Jolito Ortizo Padilla looks at the challenges in implementing a customer service quality assurance model within new contexts.
Mixed gender seating is acceptable in some Middle Eastern cities but separate seating areas for men and women are preferred in many areas in the region, with separate branches in Saudi Arabia.
Quality professionals find themselves in the welcome position of being asked to replicate a proven quality assurance function elsewhere. This could be within their organization , for a new employer or client or possibly even in a new country. While this can be an exciting challenge such a task must be approached and a quality professional needs to be aware of the potential pitfalls in implementing a standard solution in a new context.
A standard customer service quality assurance model is based on establishing service standards, measuring and reporting actual service delivery against those standards and realizing improvement opportunities. At its core are the service standards that define the objective measures of service delivery in the context of a specific market and the strategic objectives of the service provider in that market.Service standards also address the interaction between employees and customers and customers' satisfaction with the product and their delivery.
Measure encompasses the measurement of service delivery process times the measurement of service delivery at the point of customer contact( most commonly by mystery shopping) and the measurement of customer satisfaction and complaints including the time taken to close complaints. Reporting will be to senior management and the owners of the specific services whose performance is being reported.
Improvement action is driven by the service quality function that embodies three roles:
1. The service quality manager responsible for ensuring that standards, reporting and action are complete and effective.
2. Complaint management responsible for ensuring that all customer complaints are resolved effectively and are recorded analyzed and input to the service quality reporting.
3. Administration responsible for collecting performance data, producing reports and maintaining records.
Developing Local Standards
Developing service standards appropriate to an organization or market is part of developing the organization's overall business strategy. The quality professional will be part of the wider management team addressing this issue and considerations will include the position in the market that the organization seeks to achieve.
For example in the case of banking this positioning will affect the range and nature of products ( accounts, loans, savings, credit cards) , the delivery channels (branches , ATM, internet, telephone banking) and levels of service (queuing time, transaction time, product delivery time level of customer satisfaction and complaints).
The oobjective standards of service for the new market can be determined relatively easily once the organization's desired market position has been decided, key competitors have been identified and their levels of service have been assessed.
Taking loan application processing as an example, in a developing market taking ten days from application to the disbursement of funds into the customer's account might be quite acceptable for a middle market player. Conversely, in a sophisticated market such as in Kuwait, a customer who requires a loan for a new car will need and expect an instant decision in principle at the dealer's premises and disbursement within 24 hours.
The subjective service standards require careful development to balance their impact on customer satisfaction against cost. For a bank that is developing in a new market, some considerations for its indirect channels might be:
- ATMs: number and location , range of services , ease of use, reliability
- Telebanking: use of an interactive voice response system, range of services , efficiency and courtesy of agents, reliability
- Internet: speed of loading , ease of security access and navigation, range of services, reliability
The effciency and courtesy of agents brings us to the direct channel: the branch with its staff and facilities. In the US and the UK banking relationships tend to be remote and impersonal, with the majority of customers' satisfaction with the bank being carried out through the internet or at an ATM.
In the Middle East banking relationship tend to be highly personal- indeed loyalty may often be to an individual banker rather than to the institution, which means that branches are at the heart of the customer/bank relationship. Service standards related to branch staff must include appearance, customer interaction, speed, accuracy, courtesy and confidentiality. For the branch premises, service issues will include parking , seating, queuing arrangements, cleanliness, access to remote channels and availability of customer information.
Standards that exist in branches are subject to significant regional differences. For example:
- Parking : this is not an issue in Europe, but is critical in the Middle East where temperature can exceed 50 degree centigrade.
- Seating mixed gender: seating is acceptable in some Middle Eastern cities, but separate seating areas for men and women are preferred in many areas , with separate branches needed in Saudi Arabia.
- Waiting local preferences determine whether waiting in line is acceptable or whether a ticket system and adequate seating is necessary. Similarly, separate queues for nationals and non-nationals and for men and women will have to be considered.
- Customer information: in a few Arabic speaking countries such as Dubai, English may be quite acceptable , but elsewhere dual language or arabic only will be preferred.
Finaly, there are the issues of service standards for the customer -facing staff, the branch staff and the call center agents. Factors that are particularly influenced by cultural preferences in the Middle East are nationality language, forms of address and dress code. For example:
- Nationality local nationals will often be most appropriate for customer -facing positions
-Language customer facing staff should speak the local form of colloquial Arabic, although some cities in the Middle East where English is th customary language of business, English maybe quite acceptable.
- Forms of address where the customer's name is not known the initial form of address should conform to local custom. For example, in Kuwait, staff will commonly address customers as "my brother", "my sister" or "mother" , whereas in nearby Bahrain the equivalents of "sir" and "madam" will be used.
- Dress code where uniforms are not provided for customer-facing staff a dress code can be a potential minefield of cultural considerations particularly with female staff. National dress or a dark business suit is a rule that can safely be applied in most circumstances but there are always exceptions. For example, in Kuwait female staff are typically sophisticated , affluent and competitive. The local service standards for dress code are required to be very specific about what is acceptable and what is not regarding clothing , jewellery and make -up.
Service standards are simi;arly required for customer satisfaction and complaint management. These will generally be agreed at an organization level although there may be statutory requirements for complaint management in some countries.
Typically the local quality assurance team needs to report to the local CEO with a dotted line relationship to the central quality manager. The team will be selected from local personnel, mentored by the quality assurance procedures customized for the local function.
Particular consideration should be given to the complaint management function. Given that this is a key role when dealing ith the customer, cultural considerations have the significant influence. Generally customer prefer to deal with "one of their own", for example someone who can pseak the local form of colloquial Arabic. In close communities such as those found in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar the good social standing of the organization's representative is greatly valued.
In these and similar countries in the region, the complaints manager should comand respect and , to the greatest extent possible, be seen to speak with the authority of the senior management. An exception to this rule is Egypt where the reverse pertains : customers have less respect for a fellow Egyptians and prefer to take their complaints to a foreign, generally Western, senior company representative. In each implementation both local staff and customers need to be consulted on their preferences.
Measurement and Data Collection
Further cultural differences must be considered when it comes to monitoring the success of customer service . MEasurement requirements will usually be met by the following:
- Service delivery processes such as loan processing measured by end to end process time and error rate measurement.
- Customer facilities such as branches measured by a physical survey
- Customer/staff interaction measured by mystery shopping
- Customer view measured by satisfaction surveys, feedback via branch forms, telephone and internet surveys and complaints.
A number of issues may arise when rolling out standard service quality measurement in different geographies and cultures. For example:
- Process time and error rate data: common systems and data extraction tools may make this simple but, more frequently ad hoc solutions and considerable support to the staff concerned will be needed.
- Mystery Shopping: Mystery shopping of service outlets is best outsourced to specialist suppliers. In certain countries the selction of appropriate research agents is critical if they are not to be recognized as mystery shoppers. For example , in the small country of Kuwait , essentially a city state , branch staff in the conservative Jara area will immediately identify Kuwaitis from outside that area by subtle differences in dress, manner and accent.
- Customer satisfaction surveys: a standardized questionnaire that addresses the local service deliverables should form the basis of the survey.Local preferences may be for the survey to be conducted by telephone , by paper questionnaire or face to face. An externally sourced telephone interview tends to be acceptable to customers in all locations and provide reliable data.
Reporting , Action and Review
Reporting and reviewing the performance of the local service quality deliverables will usually below the standardized format developed by the central quality professional. Presentation will be to the senior management team and any attempt by local mamangement to relegate service quality reporting to a lower level should be resisted. As with the other management issues , action will be agreed , documented and folloed up through senior management team meetings. The central quality professional will ensure that action is effective and overall service quality meets the standard agreed by management.
Some of the issues in replicating a proven quality assurance model have been discussed here. But perhaps the most fascinating of these issues are those related to the diverse people and cultures encountered that make each project a unique and enjoyable challenge for the quality professional involved.