Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Customer service

I’ve recently had to deal with a customer service issue with a large company (from the customer side) that’s worked out like about 80% of the customer service issues I’ve had with large companies. I figure that my customer service experiences go something like this:

  • Around 10% are resolved straight away.
  • Around 10% are never resolved to my satisfaction.
  • Around 80% work out roughly as I’m about to describe.

We can quibble about the particular balance, and perhaps yours balance very differently. But here’s what recently happened:

I went to the store with my issue, and talked with an associate. The associate was neither sympathetic nor helpful, and denied that there was a problem. I asked to speak with a manager.

The manager was, in this case, neither sympathetic nor helpful, and treated it the same way the associate did. Usually, the manager is at least sympathetic or apologetic, but not this time. There was nothing, he said, that he could do. I asked to speak with the store manager, who turns out to be out until next week.

I called the chain’s customer service line by phone, the next business day. The customer service representative said she was sorry I wasn’t happy, but, as those at the store did, merely explained why it was not really a problem. I asked for a supervisor.

The supervisor was also sorry I wasn’t happy, but accepted that a problem existed. Nonetheless, he said there was nothing his department could do. He referred me to another department, giving me their phone number.

That department was sorry, acknowledged the problem, and offered to buy me off with a store credit, which I declined. She understood why I declined, and said that she could escalate the problem and have someone call me back. I thanked her for the help and confirmed phone numbers.

The call-back came the same day, and the problem was immediately resolved entirely to my satisfaction, with apology for the inconvenience and thanks for doing business with their store.

Now, on the one hand, I am happy that they sorted things out. But I have too much experience with this sort of thing, and I’m well aware of both why they handle it this way, and what the problem is with that way of handling it.

They do this because they know that most people will stop after one or two levels. Even persistent folks will likely stop by the third, and almost everyone will take the store credit, which mostly guarantees that they’ll come back to the store to spend it. Those who give up (or those who take the store credit and don’t use it) don’t cost them any real money. In other words, for most people who call with these sorts of complaints, the business never has to make it right.

The problem with that is that it creates ill will. It leaves customers feeling angry, frustrated, cheated. They end up with people who are not inclined to go back to the store. Even if one sticks with it, as I did, until someone agrees to resolve the issue, the customer is left with a bad taste and a low opinion of the business.

Of course, exactly because it’s a national chain, they don’t care, at least not at the micro level. The loss of my business means nothing to them, and they will not get enough complaints and enough disaffected customers to amount to anything, really. And because it’s a big store that sells a lot of things, it’s likely that even most of the annoyed customers will be back anyway, despite themselves.

And, so, whenever I have to deal with a real customer service problem — not a simple return (most places handle those just fine), but a problem that one has to explain and get someone to fix — I enter into the process steeled for talks with four or five people. I’m always polite, but firm and clear about what I expect.

And when it turns out to be among the 10% where the first person responds, I’m sorry for the problem, Mr Leiba, and I’ll take care of it for you right away, well... then I’m very happy.


Brent said...

I sense a business opportunity here. Just like those folks who stand in line at embassies to get visas for business travelers, you can start a "customer service complaint proxy" business :-)

Barry Leiba said...

Hm, that's a thought... charge, say, 15% of what's recovered.

Naaaaah. 's bad enough to spend an hour on the phone to get $50 back, say. But to only get $7.50? Yow!

Oh, well. Another promising career down the drain.