I learned customer service when I was 13 years old, working at our family’s donut shop. Marlene from the morning shift was a trustable source; a version of her existed in New York City coffee shops in the 1980s. She taught me these important rules:
- The customer is always right. This is technically the only rule of customer service, but I supplemented with three more because it’s 2016 and everyone likes a list.
- Accept accountability.
- Sorry is not a solution.
- Fix the problem.
Marlene was 85 pounds soaking wet, the Snooki of her day. She wore a self-imposed uniform: a short-sleeved white button-down shirt, black fitted slacks, black rubber-soled shoes, and a black apron with pockets for her order pad, pen, and a rag. Notorious for her permanently tanned skin and dyed black hair, which she wore teased inside a banana clip, her lifetime chain-smoking habit gave her a quintessential hoarse voice. She wore oversized earrings, for most likely 55 years, creating stretched out earlobes, but not on purpose like the cool kids are doing nowadays. This woman understood the essence of customer service lay in the word, customer.
I recently experienced some unacceptable customer service from a mobile phone service provider and wished it was Marlene’s cigarette-singed voice on the other line, telling me, “Honey, of course, you’re right the coffee isn’t’ hot enough. I’ll get you another cup.” She would say this even if my cup was obviously steaming. She understood the few cents it cost to make me a happy customer would keep me bringing in a lot more money.
But somehow in the land of expedited technology and instant gratification, a text chat on a Website is as friendly as you get. Otherwise, you’re navigating a series of phone prompts trying to out-smart them to get an operator.
Every time I got on the phone to try to resolve my cell phone problem, I maintained my zen, channeling the “you catch more flies with honey” mentality. But with every consequent screw up, I got further exasperated. Finally, I blogged about it – and tweeted it because it’s 2016 and these are the protocols to follow if you really want to be heard. We have resigned to throwing virtual temper tantrums 140-characters at a time. Neither a kind, pleading human voice nor an angry, screaming one will yield a reaction quite as quickly as an obnoxious comment with a hashtag in front of it.
My first corporate job was at the American Management Association, where they created classes instructing managers on how to hone their customer service skills and succeed in business. Managers invested three days away from the job, listening to keynote speeches and participating in break-out groups – all to discuss customer service. It used to be that important.
My next job was at the recruitment advertising agency which owned monster.com, the career Website which used to be rich enough to buy Super Bowl commercials. The agency took a great interest in customer service and mandated we read our complimentary copies of The Nordstrom Way: The Inside Story of America’s #1 Customer Service Company. We stayed some nights until 9 pm, getting a free dinner and car service home, to engage in brainstorming meetings about the importance of our roles as Account Executives and in providing exceptional customer service to our clients. You know why? Because all the large agencies provide the same ultimate creative and media services; the difference is in the people. It’s in the smile behind the voice on the phone. It’s in meaning “my pleasure,” when you say it.
Companies: teach your employees how to service humans; arm them with the tools to listen to people not pixels on the screen in front of them. Life is not a script, adapt to the times.