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The Dea(r)th of Customer Service

It wasn’t long ago that customer service seemed to be making a comeback after many years of decline. Partly due to the prolonged recession and businesses wanting to survive, anything that helped them stand out from the competition was considered a good thing. And customer service was at the top of the list. Training companies specializing in customer service suddenly got very busy. Service improved dramatically and the better the service, the more business companies got.

Technology companies got on the customer service bandwagon. Good customer and tech support were and still are benchmarks by which hardware and software companies are measured. The results are public ÷ itâs something people take into consideration when shopping for these products. Companies like Xerox, IBM, and Hewlett Packard, among many others, maintain top-notch customer relations departments.

But something has happened as we move into the early 21st century. Customer service is once again on the decrease. One cause is the hot job market. Workers know that they have to perform only to the minimum standards because employers are having a tough time finding replacements and, thus, are reluctant to let them go. And, for all the training that seems to be in place, unless people stick around to incorporate what theyâve learned, and unless management insists on certain performance standards, all the training in the world wonât make a difference.

An Oft Told Tale

The following three stories are illustrative:
Last August, vacationers at a store selling Beanie Babies politely asked the clerk if her store would be willing to match the price of a nearby competitor. Her response? A loud, ringing “We don’t care!” with body language to match. No calm explanation of store policy, no sympathy or empathy.

A website designer was continually missing a customerâs deadlines.
The customer pressed for a completion date. The designer promised to have it done within two weeks and because of the delay and inconvenience, he offered to not charge the customer for the original site, but only for changes. The customer agreed provided he could make it happen this time or he could call someone else. His emailed response? Could you do that? I’m actually too busy to meet that deadline. Another promise about to be broken.

But the story doesn’t end there. The customer immediately hired another designer who completed the work. Then, on Thanksgiving Friday, to his shock and bewilderment, he received a phone message from the first designer saying heâd finally gotten around to working on it. Upon checking his email, there was a bill for the full amount as if the offer of no charge had never been made. When the customer called him to remind him that the web designer had directed him to go elsewhere and that he had done so, the designer sheepishly admitted it was his mistake. His explanation was that since he hadnât seen anything uploaded to the working site, he assumed the client hadnât done anything further and it was still in play. No phone call or email to check in, he just charged ahead. To his credit, he did apologize.

A third situation was with the telecommunications behemoth, AT&T. A long-time customer spent thousands every year and always paid bills on time. At one point, AT&T misapplied a payment. Despite numerous calls to customer service, hours spent reviewing bills, writing letters (including one to the CEO), enclosing copies of cancelled checks and repeated, unkept promises by customer service managers to return phone calls, it took over a year for AT&T to straighten it out. During that year the customer received numerous threatening phone calls and letters from collection agencies. And, once it was straightened out, he never received so much as an apology or acknowledgement that AT&T had made a mistake.

Reports from the front tell a mighty troubling story. Customer service is getting worse. From doctorsâ offices (okay, okay, nothing new there), to supermarkets to large companies with well-staffed customer support departments, businesses are saying, in effect, that customer service is one thing they can do without.

Customer Service is a Communication Skill

The fact of the matter is that customer service is hard because it’s about communicating well and, as most of us know, that is also hard. In addition, communication skills are usually viewed by top management as soft and therefore unworthy of much attention although they do give these skills lip service. This seems to be especially true in today’s rough and tumble, dot-com economy. The individuals running these companies tend to be engineers or MBA’s or lawyers. These analytical disciplines often do not address or place much value on the issue of communication and its offspring, customer service. In addition, these managers are often young twenty-somethings in positions of power, working day and night to meet deadlines and stay a step ahead of the competition. Although quite smart and accomplished in the technical aspects of running a business, they are inexperienced in and ignorant of the skills needed to deliver that technology to their customers. Along with production and shipping, customer service is a crucial link in that delivery system.

In addition, the Internet as a marketing venue has placed a formidable barrier between businesses and their customers. Human contact is less frequent than ever before. And this does not refer to face-to-face meetings (though smart businesses know that there is no substitute for getting in front of customers). It refers instead to the simple acts of responding to requests for information, by phone or email. It often seems that the information superhighway is a one-way street. Our dependence on and hunger for more, better, faster technology has allowed manufacturers of hardware and software to ship half-baked, buggy products. This is original customer-service sin and because buyers of these products are utterly dependent on them, they have not demanded better. Instead, customers have become inured to the situation and accepting of a very low standard of care.

Despite the roaring economy and the conventional wisdom that says “If you build it, they will come,” customer service is more important now than ever. The marketplace is competitive like never before. A business simply has to look over its shoulder to see another company nipping at its heels. Thereâs a lot of sameness out there. Price is one consideration, but customers want to know that a company will be there for them when their expensive product or service fails to perform as promised. Most businesses and individuals are now savvy enough to know eventual service or product failure is inevitable.

8 Tips to Knock Out the Competition

So how can businesses devise customer service strategies that stand out from the crowd? By employing a few tried and true practices and keeping a few simple truths in mind:

  1. Return phone calls and emails promptly. It’âs amazing how often messages are not acknowledged. A simple, one or two-sentence response is all thatâs needed. We received your message, weâre working on it and will have an answer by tomorrow at 3pm.
  2. Keep promises. If a product or service is promised by a certain deadline, the promise should be kept. If it cannot be kept, the customer needs to know when to expect it before the first deadline passes and the promise should not be broken again.
  3. Be polite. When a customer has been experiencing a particularly vexing problem, it is easy to turn to rudeness and impatience as defenses. But, these reactions are completely unacceptable and certain to create hard feelings among customers. And, bad news travels fast.
  4. Use language customers can understand. Avoid making the customer feel stupid by using highly technical language and jargon. Some customers will know the terminology, but most will not. Customer support departments need to keep in mind it’s not about how smart the support rep is and how many big words he or she knows, but how to keep the customer happy and spending her money on their stuff.
  5. Listen well and have empathy. These are the most important customer service skills and work special wonders on frustrated and angry customers. A difficult customer can usually be soothed and made reasonable by listening to him and expressing empathy (“I understand, I hear you, Let’s try a couple of things.”). When you can truly put yourself in your customerâs shoes and consider the customerâs position, you will be able to meet that customerâs needs much more successfully and quickly and thatâs money in the bank for your company.
  6. Apologize. The rhetoric of apology has, unfortunately, just about disappeared from discourse. People are afraid of being held liable and have learned some unfortunate lessons from politicians who stopped apologizing years ago. The trend to not admit wrongdoing or that a product may not be living up to its promise is regrettable. An apology, when warranted, shows guts, pluck and a desire to keep a customer.
  7. Think of customer service as a differentiator in a crowded market. This is true whether the service is good or bad.Ê Good service adds a good deal of value to any product or service. On the flip side, bad service subtracts from value.
  8. Stop trying to directly link customer service with the bottom line. Smart managers know that good customer support is good for business. Company after company has shown it to be true, from the local dry cleaner to But it is hard to quantify because these are human skills and are notoriously difficult to put a price tag on. So stop trying to gauge it in dollars and cents. Instead, businesses must be confident in the knowledge that a superior product or service requires superior support.

Copyright 2006 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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