Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Lost Art of Customer Service

Recently, I had a frustrating experience with one of our vendors (who, because they finally DID resolve the issue, shall remain nameless).  After they notified us on our monthly statement that they would be charging us additional fees that were not part of our contract, we started a claim to get the fees removed.  In handling the issue, they took over three weeks to finally get us an answer.  During that time, for well over a week, they didn’t return any of my calls or emails, or attempt to communicate to me in any way regarding the status of my claim.  When I finally did get the customer service specialist that was handling our case on the phone, asking why she hasn’t returned my calls, she said she was training some new hires, and hadn’t checked voicemail (apparently, not for several days, as I had left several).  I can only hope she is a hypocrite, and not teaching the same bad habits to the people she was training.  She said it would be 5-7 business days before she would have an answer from her corporate office, and that she couldn’t do anything about it until they got back to her.  After ten business days, we again didn’t hear from her, nor did she return our calls.

Finally, I got so frustrated that I called the original salesperson who sold us the service.  I explained, in an annoyed tone of voice, that it was imperative that she call me back before talking to her company, so I could explain what has been going on (my intent was to save her some time, rather than having to go back and forth to find out what has been happening).   I also said that if we didn’t hear back in a timely manner, we would be leaving her company.  This salesperson sent my owner an email (bypassing me entirely) saying, “I would prefer to drop you an email..instead of interfacing with Jim.  In all the years of selling I have never worked with someone as RUDE and difficult as he is.”  After explaining what steps had been taken up to this point, she said we would still be liable for the $195 cancellation fee if we chose to go to another company.  For the record, I didn’t attack her personally, use any foul language, or say anything else that I would classify as “rude” or “difficult”.  My anger and frustration was apparent in my brief explanation of the hell her customer service specialist had put me through up to that point.  It saddens me as a salesman to hear another salesman with such a thin skin and low tolerance for a customer’s frustration.

All this brings me to my point: customer service is a dying art.  A big reason why companies like this come and go is that they don’t take care of their customers.  Imposing fees, altering the terms of agreement of a contract, burying disclaimers and loopholes in a sea of legalese on contracts, ignoring complaints, not returning phone calls and forcing customers to wait on hold for several minutes at a time (only to connect with someone who can’t resolve your issue–thus requiring many more minutes on hold) has become, to greater or lesser degree, the norm in business today.

Many companies lure in new customers in with great prices, only to lose them due to lack of service, or worse, lack of CUSTOMER service.  With the Internet, social media and all of the other informational tools available, companies can’t afford to have a bad reputation.  Today, word of mouth isn’t just limited to 4-5 housewives gossiping over a fence.  With social media, Manta, Google and other tools at people’s fingertips, word of mouth can spread virally to hundreds or even thousands of people.  Great prices can only win you so much business.  If people look up your company and see negative comments and reviews all over the place, and from many sources, they won’t buy from you; and in many cases, justifiably so.

While no company or organization can be totally fee of negative criticism, you can avoid the lion share of criticism by doing the right things in the first place.  First, be proactive in your communication to your customer.  If you have established a good communication line with your customers, you will avoid most problems before they become problems.  If you know something will be coming that will adversely affect your customer, such as the fee increase mentioned above, call them and let them know beforehand.  Don’t wait until the increase happens, try to covertly mention it via email or on a statement (as the above company did), or the ABSOLUTE worst thing: don’t EVER try to sneak it by a customer.  If you routinely do that and force customers to find out for themselves about a fee increase or charge, keep your resume up to date and handy, as you will be needing it soon.  In the event a problem has occurred, do the following:

1)      Listen to and understand the complaint.

2)      Give your customer a time frame to resolution.  If you think it will take a day to find out, say so.  If the process must be referred to someone else, make sure that person understands the time frame that was communicated to the customer.

3)      Stay in communication with your customer.   If it is taking longer than expected, communicate that to the customer.

4)      Handle any negativity or frustration with patience.  Understand that the customer is probably adversely affected by whatever the issue is (they can’t afford the cost difference; they need the product, etc.).

5)      Be respectful of the customer’s time.  If you can’t resolve the customer’s issue right then, ask to have the appropriate person call them back instead of making the customer waste their time on hold.

6)      Work diligently to solve the problem quickly.  If you handle problems quickly and efficiently, you will actually improve customer loyalty and respect instead of losing it.  Mistakes happen.  How you handle it determines whether your customers like you and continue to do business with you or start looking through their rolodex for that competitor who has been calling them.

Most people reading this will react to the above by saying, “of course.  That is just common sense.”  For those who read it and thought, “That’s ridiculous”, please refer your customers to me.  I could use the extra business.

Jim Kurtz