You’d think the most fundamental aspect of customer service, whether it happens in the field, a shop, or across a lunch counter, would be simple politeness. And since, as we know, everyone’s mother taught them better, there’s really no excuse for being impolite.

Yet that’s not what mobile workforce management solutions provider Cognito found in late January, when it surveyed 1,400 homeowners in the UK. Sixty-seven percent of respondents told the firm that customer service has either stayed the same or deteriorated over the past three years. What’s going wrong with customer service in the field? We called up the firm’s strategic development director, Jonathan Chevallier, to ask why field service staff’s customer service wasn’t up to snuff, and what their research suggests managers should do about it.

Do you think customers are beginning to expect better service in the field?

Chevallier: Yes, I’d say they are generally. I think one of the factors of the service environment is a number of businesses aim to differentiate on the service they provide, and for a while they can differentiate that, but then other people start to catch up to erode that differentiation. It does raise the bar over time.

There’s this commonly held statistic that if a customer complains, they’ll tell 10 other people, and if they’re happy they’ll hardly mention it to anyone. If you’re hacked off with service, technology has the potential to magnify that effect. Put a little tweet up and it’s there in the blogosphere for anybody whose doing a search on that company. That noise can mount up over time.

When you talk to customers, what sort of things are they complaining about most often when it comes to field service firms?

The thing that consumers most commonly comment on — our most recent research backs this up — is actually unfriendly and impolite staff. It’s pretty interesting in an environment where there’s lots of pressures to get to the job on time, get it done correctly, all the rest, some companies are forgetting the real basics, which in some respects don’t cost you anything to do. Make sure you’ve got staff that smile at the customer and are polite. They are things that are free, but if staff feel under pressure to perform, things that should be natural go out of their head and they forget to do them, so it does look like it’s a real training issue.

One of the real challenges if you’re managing a field service operation is knowing what’s happening in the field. You can do all your training and assume that your operatives are equipped and able to do it and then you lose sight of what’s happening. Our firm belief is what service managers need to be getting is feedback of what’s actually happening in the field, and the technology can do that now. If you equip your field force with tools that control their workflow — tell them where to go, give them information about the job — the logical final step on that process is to ask the customer to rate the service. You can have that information coming back. You can see who your poor performers in customer service terms are and you can help them improve. But if you don’t know that, you can’t do that.

Are there any other simple steps that firms often overlook when it comes to customer service?

If you give a customer an appointment, making sure you hit that appointment. If you miss it and you’re late, apologize. Sometimes things go wrong, so how you handle the recovery is really important. There’s quite a lot of research that a good recovery is hugely valuable to business. Obviously, if you mess up all the time, then you’re a lost cause, but people know things go wrong.

First of all, apologize in the best possible way. Tell the customer how you’re going to fix the problem and then follow through on that fix. A lot of people will say, “Alright, fair enough, you handled that problem pretty well.”

These seem like very basic things. Are you surprised at how many firms are making mistakes on the basics?

Think about the typical boiler service man. Sometimes these people will view themselves as a technical person with a certain technical skill. Maybe they don’t see themselves as actually a brand ambassador. The impression they portray of their company will have the biggest impact on that company’s brand. You can spend a fortune advertising you brand, telling your customers what you want it to stand for, but if the customers’ experience of that brand from the people they’re dealing with is totally contrary to what they’ve been told, they stop believing the advertising. They just believe what they see.

It’s very easy for people who are in the field to forget that they portray the brand. They need to treat the customer as a customer. Those things get lost and sometimes it’s because they haven’t been trained to think that way. Sometimes they’re feeling under pressure — they’re expected probably to get through more jobs than they needed to in the past because companies are always looking at productivity. They can be having a bad day.

Are there any other findings from your recent research that you’d like to highlight?

One of the other things I guess we’ve been disappointed in, although there’s an expectation of increasing service, not enough companies are actually stepping up. That doesn’t mean the service is getting worse, but the customers’ perception is that people aren’t hitting the standards. The research is clearly showing that. Obviously, economically there’s pressure. Businesses need to make more profits in a difficult environment and customers are watching their finances quite carefully, so in some instances businesses might not want to invest. But it’s very clear if you look at the stats, the status quo isn’t going to be good enough because the customers will desert and go to other companies that are stepping up. So there’s a challenge to companies to respond.

ABOUT Jessica Stillman

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @EntryLevelRebel