand this steady change of consumer behaviour. It is important that retailers act to understand this paradigm shift in customer relationship management. A wide variety of sales outlets selling high value items like automobiles, expensive household items and quality high value products, will become purely centres of demonstrations and servicing. This is clearly happening at Trade Fairs. Customers simply seek demonstrations, obtain the information and move on. The real purchase is done elsewere, on another day, through other means. Customers are now in a position of being able to acquire knowledge and this trend will continue especially in the travel and hospitality industry, financial services, utility services and larger consumer household and personal use items.

The fastest and biggest change will probably happen in the financial services sector. In Malta we are as yet saved from the mis-selling and rip offs that have occurred elsewhere in the provision of pensions and other financial products. But we are moving steadily there. I am not convinced that our industry watchdogs are ever vigilant and are so ready to expose those who deal and trade in a manner deemed less than equitable for customers. Vigilance is still a plague of the small men. Hardly do we hear of action against big names, the more established service providers. It is as if abuse is the monopoly of the small and of the few and applies only to certain products and services. Consumers’ vigilantes do not help either. As they present themselves as experts of the petty and of small things.

Public opinion is already mistrustful of some institutions. I have stood up to be counted on many occasions demanding that public regulators and public watch dogs, and if need be Parliamentary Committees, specifically established, act in a more pronounced manner consonant with the new trend in consumer awareness. But all complaints fall on deaf ears. The consumer is mistrustful of our guardians as they miserably fail to investigate practices which may be perceived as generating profits that augment shareholders value solely, rather than addressing the immediate concerns of customers. Banks, insurance companies, pension and health care schemes prefer the clinical names: policyholder, investor, borrower, titles other than what is obvious, the consumer. It is as if psychologically you are not a customer, so you are made to feel that you cannot expect “Customer’s Service” as it is a different relationship from purchasing and ultimately paying for a product or service provided.

The successful customer focused organisation is the provider of goods and services that appreciates more that consumers now expect clarification of relatively simple processes before any transaction takes place. The enterprise that in an effort to economise is becoming less in personal and more clinical than one to one, is losing out. This is good news to the smaller retailer if he can of course manage to add to his or her customer relationship management good prices and good after sales service something which unfortunately is becoming very difficult to small traders to sustain given the new, increased product liability and customer rights imposed by modern legislation.

Any devious attitudes by the service provider or failure to explain the circumstances and processes which underpin the performance expected from a product, a service or a financial product will alert the consumer to seek guidance elsewhere. Retailers are not sufficiently aware of the importance of establishing a trust relationship.

Customers are coming of age; they are maturing and asking searching and challenging questions. The enterprise which continues to disregard this fact has no future. This is true for private companies, small and large, but it is increasingly true for the financial sector and especially so for public sector institutions. It is imperative that the organization that has, perhaps, failed to grasp the importance of the customer, to develop strategies that do.

The term customer is normally related to a retail function. It is the shop owners concern. Health care, parents of children in the education system, customers of the transport system, of the telecommunications system, of banks, social services and the courts and of professional services, are perceived as of a different breed. But these service providers are all challenged by the behaviour of consumers and customers. A sound customer service strategy is imperative for all this service providers too. Indeed many of these organisations are those that are only giving a lip service to their customer relationship strategy. They believe that because they employ somebody and call him or her customer care officer, they have solved the problem. Some solutions I have witnessed are nothing but a big fat joke.

There is no value to a business or to an organisation without customers. Even the monopoly, the dominant firm and the public sector are now realising this basic truth. Customer delight will either drive a business up or down. No business is so large as to be able to ignore customer opinion.

It is interesting to note here that the customer is not aware who in the market place is customer focused and who’s not. But customers are seeking to know. Customers are not impressed with back office customer processes or customer response or the new focus on call centres. Unless companies can provide genuine excellent service without the clicks and the fanfares of concepts that provide little in terms of tangible impact on the customer’s decision to purchase and feel satisfied with the service provided, customers will move elsewhere. Elsewhere will increasingly mean online and third party intermediaries will play a less significant part.

Employers in sectors like Finance, Retail, Hospitality and public utility services especially, must ensure that employees understand that investment decisions depend on market success and this success more and more is customer-lead. This means that workforces need to be more adaptable and the survivors will be those who exceed the expectations and the demands of customers. Good customer service is therefore a good guarantee for job preservation.

Just a mere comparison of prices, interest rates, and return on investment or whatever mechanism exists to convince customers that the price is right, are not enough. Customers are increasingly aware that pricing, especially in financial and insurance sectors as well as in property, and major consumer items like automobile may be deceptive. That is why providing the right information is an imperative in creating the right customer service strategy.

Customer management is relatively new to most of our selling organisations and those who exercise customer care effectively know that it is not just any customer service that will do, but the right. Too many businesses are wasting good money on training and service consultants without getting it right. They fail to understand what makes customers feel right. Hardly do business manager stop to think why in spite of all their effort sales either go down or do not go up as they like them to do. The answer is often found in their customer service strategy. Customer loyalty fails because customers do not feel comfortable and they do not come back. Without customer loyalty a business cannot grow.

Then they grumble. They say that sales are down, the country is not moving, that no one seems to care. The truth is that in Malta total private consumption has reached the staggering figure, for our size of economy, of 1.3 billion Maltese liri. To this one may add another 400 million government consumption. Most of these millions are spent every year on the local economy. Inspite of the meagre rates of economic growth enjoyed or suffered by Malta over these last few years the ratio of GDP that goes to private consumption keeps growing. So someone is getting the money. Lm1.3 billion is a substantial amount. If you are not getting a bigger bite then someone else is.

You must make sure that this year the one who gets the bigger bite is you. So don’t just stare and grumble. The problem could easily be that your customers do not feel good with your service and they are moving elsewhere. They are purchasing differently. They changed and you didn’t. Their money is spent, but not on your goods or services. You need to do something about it. You must re-visit your customer service strategy. Read the trends. Plan differently Re-organise. Don’t say the money is not there. It’s there but you’re not getting it. You only need to go out and get it. Change your customer service system for a start. When the customers start returning as they feel better about you and your products, the money will grow. Then you can take care of the rest. But start with Customer Care: the message we get from our surveys among customers, one shopping survey after another, speak loud and clear. People want to be treated better.

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