By Jean Martin, Executive Director; Dr. Ken Lahti, Vice President of Product Development & Innovation; and Matt Dixon, Executive Director, CEB

We have all heard friends and colleagues complain about the pains of phoning the customer services desk – no one can help, representatives robotically repeat the same things and it ends up being a waste of time and effort. In this situation, many customers even make good on their threat to leave the provider and take their business elsewhere.

So in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, what is the secret to retaining customers and growing business when customers are more fickle than ever? Make it easy for people to do business with you.

Turns out, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Every time that someone speaks to a customer service representative, it can be dangerous. These interactions are actually four times more likely to lead to disloyalty than loyalty, meaning that companies get service wrong much more often than they get it right.

So where does it all go so badly wrong? Today’s customers expect a more tailored and personalised experience, and are more demanding than ever before. And most companies mistakenly focus on “delighting” customers – attempting to exceed their expectations and create a spectacular and unforgettable experience – as the solution.

Unfortunately, a “delight” strategy will almost never be successful. The reality is, today’s customers’ expectations are so high that they are only exceeded 16% of the time, on average. While customers might like the “perks” offered through loyalty rewards programs or by reaching platinum member status, at the end of the day, they just want to get where they are going as efficiently and effectively as possible with no hiccups along the way.

In the old world, retailers strove for “consistency” in customer service, and this drove who was hired and how they were trained. As a result, they often ended up with robotic or inflexible sales and service reps, and customers who felt that the retailer didn’t care.

The damage is done at the ‘computer says no’ moment, when someone is told that what they are asking for cannot be done, because it’s not in the manual and the person they are dealing with would not go beyond the letter of their specific instructions.

This approach must be left behind. Companies need to give frontline staff much more control over the service interaction. By freeing employees to exercise their own judgment, and by encouraging colleagues to learn from each other too, they will focus on solving customers’ needs, not just going through the motions.

Take for example Advance Auto Parts, the largest automotive after-market parts provider in North America, with over 5,200 stores and 70,000 team members. The company focuses on making sure customers get what they need when they visit the store.

Tonya Baker, senior manager of talent acquisition systems & assessments at Advance Auto Parts, says that “above and beyond” starts with mastering the basics and getting that right. Baker puts it simply: “As a team member in our stores, the job is not just to give a customer what they asked for, but everything they need to be successful in their projects.”

In other words, they make it easy to do business with them.

So how can other companies also get there? People are always key, but hiring the right customer services reps is often easier said than done. To get it right, companies have to start by objectively defining the skills and behaviours they are looking for and assess all applicants against those. In particular, simulation-based exercises, usually in an interactive video game-like context, can be invaluable in helping understand how candidates are likely to apply their judgment and respond to pressures and common challenges when dealing with customers. For existing employees, similar assessments can be used to inform development programs specifically designed to build these problem-solving and interaction skills.

In short, to avoid fruitless hours on the phone, streams of complaints and lost customers, hire the right employees and give them the freedom to provide high-quality service. Only then will we see the end of the ‘computer says no’ culture – and it cannot come soon enough.