YOU may have watched or heard about the Emmy award-winning television series, Undercover Boss, where a high-level employee or owner of a corporation goes undercover for a week as an entry-level employee in his or her own company.

Their experiences allow them to gain knowledge on the ground to understand the challenges faced by their employees, which eventually leads to serving their customers better.

At Citibank, a similar programme has been conducted for the past five years. Senior management undergo training and become apprentices for a day — taking on roles such as tellers, customer service officers, CitiPhone officers and direct sales officers, among others.

Ms Irene Xu, head of Decision Management at Citibank Singapore Limited, who has served as a customer service officer and a direct sales officer in recent years, said: “It was a very pleasant experience to talk to our customers and hear their feedback directly at the branch.”

By putting themselves in the shoes of the people on the ground, the management team came up with suggestions on how to improve the processes, which ultimately help enhance the customer’s experience.

Said Ms Sonali Verma, head of Customer Experience Management, who took on the role of a client survey officer: “It is definitely insightful to serve customers.

It gives us first-hand on-the-ground experience. More importantly, senior managers are expected to propose process improvements or re-engineering initiatives as well as give recommendations on service enhancements that should be made.”

It is extremely important for leaders to “walk the talk”. In the J.D. Power Customer Service Champion report 2011, Mr Richard Bongiorno, senior director of Digital Research at J.D. Power, said: “It all begins with the leadership: if senior leadership is not committed to driving service excellence throughout the organisation, it doesn’t matter how much feedback is collected from their customers.”

One of the J.D. Power Customer Service Champions, the Ritz Carlton Group, is known for its employee training. The hotel creates a common and unique culture, and codifies its expectations regarding service in its 12 service values, and other proprietary statements, that are taught to all its employees around the world.

The former CEO and president of Ritz Carlton, Mr Simon Cooper, said in a Forbes interview in 2009: “If leadership doesn’t live the values that it requires of the organisation, that is the swiftest way to undermine the culture. No culture sticks if it’s not lived at the highest levels of the organisation.”

Mr Han Kwee Juan, chief executive officer of Citibank Singapore Limited agreed, saying: “It is our responsibility to ensure that we not only serve (clients) to our best abilities, but also make an impact on the larger community through our practices. A key part of this involves building a culture of service excellence within the organisation, which involves every employee and department”.

In 2006, Citibank Singapore’s philosophy of service excellence was rolled out in a set of 10 service values, which are now used throughout Citibank globally. All employees are trained on these service values and they are also used as rewards and recognition for staff.

Streamline processes

Finding ways to streamline processes is critical in the service industry, according to a study conducted by the Customer Contact Council, a division of the Corporate Executive Board in the United States.

Findings from the study on 75,000 people who had interacted over the phone with contact centre representatives or through self-service channels such as the Internet, chat and e-mail, were that delighting customers does not build loyalty — reducing their effort and the work they must do to get their problems solved does.

Organisations have to ensure that making improvements for feedback and problem resolution are key priorities. This involves gathering feedback and understanding customers’ experiences and identifying problem areas for improvement.

More importantly, actual improvements must be made and corrective action taken after the feedback has been gathered. Issues that are not resolved within a given deadline should be escalated to senior management for discussion.

The Global Consumer Banking Survey conducted by Ernst & Young in 2011 indicated that service quality is still a key differentiator between banks.

It is therefore vitally important that organisations find even more innovative ways to improve their service to meet the changing needs and demands of customers.