Guest Blogger

When the writer and film director Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) wanted to create a character that seems tired of life and sees everyone around him as identical, he made that character an expert on customer service. A motivational speaker with an expertise in customer service seems the ideal protagonist for a boring, lifeless world.

The character, Michael Stone, features in the new movie ‘Anomalisa’ which is based on Kaufman’s play of the same name written in 2005. Although Stone remains the same character in the film and play, I believe that the decade gap is significant.

In 2005, managing customer service really meant managing a call centre. The only major channels that customers would have been using to communicate with brands back then were email and voice. Processes were tightly controlled and contact centres were frequently the butt of routines by stand-up comedians who tapped into the frustration most people felt when calling the customer service team at any company.

So it’s no surprise that Michael Stone is a customer service expert. It’s shorthand that allows us to paint his back-story, colouring his character, without needing excessive exposition.

But I don’t believe that the same shorthand applies in 2016. In the case of Anomalisa it doesn’t really matter, it’s a movie adaptation of a play that is a decade old, but how should a customer service leader be seen today?

Of course, there is a difference between should and would. It’s likely that the average person on a random street would still see a customer service expert as the manager of a call centre. However, it’s also true that many professions face similar stereotyping. Look at any film that features journalists and there is always a noisy newsroom and bottles of Scotch hidden inside desks.

The reality for customer service leaders today is that they need to manage customer relationships. They create customer loyalty and they create sales. The team responsible for the customer experience are now managing and coordinating customer service, sales, advertising, marketing, and PR. Anything that a company does to interact with customers in any way is now being managed by a team that used to be called customer service. It’s complex and requires genuine leadership.

Customers now define how, why, and when they interact with brands and companies need the flexibility to manage this. If a new channel becomes popular, it needs to be adopted and used and customers now expect the same great service across any channel. It doesn’t matter if they are calling you on the phone or texting on WhatsApp – it always has to be a great experience.

This transition from customer service to customer experience management has taken place entirely during the past decade – the time that Anomalisa took to move from being a play to being a movie. Since 2005 the iPhone and Google reinvented smart phones and created a mobile Internet culture, social networks have redefined how people communicate, and managing customers today requires control of all these areas.

Kaufman explained to the BBC that he didn’t intend for his audience to read anything into the fact that Michael Stone works in customer service – he just used this industry because it’s somewhere he used to work – writers like to write about what they know. But if there really were any intent then it wouldn’t be appropriate in 2016. Customer service is now where the next generation of CEOs and leaders is being created.

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