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The Bottom Line Expert Opinion: Customer Service

Updated Tuesday 16th February 2016

Is a consumer focus appropriate for all business - public as well as private? Peter Bloom discusses customer service in the contemporary age.

A customer service desk at an airport Creative commons image Icon Richard, via Flickr under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license Consumer services lies at the heart of almost any successful business. The commitment and ability to meet customer needs seems straightforward. However, it requires sophisticated forms of management and dynamic organizational strategies. It also is complicated by new challenges such as globalization, corporate social responsibility and growing demands for diversity. Moreover, it connects up to rising questions over whether a consumer service mentality is appropriate in all and every contexts – especially organizations ostensibly aimed at the public rather than the private good.

A crucial part of any business is to treat its customers right. Importantly this means all its customers. However, this ideal is not always followed in practice. This is especially true for those who may experience social prejudice based on their race, gender, age or ethnicity. Unconscious or conscious stereotypes may hinder equality in customer service. Companies must, therefore, be pro-active in ensuring that values of diversity and fairness are at the core of their customer service strategy and practice. Zachary Brewster, Jonathan R. Brauer and Michael Lynn highlight these concerns in their article “Can we teach restaurant servers to treat all customers equally, regardless of race?”

Organizations have an increased responsibility not only to make profit but also contribute to the wider community. Customer service can be a key but often underused method for helping companies realize social responsibility goals. Specifically, organizations can use customer relations management to respond to ethical consumer demands – such as in the case of calls for fair trade. Alternatively, they can use their influence to help promote more ethical customer behaviour. Leon Kaye examines this issue in his article “Sustainable consumption: why brands should take the lead

Female smartphone user accessing mobile banking system Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Robin Lund | Dreamstime.com Customer service must also be forward thinking. It cannot just meet the needs of present customers. It additionally must consider new ways of doing business and therefore the needs of new consumers. This future-oriented perspective is perhaps especially relevant in the current period as technology and evolving social values are rapidly changing the 21st century economy. The growth of a so-called “sharing economy” creates new opportunities and challenges for modern customer service. Denise Lee Yohn explores these changes in her article “What You Can Learn About Customer Experience From Sharing Economy Companies”.

Yet customer service encompasses more worrying aspects of the current period. Digital advances have transformed the customer experience. People can now buy almost anything online from their home or smartphones. Businesses are reorienting themselves to confront this digital consumer revolution. Nevertheless, they are potentially using it to their advantage in ethically questionable ways. The internet has allowed organizations to collect information about costumers at an unprecedented rate. Timothy Morey and Allison Schoop discuss this issue in their article “Consumer Privacy in the Digital Age

Just as concerning is the application of costumer service models in an increasing number of organizations and areas of social life. The 21st century is marked by the so-called “marketization” of society. Here previously public institutions such as those associated with education and healthcare are either being explicitly privatized or are adopting market values. While the goal, at least rhetorically, is to improve efficiency and individual care, in practice this can cause serious problems. Geoff Sharrock investigates this trend in his article “Students aren’t customers…or are they?”

This article was written to accompany the Winter 2015-16 series of The Bottom Line.
For more information on the series, visit the series page.

 

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