On Customer Service

One of my biggest pet peeves is bad customer service. As far as I’m concerned, there’s really never any excuse for it.

Let’s be clear here about what I mean by good customer service, though, since I’m not sure everyone has the same definition. I consider customer service to be not so much about making the customer happy as about giving them the best service possible. It simply isn’t possible to make every single person happy all the time. Sometimes people have impossible problems (“my computer has smoke coming out of it and I have to finish this project by tomorrow!”), sometimes it’s not feasible for the company or the customer service rep to truly help the person such that it will make them really happy (“but I sent the check! why don’t you have a record of it?”), and sometimes people are just in bad moods and want to take them out other people (“look, if you can’t produce a purple plastic purse for me in the next five minutes I’ll scream!”).

None of those things, however, are excuses for bad customer service. No matter how annoying the customer or how outrageous their demand, they should always be treated with respect. Doing so also gives you the right to ask that customers treat your customer service reps with respect. It’s really a win for everybody. Good customer service means happier, more satisfied customers who are more likely to give you return business and happier, more contented employees who do more work at a higher quality.

Unfortunately, customer service is one of those things that people seem to only understand is important when they are on the customer side of the relationship. Everyone wants to receive good customer service. This doesn’t mean everyone wants to be pestered by store employees and read to from canned scripts when calling customer service lines. Those things aren’t indicative of good customer service, they are indicative of companies more concerned about their bottom line than their customers (which really doesn’t make sense when you realize that they only have a bottom line because they can attract and keep customers).

Good customer service requires truly respecting your customers and genuinely wanting to help them. Some examples of good and bad customer service:

Your cable goes out and it doesn’t appear to be because of any of your equipment. You call the customer service line to report that it’s not working and ask for it to be repaired. The customer service rep consults their computer and doesn’t find a note about your area, so they put you on hold briefly (less than three minutes) and call the repair coordinating office to see if anything is happening in your area that hasn’t shown up on the computers yet.

They come back on the phone with you and say that yes, someone is looking into it and the expected repair time is currently four hours. They apologize for the inconvenience, thank you for calling to let the company know the cable was out and tell you that if you call back after the cable comes back on, the company can refund your bill for the time it was out. You ask why they can’t do the refund right now while you’re on the phone and the rep explains that the company requires it to be done after the blackout is over so that the proper amount of time can be credited. That way, if it’s only out five hours you get that amount of credit, but if the problem ends up taking ten hours to repair you can be properly compensated for that time. The rep then asks if you have any other questions. You say no, thank them and hang up.

This was a good experience, even though your problem wasn’t fixed. You and the rep were both treated with respect, the problem was treated as real (even though the rep had no record of it to begin with) and procedures were explained when you requested them to be.

You are in a serious accident, but not seriously hurt yourself, and your doctor suggests you see a mental health specialist about your experience. You call each of the doctors recommended and find that your health insurance doesn’t cover any of them. Your doctor suggests that you obtain a list of doctors in your health plan and they will suggest someone from the list, to prevent that from happening again. You call your health insurance customer service line to obtain the list.

You get a voice recognition program first that has trouble recognizing your voice, but eventually get to an actual human customer service rep. The rep immediately asks for your identification number, birth date and name. You give this information and after a moment of silence, the rep asks you how they can help you. Slightly annoyed already, you explain that you need a list of mental health practitioners that are covered by your plan. The rep says you have the wrong department and transfers you, which causes you to wait on hold for a few minutes for another customer service rep.

You explain what you want again. The rep responds with “what do you need to see one for?” Taken aback, you stammer and ask why it matters. The rep gets exasperated and explains slowly that it will help narrow down the list. You state that you’d rather not go into your mental heath with a stranger on the phone. The rep seems annoyed, but doesn’t argue.

They then ask how you would like the list, since it’s “really long”. You ask what your options are. The rep says they can read it out to you (although clearly they don’t want to) or they can fax it to you. You don’t have a fax number. You ask if they can email it to you. The rep sighs and says sure and asks for your email address. You carefully give your email address and ask for them to repeat it back (having little confidence that they were listening). They seem to have it correct. They ask if there’s anything else you need and when you say no, immediately hang up. You go to check your email more than a little annoyed.

This is a very bad customer service experience. Even if you went into the call in a good mood, you ended up angry and throughout the call no one was treated with respect. Your requests were treated as annoyances, you were asked for personal information that you should never have been asked for and information that you should have been asked for in the wrong way and you became so annoyed that you started to treat the rep as if they were incompetent.

Unfortunately, the second call is becoming more typical of my experience as companies cut funding and training from their customer service departments, outsource to people who have no way of hoping to help the people who call them, and gain monopolies and other forms of control such that people have no choice but to remain their customers, bad service and all. Money is poured into marketing (and we see how well that seems to be working) and taken away from actually providing a good product and service to customers.

This is not a good way to do business and it’s not a good environment in which to be a customer. Being a customer doesn’t make you a lesser being. Everyone is a customer. Even CEOs are customers to someone, and they expect good service when they are customers, so why do they provide anything less to the customers they have? This is what I really don’t understand. No one is just a customer service rep or just a businessperson. Everyone is on the other side of the counter sometimes and when they are, they want good, compitent service.

They want cashiers who are efficient and able to do things like process returns without having to wait ten minutes for a manager, they want sales reps who don’t pester them to buy extra things but do find them what they want and make useful suggestions, they want reps who are willing to try and find the solution even if they don’t have it. They want to be dealing with trained employees who are respected enough by their companies to be allowed to think for themselves and do things. And companies should want employees who are loyal to the company to because it respects them and gives them enough leeway to find solutions or to hand customers off to people who can when necessary.

Customers who have good experiences talk about it. They tell their friends. I know that seems like a myth, but especially in this day and age when such experiences are all too rare, it’s true. I can’t tell you how many repeat customers I had and I saw the people working around me get because we provided great customer service when I was a bookseller. People would not only come back, they’d bring their friends and talk about it. I’d have strangers walk up to me and say “my friend said you were so nice and helpful to her last month when she needed a birthday gift for her niece and I remembered that, can you help me?” And I saw that happen to the people around me too. I also saw customers leave upset talking about never coming back and heard customers repeating horror stories of what happened to them or someone they knew. Bad stories get around too, you see. And both types also get Twittered, updated as Facebook statuses and blogged about.

The thing is, if you give me good service, I suspect you might care about me. If you fail to give me good service, I know that you don’t care about me. And thats really what it’s all about. I want to give my money and even work for companies that care, even abstractly, that I am their customer or their employee. I don’t want to give my money to companies to actively don’t care about me. So that’s the challenge. Show your customers you care, and they’ll care about you. Show them otherwise, and you might find that they respond in kind with that too.

Related Link: Marvel Divas: Bad Customer Service

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