Does Recession Hurt Customer Service? Print E-mail
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Written by Susan Mucha   
Wednesday, 31 December 2008 19:00

Candidness both inside and outside the office will hold surliness at bay.




Focus on BusinessYou’d think that fear of job loss would motivate employees to work harder to take care of customers, but it isn’t always the case. I saw this phenomenon earlier this year while flying almost weekly on my favorite airline. Flight attendants and gate agents were practically surly. One gate agent used the loudspeaker to lecture business travelers on why they shouldn’t be bothering him about whether their upgrades had come through. What was the reason? Layoffs were rumored and there was a lot of job uncertainty. Employees were frustrated, and focused those frustrations on people who couldn’t fire them: their customers. Interestingly, once the layoffs were announced, customer service improved dramatically. The uncertainty was gone and people were either building resumes or doing their best to get high performance ratings.

Many EMS companies are also having layoffs. I’m sure many managers aged 50-plus would question my thesis that employees react to uncertain job security by being rude to customers. The reality is employees in that age bracket likely do see the connection between satisfied customers and job security. But in our multigenerational workplace, younger employees may not. These employees expect to change jobs seven or eight times in their careers and tend to react negatively when they perceive their efforts aren’t valued.

So how do you ensure that customers see the best, even when the workplace is stressed?

First, keep communication lines open. Well-run companies communicate well in good and bad times. This behavior is most important in bad times. Periodic employee update meetings, brown bag lunch discussions with the CEO, open-door sessions with a rotating group of employees, company newsletters, intranet updates and regular supervisor briefings are all good ways to provide information updates in uncertain times. If you initiate this level of communication in response to a business downturn, remember to keep the elements that work well when the business recovers.

Second, be as candid as company disclosure policy will allow. Publicly traded companies have requirements on information disclosure that may limit what can be said internally to what has been released externally. Customers must understand employees understand the challenges, the recovery plan and their role in returning the company to profitability. Adversity is easier faced as a focused team. External announcements should always be coordinated with complementary internal announcements. Nothing is worse than an employee hearing bad news first from a customer or friend outside the company.

Third, put yourself in your employees’ place. You may have savings and a game plan for job loss, but many workers don’t. Employee age is no indication of level of preparedness. Worse, the most loyal older employees may have the financial resources to sustain a few months of unemployment, but no idea how to market themselves to potential employers in a widespread economic downturn. Your best strategy is to give employees as much notice as possible and provide internal resources to help employees with job searches or résumé development. Make sure employees are well versed on such issues as 401(k) rollovers and continuing health benefit options. Poorly informed laid-off employees can make financial mistakes that have serious, long-term consequences. Have a multigenerational communication strategy that addresses the different information needs of varying age groups, as the information needs of a 20-something employee are likely much different than that of someone in their 40s or 50s. A contract outplacement service can smooth the transition to a new job search and build some goodwill into a highly negative situation. Remember, if your recovery plan works, you may want to hire some of those employees back. A bad exit makes that impossible and may generate negative word-of-mouth that makes hiring harder when conditions improve.

Fourth, pay special attention to employees charged with customer service. Make sure customer feedback mechanisms provide early warning if service is dropping. That may be a monthly survey or assigning a few key members of senior management to touch base with each customer once every few months. When major business condition announcements are made, inform customer service employees with a special meeting or email, and also consider sending a management email directly to customers with a copy to relevant program and sales managers for each account.

Finally, maintain a positive attitude. Businesses contract and expand as part of a normal lifecycle. Layoffs are often the first step in a return to health. Nervous employees take their attitude cues from senior management. Ensure sacrifices are visible throughout the company, not simply in the rank and file. While EMS doesn’t have the management perk excesses of some industries, employees will be more motivated to look for ways to save money if they see a focus on frugality across the board. Expect some venting, but discourage continuous negativity or the corporate version of reality show Survivor’s “voting off the island” political gamesmanship. Plan for a rehire and/or reward system for employees who have been laid off, worked longer hours or taken a salary cut to support the recovery effort. Good management during bad times generates virtually no extra cost and tends to pay large dividends.

Susan Mucha is  president of Powell-Mucha Consulting Inc.; ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Her new book, Find It. Book It. Grow It. A Robust Process for Account Acquisition in Electronics Manufacturing Services, is available through barnesandnoble.com, amazon.com, IPC and SMTA.

 

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