Stop Callilng Customer Service a Skill

Is there anything on a CV that could be less descriptive – or inspiring – than the all-encompassing ‘skill’, ‘customer service’?

Is the person who claims that ability one who might have once ignored me when I entered their store? Or forgot my order until I gave up on receiving it? Or couldn’t answer a product question including one as basic as price? Or was too busy telling me what to do to actually listen to my query? Or completed an entire transaction for me while talking to someone else?

‘Customer service’ is the skill you claim when you don’t have the technical skills for any job but the low-skilled ones. What does it consist of, after all? Following a series of low-level, repetitive tasks while carrying out routine communication peppered with perfunctory conversation.

As competition intensifies, organisations are amping up their customer service levels, using the ‘last mile’ of the customer experience to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Given the consistent low levels of satisfaction of service in Australia, their efforts are not as effective as they might believe. ‘Customer service’ as little more than carrying out a series of tasks, prescribed by the top, and performed identically between companies isn’t much of a selling point. As a simple test, how many times has a customer touchpoint left you less than satisfied – and crucially, with you spending less (if anything at all) than you had set out to do?


The “State of Customer Service in Australia Report” reveals critical gaps between customer service expectations of excellence, ease and accessibility and the disappointing realities associated with a lack of consistencies and response.


It turns out that people do like being served by people – especially when they are their own server. When ATMs first appeared on the scene, many were sceptical that people would prefer to visit a machine instead of deal with a real person. However, even when ATMs were located at a bank branch, customers would still opt for the machine. Similar questions were raised when Amazon launched. Who would buy books and CDs online, never mind more personal items like clothes? Millions, actually, to the chagrin of many a traditional retailer.

McDonald’s success has been as much because of this understanding as any other: straws, serviettes, salt – help yourself. While some establishments ration the ancillary items to customers, McDonald’s offers customers the ability to decide for themselves, and a sense of generosity. It also moves people through the system more efficiently, which of course is part of their service promise.

Most ‘customer service’ isn’t ‘serving’ it’s ‘customer processing’. You can see it a mile away: procedures kicking into action as soon as a human appears. What companies are paying for is emotional labour. The term ’emotional labour’, introduced by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, describes how workers are expected to manage their feelings in line with organisationally defined rules and to gain management favour.

Apart from processing humans through the customer production line, what exactly do servers do as part of their customer service ‘skills’? The general expectation is they will add some interaction to the transaction with a little courtesy, pleasantness and efficiency. Relying on people to be nice doesn’t make for a great business strategy.

Companies know this. That’s why, despite everything they say, they do their best to minimise their investment in the servers. The service workers are always the next-to-lowest paid group in the organisation, often casual so they can be given minimum hours. They do get training, so they better comply with company procedures, but being unskilled workers, rarely do they have the opportunity for professional development.

Meanwhile companies are busy looking into all the ways they can automate or re-engineer the tasks customer service workers do. Customer service workers can’t win. Elevating their skills, status and pay only gives employers an incentive to invest in automation and smart technology. Customer service becomes less a job and more a ransom note.


Of course there are stories of great customer service. These come in two varieties. The first is the one where workers take matters into their own hands. In the absence – or often in defiance – of a company rule, they will make a decision that makes sense when all factors are considered. The second type is when the company structures itself around the customer, including in the rules it makes for its servers.

With the second type, the online fashion company, Zappos, is the one that comes most readily to mind. The company was designed to make its very purpose about service to customers. Its customer-centric practices have been extensively reported in articles like this, this and this, and on its own website.

Customer service isn’t a skill unless it is performed in an organisation that treats customer service as an organisational philosophy. The growth of human-centred design recognises that no organisation can truly deliver on its customer service promises – at least not on par with the intensifying market competition – unless customer service is embedded in its DNA.

As the world turns increasingly digital, customer service will become a key differentiator for companies. Not as it has been in the past; companies relying on their under-paid, over-(physically and emotionally) burdened workers. It’s not mandating sequence of service rules and procedures, designed to treat all customers as one homogeneous mass as it is to save costs.

Organisations that tell the service teams what they can and can’t do get in the way of their own service promises. Real customer service isn’t a smile and personality traits purchased at a minimum wage. Customer service isn’t what companies tell their customers it is; it comes from how customers perceive they were treated.

Digital technology is going to continue to change the landscape of service. Predictive analytics and bots are just two of the advanced technologies that will enable customers to enjoy more personalised, values-aligned and timely experiences. Customers don’t want people to perform perfunctory, programmed, narrowly defined tasks – they can find product information, check stock availability, and complete ordering and payment for themselves.

Customers want people to provide the things that can’t be programmed. When every company is using more or less the same technologies, the greatest source of competitive advantage will come from the things only people can do. The companies that invest in a service culture – so that servers have the discretion to actually serve – instead of in procedures and routines, have everything to gain.

Unlike the industrial age, the ‘last mile’ of customer service won’t be adding a friendly face to the end of the production line. It will be people with the ability to diagnose and discover the needs of each individual customer, to analyse and understand how the company’s offering can best be offered to the customer, the organisational know-how to synthesise problems with solutions, and the authority to make decisions in favour of company and customer alike.

Treating customer service as a skilled position, not the vague collection of customer-oriented tasks, is critical to successful digital transformations. Why are so many transformation projects failing? Because they are too focused on the technology. We have to relearn how to let human workers look after human customers as people, not procedures. After the past 200 years of diminishing people into job titles, siloed functions and repetitive tasks, we have all but forgotten the capability of people beyond the hierarchies and controlling systems.

In a service culture, servers do need skills beyond knowing the routine and completing transactions. They need creative problem-solving skills, empathetic information gathering abilities, business acumen, analytical decision-making capabilities, negotiation and persuasion, the digital mindset that knows how to make the most of data and systems. They need skills to self-manage and self-assess their impact. They need the skills to operate under core principles and broad guidelines. They need the skills to build and act on trust.

So, don’t call customer service a ‘skill’ unless it really is one.

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