“Hey customer, are you talkin’ to me?”

A relentless focus on customer experience has guided the rise and rise of Apple to the point where it is now poised to become  (by market capitalisation) the most valuable company in the world. According to CEO Steve Jobs: “You have got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology – not the other way round.” The marriage of an enjoyable user experience with a series of sleek, super-desirable products has turbo-charged the fortunes of Apple over the last decade, which is today worth north of US$274 billion.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Travis Bickle needed work on his telephone manner.

I could not help comparing Jobs’ words with my recent experience as a customer of Sky. (Rest assured, I do not intend to risk extreme somnolence in my kind readers by detailing my many calls to Sky’s customer care team, their inability to resolve the issue or even offer a satisfactory explanation of why the matter was taking so long). But the problems with customer service begin, in my view, with the disconnect between what companies promise and what they deliver. This is what Sky says about itself…

Because we never forget that Sky is a choice, we put customers first and work hard to earn their trust. We make our products affordable so millions can join in. And we back it all up with a commitment to exceptional customer service.

‘Working hard’, ‘trust’, ‘putting customers first’ and ‘a commitment to exceptional customer service’. Such platitudes are the hyperbolic furniture of web welcome pages and marketing materials of most modern companies. Unfortunately, they can ring hollow when set against a disappointing customer experience.

The sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the terms “emotional labour” to describe how employees working in face-to-face roles (Hochschild considered flight attendants) or in contact centre settings are required to cultivate a warm and empathetic persona which is intended to create a positive emotional state in the customer. Such employees should “speak as if you are smiling” and to ‘act’ out an engaged, cheerful and helpful manner. They are expected to do so while remaining thoroughly professional at all times. Sociologists distinguish between ‘surface acting’ (the affectation of empathy) and so-called ‘deep acting’, which uses techniques similar to those employed by method actors, such as Robert De Niro, and is more emotionally draining.

I do not know whether Sky customer service people employ surface or deep acting techniques but, whichever it is, they failed comprehensively to evoke a positive emotional state in this caller. But at least I will know to remain polite at all times should I ever have need to call in the future. You really don’t want to make Travis Bickle angry.

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