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The How-To: Avoiding UAE Customer Service Pitfalls What your company can do to bridge that gap and avoid complaints about poor customer service.

By Tanvir Haque

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Frustrations with poor customer service and therefore a terrible customer experience, are common the world over and the UAE is no exception. Across all sectors, the Emirates achieves a disappointingly average customer service rating of "moderate' according to the annual UAE Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI), published by Kuwait-based Service Hero. Over all dimensions of customer service, there is a negative gap of -6.7 between expectation and reality. And while a gap of up to -3 is acceptable, according to the index, the figures clearly show that the UAE has a long way to go.

But as Accenture's Global Consumer Pulse Survey 2017 states, "there is remarkably little change in the past three years in terms of the things companies do to frustrate their customers regarding customer service.' This seems particularly alarming, especially as their research also shows that the customer service environment today is characterized by constantly rising customer expectations. According to their 2017 survey, companies are finding themselves in a catch-22. "The more they do to satisfy their customers, the more demanding those customers become.'

So, what are the most common frustrations in the UAE?

Here, I'll take a look at four of the worst and examine what your company can do to bridge that gap and avoid complaints about poor customer service.

1. Having to contact a company multiple times for the same reason: According to Consumer Service, a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) customer service portal dedicated to highlighting emerging industry trends and developments, complaints are commonly ignored. In one local UAE bank, for example, despite several reminders, "the majority of customer complaints were not entertained'. Let that sink in for a second: not just one or two complaints – which would still be one or two too many – but the majority.

Globally, according to Accenture's 2017 survey, this is the single most frustrating aspect of poor customer service, with a staggering 82% rating it as either frustrating or extremely frustrating. This suggests that companies are failing to integrate their customer service systems, making it difficult, if not impossible, for staff to track complaints at all touch points throughout the customer experience, meaning that they're forgotten about or simply lost.

How can you avoid this trap?
However well-intentioned you may be, if you don't have the back-office systems to manage complaints effectively, customers will think that you simply don't care and will defect. Here, the UAE CSI gives customer service staff a score of -6.1, well below the acceptable level of -3. It's therefore essential to have systems in place that can successfully log complaints across multiple channels, from phone to website to social media, so they can be followed up and dealt with professionally.

A 2016 publication Determinants of Customer Satisfaction in Call Centres analyzed several studies on this subject with significant results. It found that the "first call resolution' was the key driver of customer satisfaction. The ideal situation? The first agent responding resolves the issue. The study accepted, however, that customer service teams often have technical issues meaning that transferring calls to specialists is required; even in this case, if the issue is resolved eventually in that same first call, satisfaction is generally achieved.

The key point in this is that customers who abandon their call are dissatisfied, but even in the face of technical difficulties and call transfers, satisfaction largely depends on resolving the issue and providing quality information in the first interaction.

2. Websites failing to deliver what customers want: Despite Accenture's findings that 83% of US consumers prefer dealing with human beings over digital channels, customers nevertheless want information quickly, and are likely to try your website first to find answers. If you want to prevent these customers from going elsewhere, or indeed want to convert first-time visitors to your site into paying customers, those answers need to be readily available.

But in the UAE, the website experience comes second-last for customer satisfaction, and on the UAE CSI, it registers a negative score of -7.3 between expectation and reality. On a global scale, Accenture's 2017 survey reveals that frustration at dealing with self-help sites that can't answer customer questions ranks at equal fourth, with 78% of respondents citing it as either frustrating or extremely frustrating.

How can you avoid this?
Create an intuitive website: make it easy for visitors to find exactly what they want. A search tool on your site which consistently delivers a response of "no answers found' when customers type in common problems will drive them to the phone, enraged. This suggests that your company neither understands the customer experience, nor cares very much about it. At the very least, make sure the search engine on your website provides answers to the most common one hundred problems or questions.

If you still encounter complaints, it makes sense to apologize and remedy the issue as quickly as possible. Remember, converting your existing customers into loyal ones has a profound impact on profits: as Janelle Barlow and Dianna Maul point out in their book Emotional Value: Creating Strong Bonds with Your Customers, "the profit made from a single interaction with a customer who has stayed loyal for seven years is six times more than the profit made from a new customer'.

3. Being kept on hold for long periods: Once customers have visited your website only to discover that they can't find what they want, they will take to the phone. By doing so, they'll potentially expose themselves to yet another serious customer-service frustration: interminable call-queuing.

Long periods spent waiting for a human voice rates as one of the most irritating facets of poor customer service from a global perspective.

And things aren't improving: in Accenture's Global Consumer Pulse Survey 2013, 62% rated it as extremely frustrating, putting it in second place on the list of most frustrating customer-service experiences; fast-forward to their 2017 report, and it still held joint second place but was now rated by 79% of respondents as frustrating or extremely frustrating.

Here in the UAE, with call centers showing a negative value of -4.6, it's below the acceptable levels cited by the CSI.

How can you limit this?
Firstly, make it easier to reach a human being quickly: training and empowering all staff to handle customer service calls at busy periods can help, as can allocating more resources to handle calls more quickly. Secondly, if callers must be kept on hold, simply apologize for the delay and don't tell them they can find answers to their questions more quickly on the website – they've most likely already tried that, which is why they're calling.

Thirdly – and this links to the above point – improve the help section on your website. According to research by the Harvard Business Review, if you do this you can reduce calls by 5%. This may not seem a huge amount, but it can translate to significantly less pressure on your resources and a better overall customer experience.

Finally, refrain from antagonizing customers further by telling them their call is important. If they've been left hanging on the phone long enough to receive this message, all it serves to do is to remind them that their call clearly isn't that important.

4. The wrong person for the job: Simply put, many call centers and customer service teams employ the wrong people. Particularly for "first line' positions, pay-grades and requirements are generally low. Customer service is often an entry-level area that nevertheless can save or cost a business significantly dependent on performance. Although intense training and recruitment processes can screen poor candidates in a role that requires less experience, many CSR roles are filled with individuals who do not possess the characteristics required for customer service excellence.

A 2012 article published in the Journal of Service Theory and Practice addressed this. Speaking on the key personality traits of a customer service worker, a distinct set of characteristics were found. The ideal CSR is more: "conscientious, optimistic, intrinsically motivated, tender-minded, deferential, conventional and willing to serve other people'.

Many centers will have one or several of these ideal individuals. Reliably recruiting more of them can be achieved by creating "selection profiles' based on these people. You must identify the required talents and work processes required for exceptional results in this quantifiable manner; any other approach will likely prove unsatisfactory.

Beyond this, measuring performance fairly, cultivating a positive work environment and paying high-performing CSRs appropriately for the enormous financial value they may contribute to a company are key considerations in retention.

Bucking the trend
With an average negative gap of -6.7 in the UAE, it's clear that many companies in the region are not only unable to meet rising customer expectations across all dimensions of service delivery but are struggling even to tread water.

But this also gives you the opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. The 2017 American Express Customer Service Barometer found that consumers were willing to spend 17% more to do business with companies that are known to deliver excellent service. If, then, the average customer service score in the UAE is so far in the negative, it would stand to reason that if you are among the small percentage that offers a positive experience you are going to reap the rewards of loyalty and enhanced profits.

And that's why customer service, as part of your overall customer experience strategy, should be one of your biggest priorities moving forward.

Related: Four Strategies To Boost Employee Engagement That Can Improve Your Bottom Line

Tanvir Haque

Partner at Freshstone Consulting

Tanvir Haque is a Partner at Freshstone Consulting. He thrives on developing customer-centric business relationships, and  focuses on revolutionising customer experience and driving companies' digital transformation plans. With a career spanning back more than 20 years, Haque’s experience has been gathered in professional services, banking, and telecommunications, having worked with PwC in Sydney, Andersen in Sydney and London, and Standard Chartered Bank in London. He relocated to Dubai in 2008 and spent a number of years advising and consulting international businesses on how to drive growth before joining Lifecare in 2015. He graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the Australian National University in his home town of Canberra and is a qualified Chartered Accountant and a member of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand.

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