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Leveraging the Human Equation 
    THE ROLE OF SERVICE AND SALES SKILLS 
    IN CUSTOMER RETENTION 

    Literature Review 
     prepared by: Joan B. Krawitz 
    Learning Resources Director  
    Major Media Learning Resources 
    Northbrook, Illinois 
    © 1993, 1998

 
 
This research examined whether specific service and sales skills could improve customer retention rates. A literature review was conducted to examine the following issues: (1) whether customer retention rates could be improved by attempting to resell customers who wished to cancel their accounts or stop services; (2) service quality factors that have been shown to contribute to customer retention; (3) behaviors and skills that have been linked to service quality and customer retention; and (4) the relationship of specific sales skills to these behaviors. 

Improving Customer Retention Rates Through Direct Intervention 

The significance of customer retention was first quantified by Reichheld and Sasser (1990). They found that profits in service industries, including credit card companies, increased in direct proportion to the length of a customer's relationship. They noted the experience of MBNA America, citing its "customer defection 'swat' team staffed by some of the company's best telemarketers," which achieved a 50% success rate in persuading customers to retain their credit cards. At MBNA, a 5% improvement in customer retention increased average customer value by 125%. Reichheld and Sasser (1990) concluded that cutting defections in half could more than double the growth rate of the average company.  

Everett (1993) noted that a dedicated customer retention unit developed by Patrick J. Swanick at the Society National Bank in Cleveland, achieved a 57% success rate in persuading callers to remain with the bank. According to Everett (1993), these representatives first probed for causes, then tried to resolve the problem. He added that they followed-up on each call with a letter to the customer.  

The Link Between Customer Satisfaction and Customer Retention 

Many authors (Reichheld and Kenny, 1990; Zeithaml, et.al., 1990; Bowen and Lawler, 1990; Schlesinger and Heskett, 1991) have cited the relationship between customer retention and the quality of service experienced by the customer. 

Reichheld and Kenny (1990) specified six factors as imperative to improving retention: senior management commitment; a customer-focused culture in which all employees and managers focused their full attention on customer satisfaction; retention information systems that tracked and analyzed the root causes of defections; empowerment of front line employees to take actions that provided immediate customer satisfaction; continuous training and development; and incentive systems based on customer retention.  

Parasuraman, et. al. (1984) studied quality in four service businesses, including credit card services, and developed a model of service quality. They noted that: 

"A variety of factors, including resource constraints, management perceptions of consumer expectations and the firm's service quality specifications will affect service quality from the consumer's viewpoint."  (Parasuraman, et. al., 1984)  

Parasuraman, et. al. (1984) identified a set of discrepancies, or gaps, between how executives perceive the quality of the service they provide and the tasks associated with delivering those services to customers. They found that the customer's perception of service quality depends upon the size and direction of the gap between the service the customer expects to receive and what he or she perceives to have been received. The magnitude of this gap (which can be either positive or negative) was determined by four interrelated variables: (1) the difference between actual consumer expectations and management perceptions of those expectations; (2) between management perception of expectations and the translation of those perceptions into service quality specifications; (3) between service quality specifications and service delivery; and (4) between both service quality specifications and service delivery, and external communications to customers. Parasuraman, et. al. (1984) noted that these gaps "can be a major hurdle in attempting to deliver a service which consumers would perceive as being of high quality." Because this study focused on the interaction between the firm's representatives and its customers, this author found the fourth gap (between both service quality specifications and service delivery, and external communications to customers) to be of particular relevance. 

Schlesinger and Heskett (1991) suggested that poor service was often built into the system by designing customer-contact jobs to be "idiot proof." Bitran and Hoech (1990) differentiated between transaction-oriented, "low contact" services, in which quality can be defined as "conformance to specifications" and "high contact" services, such as customer retention, that satisfy higher order human needs. They proposed that "actively understanding and managing the relationship between server and customer can yield higher service revenues through increased repurchase rates."  

Citing research on customer loyalty conducted by the Forum Corporation, Schlesinger and Heskett (1991) noted that only 14% of customers stopped patronizing service business because they were dissatisfied by the quality of the product, while more than two-thirds defected because of what they judged to be indifferent or unhelpful service. This finding supported the observation of Parasuraman, et. al. (1984) that customers' judgements of high and low service quality depend on "how consumers perceive the actual service performance in the context of what they expected."  

 Zeithaml, et. al. (1990), built on their earlier research (Parasuraman, et. al., 1984) to identify five dimensions of service quality, as perceived by customers: tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, assurance and empathy. These dimensions, which they incorporated into their "SERVQUAL" model, are defined in Figure 1.  

Parasuraman, et. al. (1984) had positioned consumers' perceptions of service quality along a continuum ranging from ideal quality to totally unacceptable quality, depending on whether the customers perceived the service they receive as meeting, falling short of, or exceeding their expectations. Among credit card customers, Zeithaml, et. al. (1990), like Schlesinger and Heskett (1991) found that tangibles were of the least importance to customers. The mean importance of the remaining four criteria, reliability, responsiveness, assurance and empathy, all rated above 9 on a 10 point scale, with reliability receiving the highest individual rating (48.6) as the dimension most important to customers (Zeithaml, et. al., 1990).  

Zeithaml, et. al. (1990) studied whether customers' perceptions of quality were influenced by whether or not they had experienced a recent service problem (Figure 2). They examined customers who had experienced recent service problems and those who had not. They found that service problems adversely affect customers' perception of service quality, and that customers who were dissatisfied with the resolution of their problems were twice as dissatisfied as those whose problems were resolved to their satisfaction (Zeithaml, et. al., 1990). 

Zeithaml, et. al. (1990) concluded that: 

"The most important thing a service company can do is be reliable that is, perform the service dependably and accurately ... do it right the first time. When a service problem does crop up, however, all is not lost unless the company ignores it. In other words, by resolving the problem to the customer's satisfaction, -- by performing the service very right the second time -- the company can significantly improve customer retention rates." Like Zeithaml, et. al. (1990), Heskett, et. al. (1990) found that good service delivery elicits the best outcome in terms of customer satisfaction. They noted that the next best outcome was achieved when problems were elicited and resolved, followed in descending order by problems that were elicited but not satisfactorily resolved and problems that were not elicited or expressed. 

Bowen and Lawler (1990) also recommended that service workers be empowered to solve problems creatively and effectively. Like Zeithaml, et. al. (1990), they emphasized the importance of keeping frontline personnel informed about organizational performance; providing problem solving skills and other knowledge that helped employees contribute to organizational performance; and basing rewards on performance. They found that empowering employees to provide a quick response to customer frustrations "can turn a potentially frustrated or angry customer into a satisfied one" (Bowen and Lawler, 1990). Bitran and Hoech (1990) also noted that defections are seldom the result of ordinary interactions, but of an organization's failure to handle abnormal situations to the customer's satisfaction.  

Behaviors and Skills Linked to Service Quality and Customer Retention 

Zeithaml, et. al. (1990), Bowen and Lawler (1990), Reichheld and Kenny (1990) and Schlesinger and Heskett (1991) cited the need for customer-contact personnel to "take responsibility, think for themselves and respond well to pressure from customers" (Schlesinger and Heskett, 1991).  

Schlesinger and Heskett (1991) further emphasized the importance of training and support in "communication, performance management, team building, coaching and empowerment" for front-line workers and their managers. Both Reichheld and Kenny (1990) and Schlesinger and Heskett (1991) found that companies that exhibited these policies and attitudes experienced not only higher customer retention and profits, but also an increase in employee loyalty and a reduction in job turnover.  

Zeithaml, et.al. (1990) found that a "Service Performance Gap" occurred when employees were unable or unwilling to perform the service at the desired level. They found that this gap was common among the service businesses they studied due to problems related to: role ambiguity; role conflict; employee-job fit, technology-job fit, supervisory control systems; perceived control; and teamwork.  

Zeithaml, et. al. (1990) defined role ambiguity as a situation in which employees were: (1) uncertain about what their managers or supervisors expected from them and how to satisfy those expectations; (2) lacked the training or skills to provide the service needed for customer satisfaction; and (3) did not know how their performance would be evaluated and rewarded.  

To achieve role clarity, Zeithaml, et. al. (1990) suggested the use of four tools: communication, feedback, confidence and competence. They emphasized that employees need accurate information about their roles; specific and frequent communication from managers about what they were expected to do; and complete and current information about products, services and customer expectations.  

Zeithaml, et. al. (1990) concluded that training and feedback in two areas, technical knowledge and interpersonal skills (which were related to their "SERVQUAL" dimensions of responsiveness, assurance and empathy), could increase employees' confidence and competence, and provide greater clarity regarding their roles. Bitran and Hoech (1990) also noted the importance of providing feedback to employees on their interactive skills.  

Bitran and Hoech (1990) suggested that high-contact, high-communication service providers require skills in: diagnosing problems; gathering, checking and disseminating information; resolving conflicts; disseminating cost information; and managing waits. The first three of these tasks are shared by customer retention representatives. (See Figure 3.) 

Relationship of Sales Skills to Behaviors Linked to Customer Satisfaction and Retention 

Williams, Spiro and Fine (1990) noted that very few researchers have explored the customer-salesperson interaction from a communication perspective. They proposed a model that focused on communication as the primary element of this interaction. They found that, although many authors stressed the importance of "verbal and non-verbal code (Marks, 1981; Jackson et. al. 1988) such as message order, patterns of argument, use of evidence, visual contact, etc. in personal selling, most of the research had concentrated on non-sales interactions. The customer retention function required that sales skills be combined with service skills associated with quality and customer loyalty. This researcher identified areas in which these two skill sets overlapped, to determine which (if any) behaviors on the part of the representatives might alter a customer's decision to take some or all of their business to another supplier. 

Rackham, et. al. (1971) studied whether some individuals interact more successfully than others because they are more skilled -- "they either do certain things that others do not, or they do them better." While admitting that personality and aptitude factors account for some differences, they found that interpersonal skills, which they classified as "interactive behaviours," could be influenced more readily. (The spelling of the term reflects the British origin of Rackham and his associates.) They defined an interactive behaviour as "one which involves two or more people in such a way that the behaviour of one person may influence the behaviour of others." This definition also describes the desired individuals who are expected to influence the behavior of customers in favor of retaining their accounts. 

Rackham, et. al. (1971) developed a method of data collection and analysis for measuring interactive behaviors. Trained observers have used this method for training needs analysis, process consultation, course design and on-the-job feedback. The behavior analysis breaks an individual's contribution to a discussion into discrete bits of observable behavior. Rackham et. al. (1971) found that successful individuals tended to use a quantifiably higher proportion of certain behaviors in specific interactive situations than did their less successful counterparts.  

The methods developed by Rackham, et. al. (1971) were used by Motorola Training and Education Center in studies of the interactive behaviors used in interpersonal discussions, sales negotiations, presentations and meetings. Working with members of Rackham's organization, Huthwaite, Inc., researchers trained in these methods (including this author) correlated the behaviors demonstrated by individual performers with the outcomes of their interactions. In each type of interaction, the researchers found that the most successful performers used significantly more of some behaviors and significantly less of others than did either average or below average performers.  

These behaviors varied, depending on the type of interaction. However, successful performers in two-way interactions consistently demonstrated a substantially higher use of three behaviors: seeking information, supporting the ideas or feelings expressed by others, and testing understanding. Conversely, the less successful performers provided a higher proportion of information (facts, reasons and opinions) than those whose two-way interactions were more successful.  

Farber and Wycoff (1992) interviewed top sales performers at more than 50 companies. These individuals emphasized the importance of establishing and maintaining rapport with customers. The Motorola research identified this skill with two interactive behaviors: "Supporting" and "Testing Understanding." Supporting was defined as acknowledging or expressing empathy toward the feelings, ideas or positions of the other party. Masser and Leeds (1984) also stressed the importance of this behavior in telephone sales.  

Testing (or Checking) Understanding was defined as paraphrasing or restating what the other party had said or the implications of those statements. Masser and Leeds (1984) also recommended this behavior, which they categorized as hearing, interpreting and evaluating, to distill an accurate interpretation of the customer's meaning in telephone sales. The Motorola research linked both Supporting and Checking Understanding to "active listening," which was prominent among Bitran and Hoech's (1990) list of the process skills required of service providers.  

Many authors (Reichheld and Sasser, 1990; Rackham, 1988; Farber and Wycoff, 1992; Masser and Leeds, 1984; Bitran and Hoech, 1990; Boyan and Enright, 1992) have linked the ability to ask probing questions with success in sales. Reichheld and Sasser (1990) stressed the value of "defection analysis" to determine and correct the root cause of defections, mentioning the value of skillful probing (questioning) in identifying the reasons why customers cancel, and using that information as an "early warning signal" for improvement.  

Bitran and Hoech's (1990) task categories of diagnosing problems and gathering information implied the need for questioning skills among high-communication service providers. The fact that questioning skills are identified with success in each of the roles played by individuals seeking to retain customers (retention, sales and service), indicated that such skills might also be linked to their success. 

Farber and Wycoff (1992) advocated asking questions to develop a "natural flow, which in turn will lead to a natural solution." Masser and Leeds (1984) emphasized the importance of "qualifying skill," which they defined as: (1) spontaneously creating probing "subset" questions and truly responding to the customer's situation; (2) the ability to use listening skills to ensure that customer's comments are understood and interpreted correctly; and (3) smooth and logical connection of steps in the conversational process.  

In studying the "interactive behaviours" of sales people, Rackham (1988) found that a category of behavior, which he classified as "Benefits," was significantly higher in calls that resulted in orders. He defined a Benefit as a statement that explains how the sales person's company or product can meet an explicit need that the customer has expressed. He also identified a related behavior as being correlated to success in smaller sales. This second behavior, which Rackham (1988) referred to as "Advantages," shows how a product or service can be used or can help a customer.  

The difference between Advantages and Benefits was that a Benefit must meet an explicit need expressed by the customer. At a study conducted at Motorola Canada, Rackham (1988) found that sales people who used Benefits rather than Advantages increased their dollar volume of sales by 27 percent.  

Rackham's (1988) research also revealed that a common category of sales behavior known as "Features" (presenting facts or characteristics of a product or service) were unpersuasive. This finding may be related to the Motorola research which found that the more facts, reasons and opinions an individual provides in a two-way interaction, the less likely that individual was to obtain a successful outcome.  

Many authors (Boyan and Enright, 1992; Shafiroff and Shook, 1990; Masser and Leeds, 1984) have described a complex process of overcoming objections and closing as the most important part of the sales interaction. Rackham (1988) found that individuals who received very high numbers of objections used a higher than average number of Advantages in their calls.  

Conversely, skilled people received up to ten times fewer objections per selling hour, by preventing rather than handling objections, by questions to develop explicit needs, and then offering Benefits, rather than Features or Advantages. He also found that the more closing behaviors a salesperson used, the less likely he or she was to complete the sale.  

Farber and Wycoff's (1992) interviews with top sales performers at more than 50 companies also revealed that overcoming objections and closing were perceived as less significant than other behaviors. Like Rackham (1988), Farber and Wycoff (1992) stressed the importance of matching the solution to the customer's needs.  

Conclusions: 

The literature revealed significant relationships between: customer retention and quality of service as perceived by customers; the use of interactive communication skills by customer contact personnel and the perception of service quality by customers; and skills identified with success in sales and service tasks related to the customer retention function. 

  
Major Media Learning Resources provides proven tools and tactics to rapidly and effectively improve customer retention and loyalty. For further information, please contact: 

Joan B. Krawitz 
Vice President and Director  
Major Media Learning Resources 
3326 Commercial Avenue 
Northbrook, Illinois 60062 

(847) 498-4610 
FAX (847) 272-1534 
  

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Armstrong, L. and Symonds, W. (1991). Beyond 'May I Help You?'. Business Week: Quality 1991. 

Bitran, G., and Hoech, J. (1990). The Humanization of Service: Respect at the Moment of Truth. Sloan Management Review, 31(4), 89-96. 

Bowen, E. and Lawler, E. (1992). The Empowerment of Service Workers: What Why, How and When. Sloan Management Review, 33(3) 31-39. 

Boyan, l. and Enright, R. (1992). High Performance Sales Training. New York: AMACOM Division of American Management Association. 

DeSouza, Glenn (1992). Designing a Customer Retention Plan. Journal of Business Strategy, 13(2), 24-28. 

Everett, M. (1993). A Higher Calling. Sales & Marketing Management, 145(1), 30-31. 

Farber, B. and Wycoff, J. (1992). Relationships: Six Steps to Success. Sales & Marketing Management, 144(4), 50-58.  

Heskett, J., Sasser, W., and Hart, C. (1990). Service Breakthroughs: Changing the Rules of the Game. New York: The Free Press, A Division of MacMillan, Inc. 

Jackson, D., Cunningham, W., and Cunningham, I. (1988). Selling: The Personal Force in Marketing. Santa Barbara, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  

Marks, Ronald B. (1981). Personal Selling: An Interactive Approach, Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, Inc. 

Masser, B. and Leeds, W. (1984). Telemarketing: The Corporate-Caller Skills Program. New York: Macmillian Publishing Company. 

  

Parasuraman, A., Zeithaml, V., and Berry L. (1984, August). A Conceptual Model of Service Quality and Its Implications for Future Research. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Marketing Science Institute. 

Rackham, N., Honey, Peter, Colbert, M., Fields, R., Hinson, D., Morgran, T., Morris, M., Sugden, R., Tribe., S. (1971). Developing Interactive Skills. Northhampton, England: Wellens Publishing. 

Rackham, N. (1988). SPIN Selling. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 

Reichheld, F., and Kenny, D. (1990). The Hidden Advantages of Customer Retention. Journal of Retail Banking, XII(4), 19-23. 

Reichheld, F., and Sasser, W. (1990). Zero Defections: Quality Comes to Service. Harvard Business Review, 68(5), 105-111.  

Schlesinger, L., and Heskett, J. (1991). The Service-Driven Service Company. Harvard Business Review, 69(5), 71-81. 

Shafiroff, M. and Shook, R. (1990). Successful Telephone Selling in the '90's. New York: Harper & Row. 

Sherden, W. (1992). Hold That Policyholder! Best's Review, 92(9), 23-25,88 

Williams, K., Spiro, R., and Fine, L. (1990). The Customer-Salesperson Dyad: An Interaction Communication Model and Review, Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, 10(3), 29-43. 

Zeithaml, A, Pasuraman, A., Berry, L. (1990). Delivering Quality Service: Balancing Customer Perceptions and Expectations. New York: The Free Press Division of Macmillan, Inc. 

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