What Part of Customer Service is Not Clear?


It happened to me again recently: I was in a situation where I needed to contact the customer service department of a major company. You know the feeling – a product that’s not right, service that didn’t happen, promises that weren’t kept.


You probably also know what happens next. That sense of dread and desperation: I’m about to waste a lot of my valuable time trying to resolve this. And sure enough, the customer service rep on the other end of the line was sure not to disappoint.

I could go into details about the particular organizations involved. Like the two hours I spent being ping-ponged back and forth among various groups at Dell Computer – finally winding up with the same group I started with, before being told they couldn’t help me. Or the total lack of concern and intractability of the folks at Sprint, even though they regularly send me emails telling me what a special customer I am – but treat me on the phone like they’ve never heard of me before and wish I’d go away.

But this is not about Dell or Sprint – in fact the company names are not even relevant. I could be talking about just about any company in any industry. It seems most companies in America are in a tight race to see who can outdo each other with poor customer service.

Sure, we’ve all heard of the exceptions: Nordstrom’s, Zappos.com, the Ritz-Carlton. The problem is we can name the exceptions on one hand because they are so few and far between.

This shouldn’t be rocket science, yet most organizations don’t get it. What are they doing wrong?

They’re focused on efficiency of their customer reps, not solving customer problems. Those pesky customers take up so much of our time and effort – wish they’d stop bothering us. (Note: Keep it up and maybe they will!)

They confuse politeness with the ability to solve customer problems. The people I talk to are invariably polite. Their training must include significant emphasis on apology, because when there’s a problem they continuously apologize – maybe 4 or 5 times in one call. Sometimes they even apologize for apologizing – arggh!

They can’t think outside the box to be able to solve customer problems. They’ve been given clear instructions on how to solve the majority of incidents. When your problem is outside these boundaries, they are clueless as to what to do next. So they go back to what’s on the screen and round and round you go.

There’s not a clear escalation channel to reach someone who can solve customer problems. Take Comcast, for example. The first three times I tried to transfer service to my new office, I was told here’s the (bad) deal, take it or leave it. It wasn’t till the fourth time when I told them in no uncertain words I was cancelling my service immediately, that I was quickly transferred to a group that listened to my issues and put together the package I had been asking for all along – at a reasonable rate. Why does this need to reach total customer frustration before I can talk to someone who can solve my problem?

There’s a red carpet extended for the best customers, and the rest of us are treated like second class citizens. The idea is to show us how much better off we’ll be if we can get to that top customer tier – the problem is the way we’re being beaten and abused, it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever get there

I could go on, but you get the picture: Customer service should be about solving customer problems. And in most cases, it’s not. Too often it’s about the organization, not the customer. It’s about efficiency, not solutions. It’s about the short-term transaction, not the longer-term relationship.

We hear about how social media can dramatically change the nature of supplier-customer relationships. You can monitor Twitter streams, watch Facebook postings, keep an eye on blogs and YouTube postings. But if you don’t do something to change the basic premise of how your organization approaches customer service, then all these tools do no good.

How do your customers feel when they talk to your customer service reps? Remember that if you’re a small business, EVERYONE is a customer service rep – no matter what their actual title. In a larger organization, all customer facing personnel are delivering a brand image to your customers. Make sure it’s the one you want out there. Make sure your commitment to customer service is crystal clear.

About Linda Popky

Linda J. Popky, a past president of WIC and the founder and president of Silicon Valley-based Leverage2Market Associates, helps organizations be heard above the noise. She is the author of the recently released book Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing That Matters. Connect with her on Twitter at @popky

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