Customer Service Orientation

No1 in the series on aspects of Customer Service Personality

Of all the facets of personality that are fundamental to outstanding customer service delivery, Customer Service Orientation is arguably the most elemental.  By that I mean, even if an employee has every other quality in abundance, if they yet lack Customer Service Orientation, they may struggle to deliver excellent customer service. 

For example, a customer service representative could be highly resilient, have a strong drive to achieve and possess a good degree of interpersonal understanding, but if they do not also have a real commitment to customer service and a motivation to please the customer, when more challenging customer interactions occur, they may find that they cannot effectively tune into or deliver what customers seem to want.  

Not only that, but it tends to be very clear to customers when a customer service representative is particularly high or low on Customer Service Orientation. It determines both effort and time given to listening and trying to help the customer and so tends to be a primary feature of the customer service interaction for customers.  Because of this, it is likely to be one of the most significant contributors to how the customer feels about their contact with the organisation and has the potential to shape their overall evaluation of the organisation.

What Exactly is Customer Service Orientation?

Customer Service Orientation, or by some of its other names, Service Orientation, Customer Focus, Customer Excellence etc, is the psychological manifestation of  the belief that customers and their perspectives are of the highest value and consequence in an organisation. 

Any description of Customer Service Orientation would therefore draw on values, feelings, attitudes and preferred patterns of responsive and proactive behaviour that predispose an individual to the delivery of outstanding customer service. 

The term “orientation” conveys a sense of direction or movement towards, as in the sense of moving towards the customer and heightening engagement.  It also has echoes of “the way we are facing”, suggesting people who are turned towards, and therefore can be observant of, the customer.

These features may sound esoteric and overly detailed, but they are key aspects of the characteristic and useful in appreciating its distinct nature as a motivational tendency.  An understanding of all of these contributing features of the characteristic is invaluable to organisations that are serious about resourcing the best service providers. We need to fully understand what makes the difference to customers, to be able to spot its presence in potential employees.

To offer a generic definition of Customer Service Orientation, it might read as follows:

“the prioritisation of the customer at every point and  the motivation to deliver outstanding customer service that meets and exceed customer expectations”

It could be further defined with reference to the following features:

  • Believes that the customer is the most important thing;
  • Devotes maximum attention and effort to providing the highest levels of customer service;
  • Feels a personal sense of achievement when customers are delighted;
  • Understands and anticipates customer needs and works tirelessly to meet them;
  • Willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to help customers and resolve their problems;
  • Thrives on ensuring that the customer experience is the best it could be;
  • Sees customer complaints firstly as opportunities to create customer satisfaction;
  • Driven to make sure that every customer feels valued.

Creating a “Psychological Contract” that Includes Customer Service Orientation

The term psychological contract refers to the implied and/or explicit but set of obligations and responsibilities that are understood by everyone as part of the deal when an employer takes on an employee and vice versa.  (For more information follow the link at the end of this article.)  It is about what each party expects from the other, over and above the standard written contract of employment.

A key aspect of the psychological contract is the set of capabilities brought to the table by the employee, including the match between role requirements and the new employee’s capabilities.   When selecting for customer service roles, of all the characteristics an organisation is looking for in its new recruits, Customer Service Orientation must contribute very significantly to the psychological contract: it seems eminently reasonable that an employer can expect commitment to the customer to be central to what the person is offering to the organisation. 

The “obvious” requirement for a strong Customer Service Orientation in applicants for customer service roles may be why some organisations don’t bother to try to assess it as a distinct characteristic. The belief may be that applicants would not consider applying for a customer service role without a drive, or at least willingness, to provide a service.  Employers might then choose to focus on assessing abilities at selection, relying on the fact that people have applied for a customer service role as their only measure of underlying motivation to provide excellent customer service. 

Most employers however know that applicants cannot be relied upon to only apply for jobs they are indeed suited for and may also not be able to present a full, objective picture of their relevant strength and weaknesses in relation to the job requirements.  This is rightly a task for the recruiting organisation and organisations most serious about customer service tend to look for and measure Customer Service Orientation in all job applicants, not just those applying for front-line customer service roles.

Evaluating Strength of Customer Service Orientation at Recruitment

The more explicit employers can be about their expectation that role holders will have a strong customer service orientation, the more likely they are to be able to attract and recruit people who possess this orientation.  Likewise, making a point of assessing Customer Service Orientation as a separate and central quality in an applicant will greatly improve the chances that new recruits will make a positive difference to customers’ experiences with the organisation, from the word go. 

Customer Service Orientation is measurable using a variety of selection tools and, since it is what psychologists sometimes refer to as a highly “transparent” characteristic, it is very clear how it relates to job performance.   This means also that job applicants have little trouble understanding the concept and why the employer is assessing how much they possess of it. 

The flip side of this is that it is also highly “fakeable”.  If recruiters are using straightforward self-report questions, someone who wants to present themselves as more customer service orientated than they are would be easily able to do so.  

Assessing an individual’s customer service orientation is most thoroughly done with a combination of self report measures such as behaviourally based structured interview questions and personality questionnaires, with assessment methods that use more directly observable information, such as Situational Judgment Tests, Customer Role Plays and Work Samples or Simulations.

Can New Recruits be Trained in Customer Service Orientation, Rather than Selected for it?

This question is really about what makes Customer Service Orientation a personality factor, rather than a learned skill.  It is an important distinction, since skills can be learned and training can play a big role in developing the capability to perform a job well:  personality traits on the other hand, are enduring and deeply held drivers of behaviour and are far less open to manipulation by training interventions, if at all.

A key practical concern for customer service employers that leads from this is, can new recruits be trained in Customer Service Orientation or is it something that needs to be assessed during selection?   It would certainly be simpler if an induction course could be used that teaches people how to “do” Customer Service Orientation.

Although the definition of Customer Service Orientation does not fit easily into classic personality theory such as other contributors to customer service excellence like achievement drive and positive affectivity, it has clear features of a personality trait. 

That is not to say that aspects of it cannot be learned:  for example, an enhanced appreciation of the ways that customers can be supported and a greater understanding of non-verbal cues to how someone is feeling might be taught.  However, the emotional commitment to customers’ satisfaction which leads to the desire to please them is not accessible to training in the same way. 

It reflects underlying beliefs about the acceptability of role differentiators and the emotions generated in the serving of others which are developed over many years from a complex, dynamic range of life experiences.   They may stem from sources as distant and unyielding as our earliest cultural and family relationships. 

To illustrate, the elements of drive to achieve a positive outcome for the customer, and motivation to create positive feeling in the customer interaction, are likely to come from deep-seated emotional learning acquired during childhood or early adulthood and are also probably affiliated with beliefs about identity and self-worth, that may never have been acknowledged by the individual.  To this extent, despite initial appearances, it is also probable that elements of the underlying characteristics will transcend cultural boundaries and be evident even in cultures where approach to the customer has an altogether different flavour. 

Furthermore, although Customer Service Orientation is not a title that appears in classic personality theory, there are recent studies which demonstrate that:

a)      there are observable and measurable individual differences in level of Customer Service Orientation; and,

b)      aspects of the Big 5 personality factors, in particular conscientiousness and extraversion, are related to Customer Service Orientation and have a real effect on customer service behaviour in role.

When explored at these levels that it becomes clear that Customer Service Orientation is not a state of mind or a easily learned skill or ability but a trait of personality: not necessarily impervious to change throughout a lifetime but almost certainly a deeply-held and unconscious driver of behaviour.

This marks it out as an essential component of selection for new customer service providers.  If Customer Service Orientation has not been properly assessed at recruitment, all the best practice in customer service training, management and organisational direction will not change the fact that a significant number of the customer service workforce simply will not provide the quality of service that customer expect as they are not naturally orientated to customer service.

Customer service organisations working to create a culture of excellent customer service provision will feel like they are trying to scoop up water with a fork if they do not ensure that their new recruits bring the right level of Customer Orientation Service into the organisation with them.

Related links

Psychological contract

http://www.cipd.co.uk/subjects/empreltns/psycntrct/psycontr.htm

 Big 5 personality factors and customer service

  1. http://jam.sagepub.com/content/26/2/115.abstract
  2. http://www.cymeon.com/publications/PAID_1999_27_1113-1122.pdf 
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7 Comments to “Customer Service Orientation”

  1. I am pursuing my MBA and preparing my dissertation, I would like to reference this article, could the details of the author be made available?

  2. Hi Nicole
    This article was written by me, Amanda Callen – I am a Chartered Occupational Psychologist with OPC Assesssment Ltd, UK. Let me know if you need any more information and I would be happy to provide it
    Best of luck with your MBA
    Amanda

  3. Tell me about a time when you did your best to resolve a customer or client concern and the individual was still not satisfied. What was the issue? Can you tell us what your role was? What would you have done differently?

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