Customer service is overrated… And other things to write on your gravestone

Written by on May 27, 2013

This is a follow up to David Heinemeir Hansson’s post on the 37signals blog. To give you a brief summary, David’s bag was lost during a recent trip on American Airlines. The post was a result of his two-week nightmare, involving recorded messages, shallow apologies, and the painfully inflexible customer support experience he had. And David is not any traveller, he is one of the founders of pioneers of SaaS software, 37signals.

Lots of people read it, and there was hell to pay.

But what about us ordinary folk? We have these problems too. If you’ve ever had a billing issue with your mobile carrier, or waited without food, water or a reasonable explanation for someone to fix a technical snag on that airplane, you know what I’m talking about.

And in most cases, all it would take is just a little bit of effort and ownership.

There’s simply nothing worse than someone telling you how sorry they are when you can hear they don’t give a damn. Nothing worse than someone telling you that they’re doing all they can, when they’re aren’t lifting a finger.

David Heinemeir, 37signals

Clearly, these giants know that they’re bleeding their customers dry. So, why do they still go on a with poor customer experience?

Let’s narrow this down. Almost all reasons for non-responsive customer support can be broken into one, or a combination of these three reasons:

a) Stifled by the Policy whale –

I’d love to, but my hands are tied
A mix of policies, best-practices and guidelines are essential to deliver great customer support. But when policies start outweighing common sense, your customer experience ends up with a bureaucratic whale instead.

The Problem
Apathy is one of the main reasons the whale continues to exist. Customer reps end up sounding like machines with pre-recorded messages.

The Solution
Tear down those walls, and get rid of bureaucracy that holds your customer service down. Customer service metrics should become a top-level concern.

b) Playing the Ostrich –

If I look away, maybe it’ll go away.
Back in the day, when customer support was an isolated department, companies could afford to ignore a disgruntled customer and continue with their lives. Not anymore. Today, an annoyed customer with just a broken guitar can bring an entire airline to its knee.
The Problem
The Ostrich is most popular in volatile customer relationships, with a large velocity of one-time buyers. The need to build word-of-mouth and loyal customers is missing, till too late.

The Solution
Have someone that each customer can count on. Account owners, customer success managers and user champions should do the trick.

c) Forcing the SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem) Field –

I know it’s important, but it’s not my job
Departmentalization and division of labor is critical for any large enough company to work right. But when front-line reps start thinking a particular customer complaint is not their problem, you can be sure your customer support is headed to disaster.

The Problem
The biggest problem is ignorance. Service reps are bogged down by their JDs and area boundaries, and passing-the-buck becomes the official game.

The Solution
Ownership is key. Service reps have to realise that they are the face of your business, step beyond the ruts, and own the customer’s problem all the way.

Case Study – Winning a Customer, One Stuffed Animal at a Time

I think every customer service rep, or just about anybody whose job involves working with customers, should look up to the Ritz-Carlton for inspiration. This particular story is about Chris Hurn, CEO of Mercantile Capital Corp, and his son’s favorite stuffed giraffe, Joshie, that the family misplaced during their stay last year.

Come bedtime, his son absolutely refused to bunk down without his giraffe and a desperate Chris told his son that Joshie was just enjoying a few more days in sunny Florida.

Chris called the hotel immediately after and was pleased to find out that they’d discovered the stuffed giraffe in the laundry. Chris requested the Loss Prevention Squad to play along a little, and include a picture of Joshie sunning near the pool.

A couple of days later, a package arrived from the Ritz-Carlton, with Joshie, some goodies, and a picture album of Joshie chilling at the pool, getting a massage, and even spending a whole day as an honorary member of the Loss Prevention Squad.

A simple request to return a misplaced item. An ordinary missed toy that the Ritz could have easily just thrown away. But an engaged front-line staff picked up the phone that day, and turned a stuffed giraffe into one of the greatest customer service stories ever told.

And in the end, that made all the difference.

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