European customer service leadership examined

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on March 14, 2007

The Germans are the best at setting global standards for customer service, while the French are the worst, according to a recent mystery shopping study of four retail sectors across six European countries by Grass Roots... but what makes all the difference?

It is unrealistic to set global standards for customer service - or is it? With reference to the findings of a recent mystery shopping study of four retail sectors across six European countries, Richard Leech, head of learning at performance improvement business Grass Roots, has explained why the Germans seem so good and the French so poor. What are the implications for global retail brands and what can they do to get the right standard of service in each of their markets?

According to Leech, there are two views of global service standards that at first glance seem to contradict one another. On the one hand there are international brands striving to create a customer expectation that should be met uniformly wherever in the world the brand appears, and on the other hand every country is considered to have a set of commercial attitudes and experiences that will vary from any international norm.

"I believe that these opposing views are more of a paradox than a contradiction, and the way to resolve the paradox is to distinguish between strategy and tactics. There is nothing to prevent a consistent global brand strategy being successful, provided that its tactics are appropriate to different local circumstances. To take an obvious example from the automotive market, we are quite used to seeing the same models badged differently around the world to reflect different heritages and sensitivities whilst claiming common standards of quality and reliability," Leech explained.

Don't have a nice day?
Global retailers have discovered that exhorting every single customer to "have a nice day" produces reactions ranging from ecstasy to embarrassment according to where in the world you happen to be. The aim, of course, is to find out how you should best convey the friendliness and goodwill of the "have a nice day" sentiment without forcing people into speech patterns that are alien to their habits.

The survey on which Grass Roots' conclusions were based covered fast food, financial services, mobile phones and cars, in France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Spain and the UK. The company drew upon its European mystery shopping panel of some 60,000 consumers to select credible and representative members of the local population in each country and market, ensuring that each visit would produce valid data. Conscious that "service" - like the word "happiness" - can mean different things to different people, the company's mystery shopping technique relies instead on facts and objectivity. For example, questions would include "Did the person smile?", "Did the person make eye contact?" and "Did the person say goodbye?" as more reliable measures of what happened, rather than "Did the person give good service?".

Performance vs. Satisfaction
The study examined two key concepts:

  1. The Performance Index is the percentage score against the notional maximum across all aspects measured. It combines objective content (e.g. did the person smile) with subjective opinion (e.g. did you think they were friendly) and ratings (generally a score from 0 to 4).
  2. The Satisfaction Rating is the percentage score against the maximum possible for a single rating of the service experience as a whole. It is thus entirely subjective.

Because it brings together all the component parts of the encounter, the Performance Index gives the more accurate account and representation of the customer's experience. However the Satisfaction Rating, as a single overall judgement that does not have to be supported by evidence, provides the more accurate statement of the customer's attitude.

As Table 1 (below) shows, there was a relatively small but consistent downward shift from Performance Index to Satisfaction Rating:

Country Performance Index Satisfaction Rating
Germany 68.3 67.0
Netherlands 78.6 75.2
Ireland 74.8 72.8
France 75.4 74.4
Spain 70.8 70.1
UK 77.4 72.3

Table 1: National performance and satisfaction ratings
Source: Grass Roots

Sector-by-sector analysis
Looking at individual market sectors, the theme is very much "Deutschland uber alles", as Germany topped two out of the four international tables for Performance Index (fast food and cars) and three out of the four for Satisfaction Rating (fast food, financial services and cars).

But life is much more varied at the bottom of the league where France, Spain and the UK were to be found. The Netherlands and Ireland managed to avoid most of the extremes, with the only exception being mobile phones, where Leech noted that "Irish eyes are smiling". The Satisfaction Ratings were still almost always lower than the corresponding Performance Index.

An interpretive paradox
Of course, as Leech conceded, the question that demands an answer is whether service is actually better in Germany than elsewhere, or whether Germans are simply more easily satisfied than their European neighbours. All the evidence, however, suggests the former.

Customer interaction factors
Grass Roots has also identified five key stages in the customer interaction process, and calculated the percentage satisfaction scores for each. The stages are:

  1. Environment: The first impression of the surroundings, especially in terms of housekeeping issues;
  2. Waiting: Not absolutely how long the mystery shopper was kept waiting but whether it was reasonable in the particular circumstances of traffic and staffing;
  3. Enquiry: How well the member of staff handled the mystery shopper's enquiry in terms of courtesy and attitude;
  4. Meeting needs: The extent to which the outcome measured up to the objective
  5. Closing: Whether the encounter was rounded off satisfactorily.

Country-by-country analysis
France only managed one score over 80%, Environment for Financial Services, and only a handful above 70%. In each sector, the highest score was for Environment in other words every experience immediately went downhill and the lowest was either for Waiting or Meeting Needs.

In marked contrast to France, Germany dipped below 70% only twice for Meeting Needs in Fast Food (56.4%) and Mobiles (68.4%). In every case, the two highest points of the encounter were Environment (first impression) and Closing (final impression).

Ireland presented an interesting mixture of highs and lows; Financial Services and Mobiles were better then Fast Food and Cars, but Waiting (Mobiles and Cars) and Meeting Needs (Fast Food and Financial Services) were the main problem areas.

The Dutch are the best at Greeting, which they do particularly well in Financial Services and Cars. Their 52.0% for Meeting Needs in Fast Food is a long way adrift of the next worst score, which is 67% for Waiting in Cars.

Spain was simply brilliant at handling the Enquiry (82.4% average overall) but, with the exception of Fast Food, Waiting is always the worst part of the Spanish experience.

In the UK, it was Meeting Needs in Fast Food (62.9%) that was the lowest point, followed by Waiting for Mobiles (65.3%). (UK cars were not covered in the survey, so a full comparison was not possible.)

So, if you don't have to wait ages to be served in Germany, why should you have to in Spain or France? What prevents the Dutch and the Irish from handling a customer enquiry as effectively as the Spanish? What is the particular problem with mobiles in France?

Being in possession of more facts ultimately leads to better decisions and more productive action. This, according to Leech, is the real purpose of mystery shopping surveys: they are not merely academic research but they are conducted to gain actionable data that helps drive change and improvement.

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