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Twelve Customer Service Failures

(A Change Management Article)

Building a culture of customer service is hard work. Yet examples of what NOT to do are easily found.

Unfortunately, I've needed help and contacted customer service for four different organizations in the past couple of weeks. The highly unusual sequence of events provides a platform to examine the state of customer satisfaction. In today's environment, where we, as corporate leaders, pride ourselves on good customer and associate experience, I expected my experience to match the mantras I find prevalent in our branding and advertising. Jeff Bezos is quoted as referring to customers as guests. Warren Buffet describes the lengthy interval it takes to build a reputation and the small interval it takes to ruin one. Sam Walton describes the customer as the boss. Yet, for all the brand promises, mission statements, and marketing where we espouse excellent service, my experience has lately been dramatically different.

Multiple experiences in three weeks constituted four surprising failures and twelve lessons to be unlearned.

12) No Access

Your store phone number should do more than tell people to visit the website. My vehicle computer failed while I was driving in mid-Georgia. I directly talked to the store manager where the vehicle was stranded and informed them that I had contacted a roadside assistance company, and they would take it to a repair shop. I left my name and contact information with the manager, who assured me it wasn't an issue and would pass the information on to the other managers in the store. When I called the store to give them an update from the roadside assistance, I was sent to a voice mail that repeatedly instructed me to use their corporate website to register an inquiry. No other option was provided before the system disconnected the phone call. I was left with a poor experience instead of the earlier stellular one, and unable to reach the store.

Consider redirecting the call to customer care, who would then be able to get the message to the store manager.

11) No ETA

Twenty-six hours without an estimate of service from a roadside assistance organization tends to leave behind a poor customer experience. 6:20 pm was the time of my first call for help, and 8:30 pm the next day was the last call where I was finally given an ETA. For a good part, I'm sitting in the vehicle, just waiting. To ensure I give them credit, I loved that the first question the roadside assistance agent asked me each time I called was: "Are you safe." That one statement left me with the impression that they cared. At least initially.

Consider examining where the bottleneck was in the process and repairing it. While anomalies are expected in any system, the ability to detect and intervene can preserve a customer experience.

10) Don't call us; we'll call you.

That was the clear message in the case of two organizations, including the roadside assistance company. They would contact me when they had an estimate on when I might be helped. Over the course of twenty-six hours, I called back eleven times. Ten of those times, I was told another department was working on the issue, and I just needed to wait. The response that we haven't figured it out yet and can't tell you what we're doing, even after such a prolonged duration, was incredibly unhelpful and degraded customer confidence.

Given that a lack of communication always results in a poor customer experience consider providing interim status updates on progress.

9) We won't call you; you'll need to call us back

With the pharmaceutical company, the message was reversed. Insisting that they didn't have time to call me, I would need to call back and keep calling back to get a status until they could resolve the issue. Their message was that I could not expect them to be burdened to contact me once they resolved everything.

Consider proactively providing updates.

8) Find your own service

Even though you have contracted with us for this service, we are unable to meet your request at this time. Feel free to look elsewhere for service. That was the message from the roadside assistance company. Surely, there is a better way to tell the customer they should discontinue your service.

Consider establishing escalation processes in advance to assure the customer that you can deliver.

7) You can't find your own service

Even though we don't have your product in stock, have been backlogged for three months, and have no ETA for replenishment, you are not allowed to use another provider. Despite the fact that the alternate provider had the product readily available. It was an interesting response from a pharmaceutical company whose mission is the well-being of its customers.

Consider that if you can't meet a service, directly refer the customer to a provider who can.

6) No communication across departments

"I'm sorry, we can only enter the details in the record. We don't have a way to reach them." In two different organizations, internal silos prevented the customer care representative from talking to the organization capable of providing the service.

Consider eliminating internal barriers that prevent company agents from discussing a situation or seeking a resolution.

5) No Escalation

All four companies referenced in this article, the roadside assistance, human resources, pharmaceutical, and retail organizations, had no mechanism for escalations. When the customer care representative had exhausted their scripted capabilities, no workflow was available to help their customers. They were left orphaned with an annoyed customer and no ability to escalate.

Consider predefining escalations processes to handle exceptional conditions.

4) No Explanation

Have you ever received those notices that tell you the decision but not the rationale? Maybe for you, it was an experience with a medical, insurance, or government organization. For me, the latest was from a human resources service organization. Assuming I had filled something out incorrectly, stated something ambiguously, or otherwise made a mistake, I asked for an explanation. The answer was 'no.' the response was that they looked at what I submitted again and made the same decision. I appreciated the reliability of the decision; after all, I want the decision to be consistent. However, I would love it if the decision was also accurate. I doubted this case's accuracy due to my experience leading organizations for over twenty years.

Consider providing a decision's justification so the customer feels like due diligence was performed and the rationale is clearly understood.

3) No Communication except via Postal Service

Interestingly, two of the four organizations would only communicate their decisions via physical mail, though they have alternate communication channels, including text, phone, email, and their portal. Both decided that the appropriate communication was via the slowest form possible. Neither invited communication. Neither invited discourse. Both appeared to desire a conversation-ending form of communication.

Consider that the postal service doesn't match today's communication standards.

2) No consistent messaging

For two companies, the text instructions they provided in the process either did not apply or didn't have sufficient information for the customer to act. In addition, the information in the text messages was inconsistent with the company portal status.

Consider synchronizing the messaging channels and ensuring that communication content is easily understood.

1) Input your experience here

My list of recent poor customer service experiences is not exhaustive. Feel free to add your own to discover what good service might look like. Sometimes the best definition of good is to contrast it with what good is NOT.

As a corporate leader, consider living the customer and associate experience you espouse. Feel the hold times, the delays, and the communication misses. Listen to the worst calls and the worst experiences. Delegating that function to others and dismissing the outliers is too easy. However, the outliers are where you identify your gaps and what customer service means.

Building a culture of customer service is hard work. Yet examples of what NOT to do are easily found.

© 2023 Barry Robbins,


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