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The service sector is fundamental to the UK economy. Yet, roles in customer service have often been viewed within our society as a stopgap, a steppingstone to other careers or roles or jobs that ‘anyone can do’. Sadly, it is clear from our latest Breakthrough Research report, released this week, that the perception of customer service as a respected career path vital to the success of the nation still has a long way to go.

Just 39% of consumers polled for our research reported seeing customer service as a respected profession, dropping to just a fifth (21%) of those aged 16 – 21. With recruitment and retention issues already rife across the sector, these results highlight an urgent need for organisations, Government and education providers to do more to demonstrate the breadth of exciting, challenging and rewarding career opportunities for which customer service is a key component.

The reality is that those of us working in the sector understand the wealth of opportunities a career in service offers – expanding to include a huge range of roles requiring diverse skills, capabilities and behaviours. The last decade has seen the rise of digitisation and technology fundamentally shift the way consumers interact with organisations and, in turn, required service professionals to possess a broader and more complex range of interconnected skills than ever before. All of this has made roles in customer service increasingly enticing for those looking for a clear career pathway, with opportunities to learn new skills and broaden their horizons. The problem is, far too few potential employees know it.

The challenge, at least in part, is the in-built reputational snobbery the UK continues to hold towards roles in the service industry. This is particularly stark when compared to attitudes in markets such as Germany and the Nordics – countries often lauded for their approach to society, community and long-term economic planning. With the services sector accounting for around 80% of the UK’s economic output, failure to change outdated mindsets presents a real risk of the nation being left behind.

So what can be done? At The Institute, we’re passionate about reinforcing the rightful perception of customer service as a valued career. We have outlined important opportunities for organisations to elevate perceptions of customer service in our latest piece of Breakthrough Research, Building the Service Nation: Changing Perceptions about the Profession of Customer Service.

Fundamentally, as I have said before, leaders should take steps to embed a culture of service within their organisations. This means ensuring service is a boardroom priority, with sufficient focus given to service performance and outcomes in business planning and reviews. It means ensuring adequate opportunities are in place for training and development. It means adopting professional qualifications to build recognition for the breadth of capabilities and roles required to deliver an outstanding customer experience. And it means taking the time to reconsider how we benchmark pay levels appropriate to the skills and capabilities required to deliver our customer experience objectives.

I’ve been pleased over the course of developing this research to speak with many leaders who are already aware of the vital role of customer service professionals (many of whom came from service-based roles themselves) and to see the steps they are taking to embed service culture within their organisations. Yet if we are to build a true service nation, this needs to stop being the exception, and become the rule. The success of our organisations, and the UK economy, depends on it.

Jo Causon

Jo joined The Institute as its CEO in 2009. She has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s premier indicator of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment.

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