You would think that it might be reasonable to assume that good companies aspire to provide great customer service, wouldn’t you. Some companies establish customer service as their primary goal.
The bigger the company, the more the focus on the customer, in my view. But how much do we, as customers, help them to achieve that goal?
All too often customers get on the phone to a company, already in bitching mode, and it goes down hill from there. When the service that you would have liked to have received doesn’t eventuate you start to magnify the problem in your own head and allow your anger to be taken out on the poor guy at the other end of the phone. If the operator happens to speak with a foreign accent and is at a call centre in India or the Philippines the problem can escalate further and faster.
It’s hard to imagine that things can improve when you start with this scenario.
The problem, that I believe happens all too often, is that the customer sets totally the wrong modality to get positive results. Problems with products or services are quite real, but may actually be a manifestation of a deep seated, poor or failed internal process within the supplier’s organization that is hidden from view to the management. And customer service normally doesn’t have sufficient clout to motivate that kind of organizational change except under extraordinary circumstances.
I have been reflecting on this because of a personal experience over the last four years that eight weeks ago I decided to stop being angry about and instead to fix. I decided that I had to use all the things that I know about companies and about people and teach to students get results. It was also an experiment since I had no idea whether the theory would work, and it needed for me to understand what was happening and adapt my strategy as new information became available and was processed.
One thing that I believe now is that any successful big brand has as a core philosophy a commitment to provide great customer service. Big companies with such a commitment spend a lot of money on training their staff and I find now that big company customer service employees are all tremendously polite, helpful and dedicated to delivering the optimum result for me as a customer. That is a great start and is the gateway to getting what you want.
Here is the strategy that I used and which you can too if you want to get results:
Log each call, for time, content and quality, just as they do. Keep notes. As a result, every time you speak to a new operator you can refer them back to a particular conversation and the date that you had it. If you want good customer service, there is a responsibility on the part of you as a customer to identify the processes that the company uses and then to mirror them as closely as possible. This is rule #1 of getting great customer service. Use their methodologies, because they work.
Rule #2 is as extension of this: Be as friendly as possible with the customer service representative, the operator, in fact every one that you deal with. It’s a kind of variation on Stockholm Syndrome. The quicker you can establish that you are in this together the more you will get empathy from the other party. In any case there is absolutely nothing to be gained and a lot to be lost from being uptight or rude, regardless of how you may feel. And remember, most of the people that deal with your customer service rep are going to have been rude and uptight. Give your customer service rep a good and memorable experience. They will work that much harder on your behalf. They may even drop a few interesting pieces of information about the company here and there that may be helpful in your quest.
Understand that the problems associated with technology – often the reason for the problem – are often as the result of complex management policies in entirely separate parts of an organization. Problems of this kind are difficult to fix and are going to become more and more familiar as technology intersects with business models and finance and businesses are not sufficiently adaptive for the speed of change.
The solution is all about establishing a common ground for solving the problem. That translates into getting both parties to understand that there is only one language that you will ultimately be able to use – economics.
Regardless of what the problem is, there is going to be a cost for the supplier. Obviously there is cost to the customer, you, in not having the problem fixed. When both parties start understanding that their common ground is economic you can get things done.
This will mean that you have to find a way to get moved up the customer service food chain to the point at which someone has authority. This will probably take time. It is not going to come from saying to someone, “I want to talk to someone more senior”. It comes from being super-nice to the person you deal with to the point that they really want to help, and realize that they are not equipped to do that.
You have to have patience. Patience is what enables you to get real results. Companies rely on the customers wanting instant gratification. They too want to get a problem solved quickly and move on, because all that customer service time costs money. What you need to do is to use that insight against them. When you phone a help line for a company and you hear that recorded message that says words to the effect of “We record your call to measure quality”, that is when you know that you need to reduce the speed of your heartbeat, lower the tone of your voice from angst to calm-and-measured, and get prepared to stay on the line for as long as is possible. But it needs to be with a human being and not a computer – ideally a human who is not in a low priced labour market, but instead is in your home country.
Whatever the problem is, fixing it has a cost. Some things cost more than others to fix. Some things require entirely different departments with different discretionary expenditure budgets to be properly fixed. Most of the time this kind of problem is out of the control of the customer service department at any level whatsoever. This is important. Because it means that you have to find another pathway to resolution, and offer it to your new best friend – the customer service guy.
The other important thing to remember is that everyone that you deal with has a list of known problems and a set of verbal responses to the problems in a well rehearsed, and probably written script that pops up on the service rep’s screen as soon as your problem is entered into a text box on their computer screen. Once you realize that the company you are dealing with already knows virtually every problem that can arise and has a planned – and costed – response to it, you are on your way to understanding how to deal with it.
The primary tactic by companies is to put you on shaky ground by positioning you in unfamiliar territory. That is most easily achieved by making the customer believe that there is a technical problem that is in a separate part of the system and therefore not able to be resolved. They will give you a technical reason that is constructed to put you off balance, and hopefully to get rid of you. Remember that from an economic point of view, they want to get rid of you as quickly as possible without actually doing anything. That keeps the costs down. Once you understand their script you can start using it against them. You may have to figure out how to do that.
Your ultimate goal is to keep their costs up. You achieve this by keeping them on the line.
Next, you have to escalate your problem to the point that someone higher up the food chain is paying attention. They will try to buy you off. You will be offered something that appears to help you and is designed to appease you. Whatever they offer will have material value. Your inclination at this point in time is likely to be relieved that you got somewhere and to just roll over and accept the proposal as a reasonable solution, even though it doesn’t go anywhere near what you want. You need to “qualify” your acceptance of whatever is offered. This is a key point in the service paradigm carefully scripted by the company’s lawyers. This is the part of the process where the company will have made a record of the customer – that is you – having accepted a “consideration” as an agreed “resolution”. All businesses have some kind of statutory authority they need to answer to in the event of complaint. If they are able to show in the records of dealing with you that you were provided with a consideration that you accepted, that was the agreed method for conflict resolution, you don’t have a leg to stand on if you want to take it further.
If, however, you respond to the offer by politely saying that you appreciate the kind offer, and are happy to accept it provided that it is not considered as acceptance of full resolution, then the record will reflect that. The probability is that at this point the offer will be withdrawn but you will move up the food chain one more notch, and hopefully get to a more concrete, economically better outcome.
Remember, once again, that this is not about solving your problem, it is about you helping them solve their problem. Their problem is to make you satisfied. Instead of saying to their customer service people in an irate voice, “Do you realize that this is costing me money?”, say to them, “Do you realize that I have plenty of time and patience, an unlimited supply in fact. And for every hour that I am able to spend with you or one of your colleagues there is a cost. By my calculations the continuing cost associated with solving my problem represents a negative margin contribution of $x”. This is how you get things done.
Send me your customer service experiences. I would like to hear how you have successfully negotiated good results – or where you have failed.