By Daniel Hunter

As Britain readies to serve the world at the London Olympics, new research reveals a pressing lack of engagement among UK frontline service staff.

Consumers complain of bored and disinterested staff working in high street shops and utilities companies, according to the study among 2,000 consumers by the Institute of Customer Service.

Meanwhile, UK businesses may be missing an opportunity to maximize revenues, as one in four consumers are willing to pay more for their goods and services — on average 5% more — for better service.

The research also reveals the extent to which ‘moments of truth’ — particularly good or bad customer service experiences — stick in the mind of consumers, driving them to spend and recommend, or the opposite.

Are you being served?

The Institute measured engagement levels of customer-facing staff by asking consumers to rate service personnel on a range of relevant factors, from the passion, enthusiasm and boredom levels, to the knowledgeability, helpfulness, and sense of pride they display.

Retail and utilities fared worst, with enthusiasm (6.3) and passion for the job (6.2) rated poorly on a scale of one to ten.

When asked how bored employees seemed, consumers rated staff in high street retail as 5.7 and utilities companies as 5.1.

At the opposite end of the scale, perhaps surprisingly consumers rate banks highly in terms of staff engagement, finding their customer services professionals to be the most friendly (7.8), helpful (7.7) and enthusiastic (7.1).

Paying for service

One in four consumers (24%) would be prepared to pay more for an excellent service experience; on average 5% more, but ranging in some instances to as much as 10%.

Ultimately, consumers want the right balance between price and service, the study reveals. When asked to choose a point on a scale between those two factors, the largest proportion of consumers chose a middling 5 or 6.

“In this difficult economic environment, service is the critical differentiator for businesses," Jo Causon, Chief Executive of the Institute of Customer Service, commented.

"To make the most of this, companies need to train and motive staff to go the extra mile, while tailoring their service based on a firm understanding of what customers actually want.

“Even in these cost-conscious times, consumers still want the right balance between price and service. Those companies that can encourage staff to create a positive buying experience are more likely to retain customers and reap the financial rewards.”

Moments of truth

The research suggests that it is the exceptionally good and bad experiences that customers remember, with these ‘moments of truth’ ultimately driving consumer behaviour.

Almost a third (29%) of consumers have had a memorable service experience within the last 6 months, but worryingly only 57% of these interactions were positive, whilst 43% were negative.

Two thirds of the time those memorable experiences with banks or insurers were positive (63% and 65% respectively). Yet, when it comes to utilities companies, customers reported more bad experiences (57%) than good (43%).

As well as the reputational effect of these experiences, ‘moments of truth’ also affect actual consumer behaviour and buying intentions.

Two thirds (66%) of those who had a good experience with a company have recommended the organisation to their peers.

But similarly, almost two thirds (61%) of customers that had a bad experience stopped doing business with the organisation, and a similar proportion (67%) spread negative word of mouth about the company.

“Ultimately, creating a good service experience has positive outcomes for organisations, while a bad experience makes costly, negative consumer behaviour far more likely," Jo Causon added.

"Companies are clearly still failing to realise the financial importance of good customer service, and communicate this to staff.

“Firms must do all they can to ensure their employees are engaged and committed to delivering the highest possible service quality. This will result in an engaged, energised workforce and a more profitable company.”

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