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Sergey Mamchenko: "We need time to develop the customer service mentality"

For our English speaking readers we are publishing the wildly popular interview with Sergey Mamchenko. For the Russian version, click here

Sergey, welcome to Servicology! You are Customer Service Director at Electronic Express (Garant Group),  and you’re also running your own customer service projects. Normally we think of innovations in regards to high-tech but not to the soft skills. What is the role of customer service in innovative products? What does innovative customer service mean to you?

Nice to see you, Marina! Thank you for inviting me to be a guest on the Servicology Project! First, I’d like to say that on June 20 John Tschohl, the President of Service Quality Institute, had his birthday. My colleagues and I join the flow of congratulations and wish him good health, unflagging inspiration and energy, new projects and successes!

Indeed, innovations are often associated with new technologies. However, I have a different view on the innovative way of development. Innovations should be in everything: in technology, business processes, sales techniques, service and, more importantly, in the minds of all the employees. If the companies take this comprehensive approach to innovations — and, in the first place, in working with customers — I'm sure this will give a high level of sustainability to their businesses, so they will be safe from any financial and economic instability.

Here is a simple example. I’m not especially interested in engineering aspects of the new Russian jet airliner MC-21 or in advanced composite materials its wings are made of. What’s important to me that the plane be safe and reliable, with high speed performance and comfortable seats, that in-flight meal be tasty and airline staff friendly, etc.

The company I work for is a recognized technology leader and trendsetter in the legal information software market. When developing new products or services our first priority is to make them user-friendly for our customers. We want to help our customers save their time and improve their productivity. We want to bring our innovations to them in a most comfortable way and to provide them with the reliable professional support and assistance.

That is the essence of the innovative customer service — the ability to harmoniously combine new technology and advanced innovative solutions with user friendliness and simplicity of use. And the main role of the service staff in this chain is to provide customers with effective solutions, to inform about new products, to quickly solve problems, in brief, to be always available and ready to help.

If a customer starts to doubt whether to continue or not cooperating with us, I’m deeply convinced that in most cases the reason lies in the quality of our relations with this customer. We always consider the problems of our customers to be our own problems and try to resolve them as quickly as possible and on the highest professional level. We are always available for calls, we will not rest and go home until a solution is found, and the customer is completely satisfied. And our customers highly appreciate it. About a quarter of our annual sales are generated by referrals from our satisfied customers.

Nowadays many people are talking about robot replacing humans in many customer service roles. What is your take on that? If it really happens, is it going to be good or bad for customer service?

I hope that we will continue to see human employees on most service jobs.

There are places where the robots are quite acceptable. For example, this year my family and I traveled to San Diego (USA) and changed flights in New York. There are special trains connecting terminals of JFK International Airport and these trains operate without drivers. It’s rather unusual. But in this case the top priority is the safety. If it is safe, then why not?

And here is another example, in Russia. Now the traditional booths selling tickets for Moscow public transport are everywhere replaced by vending machines. Perhaps it makes sense from an economic point of view because it allows to cut costs. But vendors in these ticket booths performed, though unofficially, an important social function. They could inform you about the public transport routes, tell you how to get to your destination, and even to break up the money.

Or, for example, I’m really against the live concierges in the block of flats where I live being replaced with the cameras. The camera won’t open the door for you when you return home with shop bags in your hands. The camera won’t smile at you in the morning and won’t wish you a good day. The camera won’t help a woman to roll a baby carriage in the elevator.

It’s is up to the customer to decide what is good or bad for the service. And the customer will vote with his feet. I believe that every company should have high-skilled service professionals responsible for the relationships with customers. Those who are able to effectively address any complaint, problem or conflict situation. Those who are able to sympathize with customers, to provide them with all the necessary support and to find creative solutions for their benefit. People always prefer the live communication, and the live communication creates trust, which eventually converts in purchases and recommendations, and good returns for your company.

You are actively promoting the idea of quality service in Russia. You’ve created Customer Service in Russia website and co-hosted the first regular Russian-language customer service podcast “Service from the Bottom Heart”. Could you please share with our readers how you came up with these ideas? Why are you doing it?

I’ve been working in the field of customer service over 13 years now, and I grew up from an ordinary specialist to the head of the service department. Unfortunately, I have to note that the great majority of employees in companies and indeed the majority of people in our country do not understand what the customer service is. This theme only recently has begun spreading through the Russian-speaking Internet; the seminars of experts have taken off. And the Service Quality Institute has played a pioneering role in these efforts. Thanks to the seminars of John Tschohl the top-managers of some Russian companies gradually begin to change their perception of the customer service. They begin to look very differently at the everyday business processes related to customer service in their companies.

Two years ago I hold in Moscow the seminar entitled “First-class service starts with us!” — and this title carries in it a key message of all my activities. The customer service should start not somewhere, but here and now — with us, with me, with all what we do. One of the main focuses of my activity is the popularization of customer service concept in the business environment. That's why I run the blog on the customer service. As more and more people become aware of the customer service issues and begin to pay attention to the attitude of companies toward their customers, they trigger the process of improvement. Sure, this doesn’t happen in all the companies. However, you can disappoint your customers one time, two times or three, but you can’t disappoint them all the time. A business like that dies rather quickly.

By the way, now I'm working on the integration of my blog with my website, so in September I hope to present to my readers a new designed platform with many new service stories and service ideas.

About eighteen months ago Dmitry Lastovyrya and I have launched the podcast “Service from The Bottom of Heart”. At the time this topic was very poorly presented in the Russian-speaking Internet. So the project of the first regular Russian-language podcast on customer service has successfully taken off, and I consider it to be the major achievement of our cooperation. Of course, much of the credit for this success is due to Dmitry, to his determination and his commitment. I’m really happy that we’ve gone this part of the way together. Now the podcast is living its own life with many new guests and burning discussions on the service experience and practices in various business areas. I sincerely wish this project the successful development and many interesting and useful discussions in the future. After all, we all aspire to the same goal — to make the customer service in Russia a little better thing.

You regularly speak at colleges around the country and abroad. Why colleges? Are today's students really interested in customer service? 

As I said earlier, the customer service starts with us. And the university is the best place where to start introducing students to this important field. This is a non-profit part of my work, my contribution to the professional training and development of the future Russian managers of all levels. And also this gives me the chance to fully realize my own potential. I have a university degree as a teacher of geography and ecology.

Within my cooperation program with universities, which is now in its third year, I’m working with three universities: the Russian State University of Tourism and Service (RSUTS), the Institute of Finance, Economics and Business of the Bashkir State University (BSU) and the Vyatka State University (VSU).

I give public lectures on the customer service and the personal and business productivity for senior, graduate and postdoctoral students studying finance, economics and business disciplines. My public lectures often are broadcasted online for the external students and the students of university branches. All events are conducted in the form of meetings with business practitioners. And by the enthusiasm of the students and their questions I could say that they are really interested in this topic. Many of them already work, so they have a unique opportunity to apply this knowledge in practice. And isn’t that the main goal of the university education — to provide knowledge that could be directly transferred into the practice?

I’m truly grateful to the heads of universities, the deans and the heads of departments for their constructive cooperation in this area. And I welcome cooperation with any university in Russia and CIS.

In your opinion, how is  customer service in Russia different from customer service in other countries? Is there any Russian service mentality, which requires a special approach?

The customer service in Russia just makes its first steps in the long journey. Don’t forget that our market economy is just 25 years old. During the Soviet era with its comprehensive state planning the commerce was determined not by the supply and demand conditions but by the severe shortage of goods and consumer services. Sellers in stores worked by the principle “They will come and buy anyway”. Their salary didn’t depend on sales. A dusty and dirty book of complaints and suggestions was the only pseudo-element of customer service. And nobody cared about the rights of consumers.

We need time to develop the service mentality, the service culture. Clearly, now we have to draw on the experience of Western countries. There are about a hundred books about the customer

service on my bookshelf, and the books of Russian authors among them all are written in the last five years. Step by step, building on the Western experience, we will build up our own service experience and come to our own service mentality. Yes, we will make a lot of mistakes in the process, but it’s the only way to gain experience. Therefore, it is important to give momentum to a broad range of projects in this field such as blogs on the customer service, podcasts, training programs, etc. We need to change our thinking, we need to develop a service mentality, but it takes years. However, there is a wise Chinese proverb: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

I haven’t travelled much around the world so far; it’s still ahead. But I can say that in those countries I’ve visited people are more respectful of each other. And this is the key, the main prerequisite, so to say, the basis for the development of the first-class service. The people should have an attentive, caring attitude to each other and desire to help. In no way do I want to belittle our citizens, but here, in Russia, especially in big cities you feel a general state of irritation and sometimes intolerance. However, as I said earlier, we just need time to change.

How would you rate customer service in Russia today? Do you see any improvements? Could you name any Russian customer service leaders? What are the main challenges and problems you see in customer service in Russia?

The customer service in our country is gradually evolving and improving its standards although the pace of change is not very impressive. The main reason I think is that the majority of CEOs and business owners don’t really understand what the customer service is. My business card states me as the “expert-practitioner in customer service”, and I often face with the raised eyebrows and questions, what does it mean.

Unfortunately, many perceive the customer-focused service as a kind of “code of polite conduct in the cultural society”. Very few understand that the customer service is a very powerful and competitive marketing strategy. It helps you to keep your customers and to make them more loyal, to increase the average check (loyal customers buy more), to get new customers and additional revenue from the referral sales thanks to the so-called “word of mouth”. And if you operate in a competitive market (and no matter how many competitors you have — one or one hundred), the customer service is the only strategy that allows you to gain a unique competitive advantage and to stand out from the crowd because it’s almost impossible for others to copy it.

In addition, adopting the customer service strategy helps companies to effectively resolve a range of internal problems. It’s not my idea; this is a lesson learned by many European and American companies. The companies that become the leaders of service enjoy the reduced turnover rate and the significantly improved performance and productivity of the staff. Their employees love their work and enjoy helping customers. As a result these companies gain reputation of good employers. At such companies ideas and initiatives come from the bottom, from the grassroots, because the front-line employees are the ones who know best what the customers want. And the managers up to the top level support these initiatives because they know that they already have entrusted to their staff the most valuable asset the company has — their customers.

Alas, I can’t say off the top of my head what Russian companies could be awarded with the title of leaders of service. Maybe we could name the grocery store chain “Azbuka vkusa” (“The Alphabet of Taste”), the chain of beauty salons “Tochka krasoty” (“The Point of Beauty”), the chains of kids’ goods shops “Detskiy Mir” (“Children's World”) and “Imaginarium”. The airline company “Aeroflot”, which I often fly by, has made a remarkable progress in this direction. But the Russian Railways (RZD) still shows the lack of a clear and consistent service strategy. For

example, when I board the train Moscow-Izhevsk, the coach attendant right after the departure brings me a questionnaire on the quality of service and asks me to fill it out. He doesn’t understand that this questionnaire should be given to passengers shortly before the arrival. I suppose the employee just was told to propose the questionnaire to the passengers, but without explaining the true purpose of this survey.

To summarize, I’d like to emphasize the following important points. Firstly, the customer service requires training. The service skills are an important professional competence, which you should purposefully teach and develop. People aren’t born the service leaders; they become the ones in the process of professional development. The best mentors in this area are the experts-practitioners, because the theory alone is not sufficient to be successful here; you also need the applied knowledge and the learning by case studies. Secondly, the service strategy is particularly difficult to implement in companies with rigid, even authoritarian administrative and management structure and with the same approach to the personnel management. Sometimes it’s almost an impossible task. The customer service is based on equality and trust in the employees.

You’ve recently been to the States. What was your experience with the American customer service? What impressed you the most?

The impressions are diverse. For example, this year the Delta Airlines failed in a way to meet our expectations of high quality service. We changed flights in New York and when we went onboard we expected to see welcoming and smiling cabin staff, but everyone was busy with their own thing. We were given only one blanket, although we traveled with two children. It was weird. And the car rental company «Dollar Car Rental» forgot to give us two car seats for children, although they were indicated in the order.

I’d like to note a high level of service in the San Diego Zoo and the SeaWorld Park. The grocery retail chains such as Walmart, Costco, Von’s have a level of service comparable to our major retail chains. In New York we were pleased with the staff of the observation deck of the new One World Trade Center and the Tiffany store. However, the level of service of taxi drivers left much to be desired. In the town of Julian (60-70 miles from San Diego) we found a wonderful small restaurant “The Julian Pies” with a very friendly and helpful staff. And in a secondhand bookshop we were given a very nice compliment because our children were quietly sitting at the table and viewing children's magazines while my wife and I were choosing the books.

Very memorable was a visit to a private vineyard (winery) near the Mexican border. I would award the golden medal of service leaders to them. In addition to the excellent California wines (we even took a few bottles with us in Russia) they offer a well-organized wine-tasting party with pleasant atmosphere and conversations. We were impressed by their warm and attentive attitude towards the guests that showed up in every detail. For example, my eldest daughter, she is four, saw an orange tree for the first time. One of the owners (aged 92, by the way) noticed it and several times he sought and picked ripe and juicy oranges especially for her.

They bought some very picturesque stone mosaic tables and benches just because one of the guests suggested it would be nice sitting outdoors and enjoying good wine. It’s a “word of mouth” marketing as it should be. If you buy the wine you don’t pay for the tasting — the owners understand that not only you will come again and again and buy the wine from them but also you will tell all your friends about this wonderful winery.

Of course, there are examples of great and bad service in every country. The main thing is that you strive every day to improve something, so that tomorrow your customers will be happier and more loyal than yesterday. And, as the saying goes, there is no limit to perfection there.

What are your next customer service projects?

Currently I’m working on a program of cooperation with the Foundation for the Support of Small and Medium Enterprises in one of the regions of Russia and on two Internet projects in the field of customer service. One of the projects involves the development of a special platform for distance learning in customer service.

I plan to use this platform to tell the managers and professionals about my vision of how to develop the customer service in their companies, how to train, coach and motivate the employees. I will share my practical 13-years experience in this field and offer my business ideas in the customer service area. The users will have access to the rich library of informational, methodological and educational materials, and also they will have the opportunity to ask any questions about service. It will be another contribution of mine to the development of the customer service in our country. The launch of the project is scheduled on September 1, the Day of Knowledge.

Thanks to the Internet technology tens of thousands of professionals across our country and the neighboring countries will receive a useful high-quality tool for their professional development.

We have plenty of ideas and, most importantly, a clear understanding of where and how to move on.

I wish you all good luck!

SERGEY MAMCHENKO is the Customer Service Director at Electronic Service (Garant Group). Expert-practitioner with 13 years of experience in the field of customer service. Author of the blog “The Customer Service in Russia”; and co-host in the first regular Russian-language podcast about customer service “Service from the heart” (1-60 issues). Regular speaker at the seminars for entrepreneurs in the Business Development Centers of Sberbank of Russia OJSC and at the leading Russian universities (BSU, VSU, RSUTS). Founder of a range of educational and consulting projects aiming at improving the standards of customer service and developing the service culture in Russia. Information partner of John Tschohl’s Service Quality Institute (Service Quality Institute, USA), a certified business coach. Business consultant on customer service and service culture. Official website: www.sergeymamchenko.com

***Russian-English translation provided by the interviewee. 

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