Serve to win

Delivering customer service is a challenge for many firms. But two enterprises are intent on customer service.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  January 18, 2008

Customer service is a sensitive topic in the Middle East - insofar as many enterprises don't have much of it. The region's "frontier spirit" means businesses can get away with poor levels of service because of the large numbers of new arrivals in the region, especially the high-growth GCC countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

But like it or not, this high-churn strategy is not a long-term recipe for success - faced with rising costs of living, expat workers, especially in the lucrative high-income brackets, are starting to question why they have come to the Middle East. At times like this, daily frustrations, such as not being able to transfer money, or renew a car registration, can become big issues.

Those who pay attention to customer care will find it easier to develop a more profitable and increasingly loyal customer base

In addition, efforts by regional centres such as Dubai - and even Saudi Arabia's Economic Cities - are positioning themselves as desirable places to live, and not just a location to make a quick buck. Pulling this off will require improvements in levels of service throughout the market.

Sadly for regional consumers, the importance of customer service does not seem to be getting through to many enterprises. Research released last month by Ethos suggests that UAE banks are letting critical areas slip - specifically, front line customer service agents. The survey revealed that more than three-quarters of staff in banks failed to offer customers any additional services - thus cutting an important channel for growth.

Commenting on the survey, Philip Forrest, president of the International Customer Service Institute, says: "Organisations that take customer service seriously will not only have to spend less to replace customers they have lost, but they will also be free to select the customers that most meet their business plans rather than those they need to make up the numbers. The double benefit is that those who pay attention to customer care will find it easier to develop a more profitable and increasingly loyal customer base, thereby creating the opportunity to sell more products."

Issues such as uncommunicative counter staff are obviously a general training issue - but while the business as a whole needs to look at staff issues, IT can go a long way towards enabling front-line staff and making them more productive.

In good news for banking IT departments in the UAE, Ethos's survey revealed that both call centre and website experiences improved across the board, suggesting that these relatively new interaction channels are receiving more attention.

But for a customer-facing business to succeed, especially in a region like the Middle East, which places a strong emphasis on personal interaction, the front-line staff need to be able to deal with customers effectively. The Ethos survey states that more than 75% of prospective customers in the UAE first turn to a physical branch for information.

Sudhir Shetty, general manager and COO of UAE Exchange, agrees: "There may be a small percentage of people who will go to the net and do it all online, but the vast majority of people would always like to come, and find out what's best for them.

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