Technology can seem to improve workflow and business processes, to reduce administrative overheads and errors. But do they improve customer service?

I read with some amusement, and perhaps a tinge of sadness, a recent piece of news that a leader sang praise about how training and technology can empower employees in the hospitality industry to improve customer interactions and service.

Unfortunately, this rhetoric went back more than 2 decades, and has customer service improved? Not really, in my opinion. And when I shared conversations with many people casually, some have mentioned customer service may even be at all time low. Some advocates may say that customer service has improved but it is just surpassed by others. But looking and running backwards would not win races.

Way back in the nineties, when I was involved in the field of customer service, I did not imagine service lapses to be solely the responsibility of frontline employees, but very much the entire business process and starts at the echelons of management in an organization.

All too often, as a curriculum developer and strategist, I hear some executives insist on “training” their frontline employees to “make them better at serving customers”. Yes, you can create stop-gap and short-term classroom learning programs aimed to give a temporary “high” to frontline employees, but unless the fundamental problems are solved, they will continue to be challenged by ill-engineered workflow and systems, and cannot keep up appearances to serve customers better. Employees are not pets – they are equally precious people like anyone imagining themselves to be.

When I was researching on customer service excellence, I continue to be delighted by excellent customer service in endearing scenes abroad, and right here.

I have experienced completely “low-tech” small businesses, such as food stalls, tiny shops in neighborhood malls, and mechanics in small workshops, providing extraordinary service – just by being genuine, professional, and warm. These frontline people will remember your preferences, and even politely ask for and remember who you are, and have empowered gestures within their means, that all go a long way. Quite many of them have become friends. I have seen these heartfelt service first hand, right here, and abroad in places like Taiwan and Japan.

Conversely, I have also experienced the most “high-tech” establishments, often larger ones, with fancy wireless tablets, touch-screen graphic terminals, portable wireless headsets and announcement systems, rendering abysmal service. Some of these frontline employees behave like overlords, with superfluous and pretentious lingo, but “soulless” service. Worse, these establishments can be very expensive, and have not given me any incentive to ever return again.

From my decades of personal and professional consulting experiences, I still find that when you strip away all the superficial layers of technology, processes, systems, and what have you, what matters most is how a person engaged you as a fellow human being. Respect and culture may play a great part, and the answer to excellent customer service surely is embedded in there somewhere.

Excellent customer service you say? Just be a professional, genuine and warm person, treat each other respectfully, and you may already have leaped ahead of those weighted down by mere technology and thick operation manuals.

PS – 少々お待ちください (Shosho omachi kudasai) – Kindly hold.