WMU News

Communication specialists book examines customer service issues

June 4, 1998

KALAMAZOO -- The communication occurring at that critical point when a customer interacts with a firm's employee is the subject of a new book by a Western Michigan University faculty member.

"Communicating with Customers: Service Approaches, Ethics and Impact" is the title of a book by Dr. Wendy Z. Ford, assistant professor of communication. Published earlier this year by Hampton Press Inc. of Cresskill, N.J., the book examines a wide range of communication styles utilized by employees interacting with customers as well as the role customers play in making the contact work.

Ford, who teaches organizational communication classes at WMU, says the book is not a broad "how to" book for people designing their firm's customer service policies. Instead, she says, it is a deeper look at one critical aspect of customer service -- the communication behaviors involved when people in business interact with the customers they serve.

"This will appeal to anyone for whom customer service is a part of business," Ford says. "For customer service trainers, supervisors and consultants, this book will help identify some of the common problems occurring in customer interactions. Even schools might find the information helpful."

Readers familiar with customer service management books will find some major differences in Ford's approach. One unique feature of the work is the applicability of the information to all types of customer service contact. The book, she notes, addresses communication issues relevant to simple service transactions common in fast food restaurants and grocery stores as well as the more complex customer service transactions that take place in health care, education and other professional service arenas.

Another unique feature is the book's reliance on solid research to provide evidence of the role and impact of communication behaviors. In working on the project, Ford applied the findings of studies conducted in numerous organizations.

The book, she says, is the first scholarly work with an intensive focus on communication in customer service. It is a topic for which she found a huge gap in the research and literature -- even though customer service has been the subject of many popular books written for the general business community. Ford explains that gap by saying customer service has traditionally been viewed as being in the realm of business professionals rather than communication scholars.

"Customer communication is a topic that is much deeper than remembering to smile and say thank you, " she notes. "Changing behaviors in communicating with customers can have enormous impact on an organization. The whole topic is one in which communication scholars, especially those now at the graduate level, are becoming very interested. I think it's really the future."

Among areas Ford examines in the book are service courtesy, verbal and non-verbal communication, manipulation, personalized and depersonalized service, service ethics, the use of deception, racial and gender discrimination, and the impact of service on customers and providers. The close of each chapter

focuses on her conclusions and the research still needed on each of those topics.

As a researcher who has spent much of her professional career studying and performing communication audits for a variety of corporations and organizations, Ford says the final chapters in the book are the ones she most enjoyed writing. They focus on how communication behaviors can impact the organization.

"So often people look at customer service and communication as it impacts sales or customer satisfaction," she says, "but organizations need to consider the long-term effects of communication practices. Simple communication behaviors can have a lasting effect on customer loyalty and what I call customer discretionary behavior."

Customer discretionary behavior, she says, covers a wide range of spontaneous behavior by customers that could be harmful or helpful to an organization. Those actions by customers might range from positive behavior such as recommending a business to friends to the more negative tack of skipping scheduled appointments.

Organizations also must be aware that for the providers, communication practices can be personally rewarding or they can lead to increased stress and burnout. Organizations, she says, need to proceed with caution in establishing their climates for service and consider not just the effects of these climates on customers, but the effects of these climates on providers.

In addition to her new book, Ford also is the author of a number of journal articles and conference presentations on customer communication and communication training and education. She also has acted as a consultant and research coordinator, performing communication assessments for such organizations as the Whirlpool Corp. and First of America Bank Corp. as well as for universities; national, county and city government units; and health care delivery organizations.

She has completed training needs assessments and conducted communication training programs for customer service representatives and employees in a variety of organizations. They include the U.S. Army, Bell Atlantic and units of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Maryland.

Ford came to WMU in 1993 from a faculty position at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas in 1986 and master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Maryland in 1989 and 1992, respectively.

Ford's book is available in Kalamazoo at campus area bookstores and from the publisher by calling 800 894-8955.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland; cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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