“Bring Back Customer Service” Club

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:

    1. 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.
    1. Accept accountability.
    2. Sorry is not a solution.
    3. 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.

5 thoughts on ““Bring Back Customer Service” Club

  1. That’s the key though- companies don’t want to fix the problem. They just want to LOOK like they are doing something. I’ve been that phone service representative, for multiple companies. And the bottom line is – the rep can only do what the company ALLOWS them to do. Some companies allow the rep a fair amount of leeway to get things right. Others don’t care. And since most of these companies focus on AHT (average handling time), MORE than customer satisfaction- most times all the rep is trying to do, is get you off the phone so they won’t get hassled about it later.

    Because you do get hassled if your handling time goes over a certain average. You get hassled if you don’t offer the customer something they probably don’t need (upselling), and you get hassled if you don’t sound empathetic (regardless of whether you actually care or not). So this boils down to sound like you’re happy to see them, sound like you care about their issue, and offer them something they don’t currently have. None of that even goes near accountability.

    BUT- there’s also the fact that the rep has probably dealt with 16 irate customers before your call, and because they are not allowed any downtime (to decompress)- they just can’t bring themselves to care about your problem. It’s not you. They are probably still thinking about being cussed out and yelled at by the person before you, even though they did not personally have anything to do with the problem. Because there IS such a thing as a bad customer. The customer can cuss the problem all day long, but the MINUTE they start cussing at us- we have a problem. And unfortunately- we can’t hang up on them (that’s a no-no). So that… funk hangs over every call after that.

    Knowing all of this, makes me more patient at the grocery store, when the lady in front of me has a fist full of coupons and will probably have to return some items because they will put her over her budget. It makes me nicer to clerks who have to deal with that irate asshole in front of me who is mad at the world, and looking for every opportunity to express it. And it makes me GLAD that I’m not currently in a job where I have to take that abuse on a call-by-call basis.

  2. I completely understand. One of my clients, when I worked at the advertising agency, was Citi Card Call Centers and I visited many of them to get a sense of the work. We were hired to try to create their recruitment ads to get more people to work for them; this would not be a good testimony 😉 They espoused to making a better environment for the reps, breaks, incentives, but ultimately everything seems money-driven as we do live in a capitalist society.

    I do my best to be friendly and understanding on the phone because I’ve seen their side of it. But there needs to be a series of protocols put into place, overall in any customer service, that when a customer is calling back 5 times or so, the issue gets escalated to a supervisor.

    But yes I agree the main issue is companies are letting customer service loose importance. Thanks for reaching out and reading; loved hearing your perspective.

  3. Most call centers are the same. 8 1/2 hour day, 30 minute lunch and two 15 minute breaks.
    So that means you are expected to be on the phone 7 1/2 hours every day. Some places I have worked had an aftercare function, when means you can take yourself out of the queue, if you needed to make notes on a customer’s account, or do some sort of followup, but they frowned on aftercare exceeding 30 minutes a day.
    That’s 7 hours a day that they expect you to be perky and happy and sound like you care. I don’t know of anyone who can keep that up for a solid 7 hours.

    When I worked for Wachovia (now Wells Fargo)- you did have a beginning and ending script to follow (and certain points to make sure you included), but they WANTED you to make it your own. That way you sounded like you cared. You also had discretionary powers to fix people’s problems. And things you didn’t have the power to fix were escalated to your supervisor. (You could also do other things like color or work puzzles to alleviate stress.) We even had a game room where we could go to decompress on breaks.

    When I worked for Asurion (cell phone insurance), you had NO power. NONE. And you could not deviate from the script at all. If it was on the screen- you said it to the customer, verbatim. And if you jumped ahead (because you knew what was coming)- you got in trouble there as well. And you could not do ANYTHING but listen to the customer. No puzzles, no coloring books. If your supervisor happened to come by and you weren’t looking at that screen- you were written up. How is an environment like this supposed to inspire me to do more than the bare minimum? Sure they had incentives, but those only went to the top performers. The rest of the employees just did enough to get by.

  4. There are so many things wrong with that. This is exactly why they needed a recruitment advertising campaign and it always validated what I said, that if they were great jobs, you wouldn’t need ads to fill them. Glad you are out of that world now. But it certainly takes a certain type to enjoy doing that job. Certainly not me.

  5. Not me, either. I took a pay cut to go to the job that replaced Asurion, just because it was less stress, and I didn’t have to have an act of Congress to go to the bathroom!

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