x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Firms need to get it right when it comes to helping customers

Is the customer always right? Maybe they are, maybe they are not, but here in the UAE experts say customer service has to improve a lot before a company can honestly answer that question.

A bank teller attends to customers in Dubai. Consultants say customer service in the UAE needs to improve or it might hurt profits.
A bank teller attends to customers in Dubai. Consultants say customer service in the UAE needs to improve or it might hurt profits.

The customer is always right. Right? Or at least that is the mantra by which many global businesses live.

But that is not always the case in the UAE, according to consultants. They say customer service in the country needs to rapidly improve before it begins to take a bite out of company profits.

A study this year by the professional services firm Ernst & Young entitled Retail Banking in the GCC: Competing for Customers, found that 25 per cent of customers in the region plan to switch banks by the end of the year - double the level of consumers in Asia and Europe. And the standard of service is a major factor in the UAE.

Tarek Sultani, the managing director of Siegel+Gale, a consultancy in Dubai, spoke this week at a forum on how to improve customer service at banks, which have been a frequent target of complaints. He says that with the advent of social media, more banks are looking at ways to improve customer service through those channels.

In the US, both Bank of America and Citibank have set up Twitter accounts with teams solely dedicated to complaints from customers, but banks in the UAE have been more reluctant to embrace the trend.

"When it's on the phone with a bank or insurance provider you play customer service tag going from one person to another," Mr Sultani says. "You actually get surprised if your customer service is pretty good in the UAE."

Siegel+Gale recommends customers use social networking sites such as Twitter and the print media to complain about bad customer service. At the end of the day, however, companies have a reason to improve.

"Let's not be naive. It's a core business function, it's not something altruistic. It affects your bottom line," Mr Sultani says.

Investing in customer service is not a trend exclusive to retail banks. Many other companies are now beginning to recognise the benefit of developing an ethos of exceptional service.

Andrew Hurt, the general manager of Xerox Emirates, has put customer service at the heart of the group's new strategy in the UAE.

"We're building a service culture which understands what our customer expects," Mr Hurt says. "We need to continually upgrade our service because customers' perceptions always change."

The company offers clients a number of technology services such as business process outsourcing and document filing.

Mr Hurt says the culture has to start with the company's employees, who should take responsibility for providing and building upon first-class service.

The company has implemented a hot desk policy in the office so employees sit next to different people, with each person's perception of customer service rubbing off on the other.

Michael Lorrigan, the managing director of Spearhead, a business provider based in Dubai, believes a culture of customer service has not been ingrained in the UAE because many managers do not focus on what motivates their staff.

"If you go to the malls, you see staff working long hours, often seven days a week, with little holiday," Mr Lorrigan says. "What do you expect from them other than poor customer service?"

Mr Lorrigan says a company role should cover at least four of the following points to motivate an employee. It should involve an element of responsibility, offer a sense of achievement, provide opportunities for promotion, grow the employee personally, give recognition when due, and the actual work should appeal to the individual.

While training staff at a five-star hotel recently, Mr Lorrigan asked to visit the accommodation of the service staff at the mall and was appalled to see four employees, one of whom was a supervisor, all living in one room.

"You had the supervisor living in the same room as the people he was supervising," Mr Lorrigan says. "Investing in your staff is important, because if their productivity increases, so does your revenue."

rjones@thenational.ae