Top of Mind from 3by400
I don’t often use my column to vent, but between experiencing some really bad customer service and listening to a vintage Clark Howard radio episode over the last several weeks, I feel compelled to put an issue on the table—customer no-service. I’ll admit, I’m warped about this topic because I worked in telephone user support for Digital Equipment Corporation for about three years, so giving bad customer service was just not an option. In fact, the extremely high standard of customer service may well be one of the reasons Digital couldn’t hold on in the contemporary marketplace. Now isn’t that a commentary on the sad state of affairs?
Just the other day, I went into a national chain dress shop in Cumming. I shop there frequently and am probably responsible for funding at least one employee’s salary. I know most of the employees there and they know me. One of the items I purchased about six weeks ago had a quality issue—the seaming at the top of the waistband came apart. It was the first problem I’ve had with the quality of their items and, after explaining the issue to one of the employees, she recommended that I bring the item back in—they’d be happy to replace it even though I no longer had my receipt.
When I brought the item in, that employee was not working—problem #1. Right off the bat I was asked for a receipt and was promptly told the item couldn’t be returned without a receipt. Now, this same person has probably sold me about $800 worth of goods in the last eight months. I immediately told her that the other employee said I didn’t require a receipt and that obviously, the product was their brand, it was a new product, and there was no question that I bought the item there. Still—no receipt, no return. As I started reminding the clerk of how often I shopped there, she went toward the back of the store to get the manager. Unbeknownst to her, I followed and got to the stockroom door just in time to hear her tell the manager that I was giving her “lip.” Did you just hear the cellos play that “duh, duh, duh”?I couldn’t believe it. I had been neither rude nor loud. I was firm and I wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer. That must be “lip” these days. I couldn’t believe it and I called her on it. Needless to say, I got a replacement for the item, but now I feel compelled to never go back. That irritates me because I really like their products and it’s one of the few places I can always find something I like. Okay, so I may give them another chance…as long as the “lip” girl doesn’t wait on me.
Clark Howard calls this approach “customer no-service”—the general attitude of nonchalance by companies who should be appreciating our business. Organizations have become so large that the individual customer and how they’re treated doesn’t seem to be important. They just don’t believe we’ll fire them and hire a competitor.Face-to-face rudeness is tough to take, but what really torques me up is when they think we’re stupid. I’ve seen a report of a cable company that has started adding a new fee to their bills. It’s a very small fee—less than $.25—but it is to pay for the advertisements that are included with their bills. Yes, not only are those little slips of paper merely shedder food, now you may actually be paying for them. Give me a break!
I recently read an article about one of my other pet peeves—being “dumped” by a call center representative. According to the Des Moines Register, “Nationwide Mutual Insurance has fired five Iowa workers who routinely hung up on policyholders trying to file claims with the company.” One call handler was found to have dumped 34% of calls taken, all in an effort to meet the aggressive performance metrics. In subsequent hearings, one worker testified, “I wasn’t really thinking about the customer. I was thinking about myself and my stats.”I’m sure we all have enough customer no-service stories to fill this magazine. The question is—what do you do about it? The way I look at it, you have three choices: 1) accept it; 2) escalate; or 3) vote with your feet and fire the company.
Unfortunately, the reason we experience customer no-service so frequently is that most people just accept bad behavior. Whether they don’t feel they have the time or empowerment to call bad service what it is, many just overlook being mistreated. If you can do this and still keep a smile on your face, more power to you. However, the next time you get hung up on and don’t call back, or don’t take the time to escalate, know that you are rewarding the bad behavior. You’re also setting up the next customer for being treated poorly, too.If you’re tired and you’re not going to take it anymore, escalate. Escalation is not just when you’re being mistreated by a representative, but when the process doesn’t work. The last time I escalated a call, it was because the call handler told me, “The system won’t let me do that,” when trying to correct a mistake the company had made in billing. Sorry—just not willing to let “the system” have control over my credit report. Mysteriously, upon escalation, the manager was able to get “the system” to do what was needed to resolve the situation.The original situation that caused me to make the call in the first place was a local branch of a big-box retailer performing what I would consider to be a scam. We were purchasing a large ticket item and tried to use the credit account we had with that retailer for about eight years. The local store indicated that our account was no longer active and that we would have to fill out a new application. Knowing we hadn’t used the card in a while, we believed them. We only discovered the error, however, after accidentally paying on our old account number. I learned that our old account was, indeed, active and that the local store should have known that. Back to metrics: those locations are driven to open a certain number of new accounts every month and we were simply caught in the trap of an employee figuring out a way to make it look as if they were performing.
How you escalate is important. If someone is really being nasty and you’re angry, hang up and cool off—then call back. Always be polite and kind, speaking to the person on the other end of the phone as you wish to be spoken to. If you’re having a really bad day, shelve the issue until such time as you’re in a better frame of mind. It’s also important to make sure you have the important information if you’re going to escalate. Names (or those infernal numbers) are a must. If you’re escalating after the fact, make sure you have the timeline documented. Be clear about what you need and don’t feel like you have to recount your dreaded tale to each new person with whom you speak—the more professional you are, hopefully, the more professional they will be.
If you don’t get satisfaction from the first level of escalation, continue to escalate. With one series of escalations with a major investment company, I did not get my situation resolved until I spoke to the President/CEO’s assistant. That issue concerned an identity security breach issue, so it was critical and was definitely worth the considerable amount of time it took to resolve. If it’s important to you, don’t give up.
The toughest situations exist when you are dealing with a monopoly—like a power co-op, rural telecommunications, or worse, a government entity. Those situations are the ultimate frustration. It’s especially important to keep your cool, and document everything. On a positive note, based on my dealings, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seems to have completely overhauled its telephone customer service (although I can usually find most things online). The last time I called the IRS, I received a very thorough answer to my question by a kind, patient person who then happily helped me with another topic. I was shocked.
When all else fails, fire the company if you can. When I fire a company, I always make sure they know I fired them and went to their competitor. Even if it seems ridiculous, I know that by calling, they generally have a record of my dissatisfaction and the fact that they’ve been fired. If you really want to let them know, investigate until you can find a physical postal address for an “e” level in the company and send them a letter. I’m really a big fan of providing feedback.
I often wonder how customer service got to this low point. I think it’s probably a combination of things—it seems people are less patient and angrier these days (on both sides of the communication); companies are so greedy and profit-driven that they discount the human factor of their business; and busy consumers allow the bad behavior. While many organizations seem to be failing miserably, I am encouraged every time I receive a survey after having some interaction with the customer service department of a company. I try to always fill these out promptly so my voice is heard. I can always hope that someone of influence is looking at these surveys on a regular basis.
As a business owner, I review these scenarios to determine if there is any way they might apply to our environments. Thankfully, almost all of our employees are “old timers” who know how to do two incredibly important things: take care of their responsibilities; and listen to our customers. However, no one is perfect and things sometimes fall through the cracks. It’s tough to handle tough situations, but well worth caring for even one single customer.
Clark Howard takes it all to the bottom line—if you evaluate your marketing, advertising, and sales costs compared to the cost of customer service, it is definitely less costly to keep an existing customer than to find a new one. It may be a point to remember the next time you have to get on the phone as a customer—or as a customer service representative.