Service with a smile

Today’s service culture puts new demands on frontline staff. Jane Lewis looks at how companies can deliver to customers without employees behaving like cardboard cut-outs at home

Sometime during the course of the 1980s, when it became clear that the downturn in British Manufacturing was actually more in the nature of a permanent decline, public opinion was split broadly into two camps.

On the one hand there were those who welcomed the replacement of the old industrial economy with the new service-based model, claiming it was an inevitable development in capitalism – and likely to lead to greater national prosperity across the board. On the other, were those who thought that any economy without a solid foundation of industrial production underpinning it would enjoy no more long-term stability than a house of cards.

Economists then were in no doubt of where the intellectual high ground lay. The idea that wealth could only be generated to a backing track of whirring machines was as sentimental and retrogressive as it was naïve. Most would now claim that history has borne them out.

But some commentators cannot let go of the issue so easily. Just because the card construction is now more far-reaching and complicated in structure, they argue, it doesn’t mean it is any less precarious – though we often lose sight of this fact in the distracting rough and tumble of daily life.


“Much of the insecurity we experience is unconscious,” claims Colin Selby, director of occupational psychologists Selby Millsmith. “We don’t have a manufacturing base to hang on to, it makes us nervous. We worry about the future: in time we know we’ll be outsourcing even our service industries abroad.” Indeed, this is already happening in several sectors, most notably IT.

Although it is unlikely many people struggling in to work this morning had that particular debate running through their heads, this unconscious awareness of our insecurity – and of the possible pointlessness of our working lives – is having some interesting effects. Selby believes it might provide a partial reason for the entrenched long working hours culture in this country. It is as if we are trying to compensate for the worthlessness of the whole exercise by working harder. “The work ethic goes very deep. People become trapped on a treadmill. By working hard they lose sight of what’s really happening.”

Others agree. “Perhaps it is the feeling that we are not really working the way we used to work – not doing proper work – that allows us to spend more hours on the job,” said Laurie Taylor, a visiting professor to the University of York, recently.


“There may be good material reasons for some to work long hours, but surely something else is needed to explain why one in three British men and one in 10 women now work 50 or more hours a week. Have we all surrendered ourselves so thoroughly to the service ethic that it would somehow seem almost like a personal infidelity to turn down our employer’s request for another few hours of unpaid overtime?”

Yet the pernicious effect of the service economy on individuals extends beyond this, he argues. “In a world dominated by service industries, more and more of us are required to look as though we might be delighted to see our customers. Expressions of concern and solicitude, even love, which we might once have reserved for our partners and children, are now part of the “soft skills” regarded as so essential.

“Perhaps it is no wonder that our personal relationships are so precarious. When we are required to expend all our interactional sensibilities on customers and clients, there may be little empathy left over for friends and lovers.”

Cary Cooper, Bupa professor of organisational psychology at Umist and author of Strategic Stress Management, agrees that customer-facing staff are particularly vulnerable to this problem – and given that everyone in business these days is a customer of sorts, that means nearly all of us.

“We do have finite reservoirs of empathy. There is a stream of stress associated with having to play any role, so it’s difficult to do that all day long – to take anything that’s thrown at you – and that does over-spill into the family.”

What has made matters more difficult in recent years is that so much more is being thrown. The last traces of the once-famous British fear of complaining have long since vanished, swept aside by the customer-centric ideologies of the 1990s.

Complaining culture

“Interfacing with customers now is much more complicated than before,” says Cooper. “Ever since the system of charters grew up in the 1990s, consumers have been encouraged to have a voice – and so they complain. Since we created that culture, customers simply won’t accept excuses and that’s a heavy burden for service providers.”

Moreover, in certain situations, customers now assume they have the right to complain as vociferously and abusively as they want. There is not much client/customer rapport going on down at the tow-away car pound, for example, nor on-line to the phone company when there is an inexplicable fault in the system.

More worrying is the impact this “assertiveness” is having on public sector professionals in areas like education and housing. As Averil Leimon, a director at Plus Consulting, points out, it is not uncommon for housing offices to transform themselves into mini fortresses, complete with bullet-proof glass, as protection against irate customers. “People have higher expectations about service, and less patience. One reason teachers are so stressed is that they are always facing the possibility of people coming in, complaining and threatening.”

But even when the threat of physical danger is removed, the stress levels inherent in being on the frontline of customer care are self-evident. “It must be very difficult for the average call centre employee,” says Leimon. “These people only ever hear the negative. No one ever rings up to say, ‘Thank you, that was lovely’ – they never get that kind of feedback. They’re worn down by having to hear bad news all the time.”

Of all the constructs of the service economy, call centres are routinely singled out for the most criticism – primarily because of the damaging effect they appear to have on both staff and customers.

At the root of the malaise is the way many have been operated – comparisons have even been made with the sweat shops of the 19th century. Hours are long, shifts are rigid, all exchanges with customers are scripted and often timed, staff turnover rates are high.

Diane Newall, European managing director of organisational development specialist Blessing/White, describes this type of operation as “the machine model” – employees are seen as intelligent machines and there is “very little freedom to deviate from the script to meet customer needs.”

Experts agree it would be difficult to come up with a more damaging work model. “The two things most likely to engender stress are a heavy workload and no sense of control,” says Leimon. Call centre staff must take the flak without having access to any means of ameliorating the situation. Certainly they can be trained to provide a sympathetic or helpful-sounding response, but when it comes to solving a problem or responding to a query outside their given script, they are helpless – and that is what drives customers mad.

Paper-thin skills

“Many have a received a cheap veneer of interpersonal training. If anything goes awry, they cannot deal with it – they haven’t been trained to deal with other people’s emotions,” she says. “These people are put on the frontline with paper-thin skills that fall away.”

She encountered a typical example recently when a mobile phone operative, having proved herself entirely unhelpful during course of the conversation, ended by trilling, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”.

At the root of the problem is the sense of isolation many of these staff experience. Although they act as representatives of a given organisation, and are frequently the sole contact for customers, they have little sense of belonging – and even less idea of how their actions might impact on the company. This leads some observers to conclude that the nub of the issue lies not so much with the service economy per se, but with how it is managed.

“Companies are not investing in these skills,” says Tim Sparrow, a partner with human performance consultancy Buckholdt Associates. “If you want people to feel a sense of worth and purpose and to work well you need to align them to the business, to make them feel that they are making a significant contribution. If they think that what they produce has no value, then they’ll live down to it.

“I think this idea of the pointlessness of service is rather a male attitude. Providing good service is about establishing relationships and valuing them – women are better at this than men. But because the culture is still male-dominated, this idea of forming relationships is still devalued in our culture – although it is the most important aspect of many people’s jobs.”

One company that learnt this lesson the hard way is Astron – a self-styled “information logistics” company offering large corporate customers a complete printed material supply service, from purchasing through warehousing and supply. In many ways it is typical of the new breed of business-to-business supply chain model – and one of the chief psychological problems facing staff in such service-based organisations is that there is no tangible end product of their work – beyond the satisfaction of the customer.

But as HR director Kathy Woodward recalls, when customer satisfaction levels go awry the potential is there for all hell to break loose. She remembers “a mood of near hysteria hitting the business” when one major customer, which had previously rated the firm highly, indicated it wanted to move its account. The worst affected were the company’s executives. “There were high sickness levels, tears in the office, resignations, retribution – everyone was blaming everyone else.”

On analysing the problem, it became apparent that the difficulty lay in Astron’s structure. “In diagrammatic terms, the customer relationship had become focused on the narrowest point of power” the customer executive. This unfortunate person “had become merely a telephone messaging system. Mainly supplying bad news”.

Customer-centric ideology

A major reorganisation followed, based entirely on a more customer-centric ideology. This included gaining a greater understanding of how the customer business ticked, “understanding their issues”, and expanding Astron’s own narrow individual contact point to include the whole company.

“We had daily customer communication meetings with compulsory attendance from every department.” The company also took steps to build up team commitment – the CEO’s idea was scuba-diving, “because every single skill needed by the teams is mirrored in the dive”.

But Woodward claims improved systems also had an important part to play in taking the burden off customer-facing individuals. “Our customers became our technical collaborators.” IT people from both organisations worked together to define a web-based ordering system.

Disciplinary policy was not discriminatoryAstron also brushed up its internal information provision by creating a customer relationship database “allowing everyone – including the customer – visibility of every aspect of the supply process.” She reports that the strategy paid dividends, not just in terms of financial rewards, but also on staff morale. “I can confidently say our staff are no longer monsters at home.”

Newall claims the most progressive are now beginning to take similar steps in the right direction – and this includes some of the more notorious call-centre operators.

“In the past, call centres haven’t worried about their very high turnover rates, but that’s not true any more. Many are going to great lengths to retain people.” One reason for this is geography. “Call centres all seemed to position themselves in the same area, which meant they were fighting over the same people. So organisations are increasingly aware of the value of the staff.”

Measures designed to improve retention and commitment include giving staff greater freedom to determine shifts, job share schemes, and even company cars.

Most importantly, a strong emphasis on teamwork encourages them to shake off their sense of isolation when dealing with difficult customers. Companies focusing on providing service can learn from some of the strategies adopted by charities to protect workers manning phones. Chief among these is that time is set aside after a disturbing call for debriefing, to set it in context. But this kind of essential back-up is often seen as an expensive luxury.

Given the extent of research establishing the link between staff well-being, customer satisfaction and subsequent profit, many organisations have begun to change their tune. “Traditionally companies spent money on managerial staff and didn’t put a lot of investment into customer-facing staff, but that’s changing,” says Newall. One reason for this is the need to strike more intimate, longer-term relationships with customers. That means arming those on the frontline with as much information on both the customer and the service process as possible – so they know the context of their dealings with customers and understand the ramifications of their own contribution to the process.


Newall also highlights the power of giving staff a degree of autonomy within given boundaries, not just to enhance the customer’s experience of the transaction, but also to boost staff morale.

“The idea that you can be more responsive to customers’ individual needs is clearly going to lead to greater fulfilment.” She cites the example of SAS Airlines. Check-in staff were instructed that their primary aim was to ensure that passengers arrived at their destination on time. “Within that context, they were given the freedom to handle individual customer emergencies as they saw fit.”

Asda retail HR director David Smith, describes a similar strategy in operation across the company’s supermarket chain. By operating a no-excuses guarantee policy at each store’s service desk – “we don’t treat our customers as if they are dishonest” – staff (or “colleagues” in Asda’s terminology) are protected from having to defend inflexible processes in the face of irate customers.

Smith notes the importance of choosing the right people in the first place. “We look for people who enjoy being with other people. If you are that kind of person, you will enjoy that part of the job.”

It is a policy that has also been adopted in fast food outlets, often with mixed success, as Newall points out. “Sometimes when you walk in you get someone behind the counter, with all their little stars, who clearly just loves the work. But you do find miserable people too.

“The key thing is that each working culture suits different types of people – the most successful organisations are able to make that match.”


In conclusion, it is clear that there are strategies companies can adopt in their bid to protect service staff from the worst excesses of their frontline positions – and the ramifications that these can have on other areas of their lives.

Companies need to encourage staff by making it clear to employees just how important their interactions with customers are. But they also need to back up these staff, by raising their status internally, providing solid information systems and by giving them a sense of control over their working lives.

“There is a finite amount of stress that we can take, but we can top up our resources,” says Sparrow at Buckholdt Associates. “Companies need to recognise the basic point that it is stressful dealing with people – and staff need the space to recharge themselves.”

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