Published: December 06, 2017 | Comments
This article was updated 6/17/2022.
With customer expectations evolving so quickly, we’re often asked a basic (and important!) question: What is quality in customer service? Related questions often follow: Who determines what quality is? How should we define it? What guidelines or specifications should we establish to manage and measure it?
Given how fast services are evolving, these questions have never been as important as now. Let’s look at what quality means and where quality standards should come from. We’ve probably all heard or used the term quality in a general sense: “I need some quality sports headphones.” Or, “Their service team does a quality job every time.”
What we really mean is, high quality, or exceptional quality. Quality is, simply, the attributes of a product or service. So, to define what great quality means, we need a point of reference. That’s where standards come in.
Standards refer to the requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics established for customer service. Standards should reflect and provide guidance on what needs to happen — what we want to apply or replicate — across all customer interactions. They should provide a template that leads to consistent service.
There are three major sources of input for establishing quality standards:
One is customer expectations. With service, unlike manufacturing, there is no tangible product. So there are many ways to approach quality in this context. But researchers and practitioners alike agree that customer expectations must form the basis for defining quality standards in customer service.
Accordingly, we can define service quality as “The customer’s perception of how well our service meets his or her expectations.” Both the services we deliver and the expectations we help to create are important aspects of quality.
Mission, vision and values
A second source of input for establishing quality standards is the organization’s mission, vision and values. Every organization, in any industry, whether small or large, public or private, has a unique personality. It should be reflected in quality standards.
The century-old financial services company Northwestern Mutual has built a brand of safety and stability. Formal, effective professionalism matching this image is integral to their services.
Moo.com, a London-based print-on-demand company, encourages their team to (in their words) be passionate, lovely and ambitious. Their mantra is, “We’re not happy until you’re happy”, and their quality standards lead to services that, like the company name, are more playful than those of many other firms.
In both examples, quality standards create effective services that are right for these organizations’ brands. Both have high standards. But can you imagine the customer confusion if they were to swap quality standards for a day?
A company’s mission, vision and values are not standards, per se. They are generally not specific enough. But when direction and values are inculcated into a culture — when they are reinforced at every level — they powerfully guide decisions and behavior. They inform the development of quality standards and make them far easier to implement.
A third source of input into quality standards are stakeholders. Stakeholder refers broadly to anyone or any group that has an interest or concern in an organization. Employees, shareholders, suppliers, government, industry associations, and the community, are all stakeholders. This source of input shapes many of the quality standards we’ll need to establish related to compliance — those that we have to get right.
For example, various government agencies administer privacy and security regulations in financial, healthcare and other sectors. These requirements must be built into internal quality standards, given the risks of non-compliance.
In another example, evaluation sources in the travel sector, such as Michelin and Forbes, rate hotels, typically up to 5 stars. The Forbes Travel Guide uses more than 800 standards as part of their assessment. Many are very specific—for example, for a five-star rating arriving guests must be greeted and provided assistance within 60 seconds, phone calls are not to be left on hold for longer than 30 seconds without offering a callback, and many others. Since ratings significantly influence a hotel’s marketing and revenue, quality standards should reflect requirements aligned with the appropriate level of service.
It’s important to remember, your agents are also stakeholders. They have incredible insight into what customers need and want, because they spend time with them every day. And the more involved they are in establishing your quality standards, the greater the likelihood they’ll buy into and support them.
Effective quality standards bring together and reflect input from all three of these sources: customer expectations, the organization’s mission and vision, and stakeholders. Your quality standards will be unique to your organization, because they reflect your brand and customers.