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Photo credit:  artfulscribe@yahoo.com

I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions, per se.  My modus operandi is to think about something I would like to change or improve, do more of, do less of, or a contribution I should make.  I try to incorporate it permanently into my life and habits.

For example, about 12 years ago, I decided that when something happened to displease or disappoint me especially in terms of product or service, I had the obligation to bring it to the attention of management to help ensure it was corrected.  And if I was surprised or delighted by the product or the level of service, I would also let the company know to be sure it was rewarded/encouraged.

Recently, I had to switch to a “new” provider of internet and cable TV (also my current landline provider).  I say “new” in quotes because I had been a client of theirs but had switched to a different company years ago, due to continuous problems with their internet service.  I was forced to choose between them and one alternate competitor, because that’s how it works where I live.  (Yeah, that sucks!).

I was reluctant to go back to them, but the deal was pretty much comparable for both providers and this company offered free installation (because they had actually bought up my former provider, which is why I was forced to move).   I thought, “better the devil you know”.

Big mistake!  They bungled the installation and I received different information from  every person with whom I spoke. I immediately began to regret my decision.  Then I got busy and sort of forgot about it.

Until I received my first bill.  I was charged for the installation the company promised would be free to a “migrating customer”…   So I called just to let them know there had been a mistake.

In brief:  I was told they could find no record of the offer of free installation; the charge was valid and I was not eligible for free installation (although I was offered $ 25, or half, for my trouble).  When I indicated that was not acceptable, I would not settle for less than what I was promised, I was informed there was nothing that could be done.

“In that case,” I said, “ I would like to cancel my service.”

“Just a moment,” was the reply, “I will have to transfer you, I don’t take care of cancellations.”

I sat on it for a week, just to be sure I could get some distance and be as cool and objective as possible.  I detailed everything that had happened in chronological order. The letter was three pages.  I highlighted the key issues and made recommendations to address the problem I was writing about – poor customer service.

I copied several people on the e-mail.  Two different people replied to me.  Both addressed the $ 49.95 cancellation fee.  They all missed the point.  I had cancelled my service because of an accumulation of poor customer service not because of $ 49.95.  That was just the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back”.

What does this have to do with anything?  The key element of customer service is communication.

I Was Taught the Customer Is a Priceless Asset

Throughout my business career, I have been taught the customer is priceless, a valuable asset to nurture and protect, satisfy and engage.

That each interaction is a potential for dialogue and an opportunity to strengthen the relationship.  That talking to customers about issues and problems is a chance to positively influence the customer about the product/company.

I was responsible for the Customer Service Department of a major health and beauty aids company for several years.  I recall the care with which the employees were chosen and trained (including actual product hands-on).  I remember the tools that were developed to help them interact with the customers – scripts, reference material, product samples, legal guidelines, the regular briefings, the monthly meetings.

Complaints are a form of feedback.  Common issues are tracked and often lead to improvements in the product or service.

The Importance of Listening

It’s crucial to “listen” to the customer in order to understand their complaint.  Is the complain about the money they spent, the time they “wasted”, the unexpected results?  Did they have difficulty with the packaging, the instructions, accessing the website, reaching a real live person? If you don’t listen so that you can grasp their basic issue, you are not going to be able to give them any satisfaction regarding their problem.

It’s like the recent seminar I attended on negotiating, it’s key to figure out what is motivating the parties to bring the negotiations to a successful close.

The Importance of Respect

Yes, this is your job.  It is not any easy line of work. Yes, I might be the 300th person  you’ve had to put up with bitching at you over the last 4 hours.   I understand that some people are nasty and abusive, however you are the representative of your company and you are not allowed to be anything but respectful.  And to be really good at what you do, you need to be sympathetic and engaged so that I feel you are giving proper consideration to my problem, rather than sounding like a cool and distant automaton.  That is not respectful either.

You should be polite, professional and genuine.  Yes, you need to keep your cool – that’s where the “be professional” comes in.  It may help to put yourself in the shoes of your caller or think of an instance when you were in a similar position.  They are allowed to be unhappy, disappointed, angry, frustrated.  Reacting in kind is only going to fuel the fire.  Acting like you don’t care will do the same.

Oh and admitting that it’s possible a mistake has been made usually goes a long way towards demonstrating openness and diffusing tension.  Even when you may find out later on that there was no mistake, agreeing to the possibility creates common ground and diffuses anger because you appear open.

The Importance of Resolution

Every conversation, like a good story, has a beginning a middle and an ending.  An ending brings a conclusion or a resolution to the action, often a conflict in the story.

So should a conversation with a customer have a beginning, a middle and a definite end.  Customer satisfactions means the customer goes away knowing that his problem is being handled or will be handled, knowing the (necessary) next steps and the associated timeline.

The Importance of Good Judgment

I’ve addressed the matter of good judgment in the past, being concerned there is not enough of it.  Good judgment is key when addressing a customer service issue:  judgment about the value of the customer; about the seriousness of the problem; judgment regarding the value of fixing the problem versus not; relating to the value of how closely the situation and the necessary resolution conforms to company policy.

Good judgment is an important quality for customer service staff.  It helps ensure that each customer is treated appropriately and in consideration of their individual circumstances.

Deal with It, Don’t Pass it On

It is important to give the front-line agent the power and authority to deal with problems.  After all, this is the main reason for a customer service department, to solve customer problems.  In forward-thinking companies, it’s actually called a “Customer Satisfaction Department”.

This way the consumer can register his/her complaint and get resolution all with the same person, avoiding the mounting frustration of  being passed from person to person and having to retell the same story over and over.

There are exceptions to every rule.  The exception in this case is if the problem is too serious, complicated, or has history (i.e. has rolled out over a long period) then it may not be something a front-line agent can handle or solve.

The company I’ve used as an example has an “Escalation Policy” which they encourage you to read before you complain (not sure that’s optimum timing) and was pointed out to me multiple times in response e-mails.  To me, the existence of such a policy indicates a barrier to reaching management and sends a message that the company is not interested in receiving customer feedback.

So here I am, at the end of day, having fulfilled my resolution of giving feedback.  I have moved on from the services of this company – who I’ve not named because I don’t think that’s the point, although many of my fellow Canadians may guess the name of the organization – not without some personal sacrifice and added expense.

I made my point.  Too bad they missed it.

P.S. I’ll have some extra time on my hands to provide feedback more often in the future – I no longer have cable!