Don't Torture Your Customers: Cut to the Chase Already

Last Updated Jul 29, 2010 3:42 PM EDT

Customer Service Hell
If you have a pretty good idea of how a customer interaction is likely to end, why must you jump through hoops of fire to get there? Why not just get to the end of the story quickly, for everyone's sake?

Here's what happens at too many companies:
"Customer service, Mrs. (intentionally mumbled name) speaking."

"Hi, how are you? I'm having a problem with the 5407C Ultra-Automatic that I..."

"Do you have the serial number, registration number, customer I.D. and trouble ticket number?"

"Well, I'm fine too, thanks for asking! I only have the serial number. It's 5407-372498220918734c0921117654327604352u."

"I've located that serial number, how can I help you?"

"Well, as I was saying, the unit just seems to have stopp..."

"Sir, the warranty on that unit is expired. There's nothing I can do for you on an expired warranty."

"But please, it's less than a week since the warranty expired and the thing just died on me, that doesn't seem..."

"I'm sorry sir, there's nothing I can do for you. Is there anything else we can help with today?"

"Can I speak to a supervisor?"

"He's just going to tell you the same thing..."
Eventually, begrudgingly, and very passive-aggressively, the representative connects poor Mr. Customer to her boss, "Supervisor 3201." Sure enough, the supervisor tells Mr. C. the same thing at first. But Mr. C. is tenacious. If he can just convince Mr. Supervisor 3201 to be reasonable, take his head out of the scripted rulebook, and pretend their roles were reversed, maybe he'll come to his senses. After a soul-sapping back-and-forth and 30 minutes of human life wasted on the phone (90 minutes if you count Mrs. Mumble and Mr, 3201 as humans), Mr. Customer finally wears them down. They agree, in a huff, to send him a replacement unit (but he has to pay the shipping for the return and the new one -- and that's absolutely the best they can offer).

The point of the drama is this: Mr. Supervisor 3201 obviously had the power to replace the unit all along. Most of the time, in most companies, people do have the ability to go outside the playbook to resolve a problem, but they don't -- either because the company tells them that their "superpowers" can only be used as a last resort, or because they simply don't feel like it. They listen to people with problems and complaints all day, and it can be a cathartic power trip to tell someone -- without the awkwardness of looking him in the eye -- "tough luck."

In my company, everyone has broad authority to do whatever they can to make someone happy, and they use it whenever needed. I don't think we've ever had a customer "leave angry" in our ten years, and in fact some of our best repeat customers are people who came to us first with a problem. I am very proud of that. But, inevitably, there will be unreasonable customers with unreasonable requests that can challenge even the broadest "make 'em happy" policy. When it happens, I always say the same two things:

1. Think like the customer. Even if the customer is wrong, even if he is completely out of line, putting yourself in his shoes (as cliché as it sounds) is the most important exercise in customer service. It helps remind us that there is a human being at the other end of the phone or computer. Often customers are not used to being treated well. The second someone does treat them well -- extremely well -- their tone changes like a flipped switch. So take it easy. Be nice. Think about how you might be able to work things out before you get defensive and assume there's nothing but trouble ahead.

2. Predict the future. Play it out in your head. Does the customer have a pretty fair gripe -- regardless of the "rules"? Or at the opposite extreme, is this customer way out of line, but one who will not rest until you give in? And will you probably give in eventually, even though it's not "right"? Then fast-forward and get to that part. Skip the back-and-forth and do what you know you're going to do anyway. Ninety-nine percent of the time that means giving the customer what he wants, or as reasonably close to it as possible. Reduce the script above to 2 or 3 friendly lines.

The bottom line is, if you already know where the conversation is heading, skip right to the end. Sometimes it'll cost you. But more times than not, the payoff will be delighted and rabidly loyal customers telling everyone they know about this insanely great experience they had with this wonderful person at this great, classy company.

OK, you know what I think. Does the company have the absolute right to stick to its guns since the product is no longer covered by the warranty? Of course it does. But should it? Tell me how you handle these situations at your company.

(Photo provided by Skooba Design)
  • Michael Hess On Facebook»

    Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at www.businesswithclass.com.

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