Thursday, February 28, 2008

My Perspective on Customer Service

Oh Baby!

Just a little bit ago I got off the phone with the Los Angeles Times regarding a delivery problem. Last year, they offered me a subscription for 4 days a week at a very low price. I took it, and for a while I received my paper without much incident.

Within the last few months, though, I didn't receive it for about a month. I didn't call because I really didn't want to be bothered. I had other things going on, and more often than not, the papers were left unread.

However, in the last few weeks, I have called to cancel, and have been convinced to stay a subscriber, being told that my account would be escalated, blah, blah. It sounded good, and I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Now, mind you, I wasn't paying much for the subscription. However, in my mind it was the principle of the thing. If I was paying, then whatever I was paying for I should be receiving without having to call several times to get it.

The last time I spoke with them, I explained that this was their last shot. If I had to call again, I was definitely going to cancel. My paper was delivered the days it was supposed to be. It was a beautiful thing.

Then this week arrives, and no paper. I called to cancel. Once again they tried to get me to stay a subscriber. I asked what would be different this time. They verified information about where I lived, and so on, and said that they would let the Regional Manager know.

I was told that previously.

What would be different THIS time? All I was told was to give them time to resolve it. My question was, "And then what?" I already explained how much time I had spent calling them over and over. And for what? I was barely, if ever reading the paper.

I told the guy that I was speaking to that if the Regional Manager would call me, then I would stay on as a subscriber. I realize that maybe there are LOTS of problems, and the Regional Managers probably have "more important things to do" than address a single subscriber's issues, however, I have heard that the Times is having difficulties keeping subscribers for various reasons. Regardless of whether that is true or not, wouldn't it make sense that any company would want to keep the customers they have? (Most companies will tell you it costs more to acquire a new customer than it does to keep one). And if my call after call wasn't rectifying the situation time and time again, shouldn't they have some better CUSTOMER SERVICE mechanism than to tell the customer over and over the same thing each time he or she calls after receiving the same ineffective service?

When he said he couldn't guarantee that the manager would call, he said he would cancel my subscription. Ironically, he asked me if I knew of anyone who would want a gift subscription!

I am writing this, in part, because it seems to me that, except in a few cases, customer SERVICE has become a noun, instead of a verb (not that it ever was one - however, there was implied action within the term). It is a word that has very little meaning (in my mind) for most companies. The people who work in the "Customer Service" departments have little, or no authority, and are given preset things to say that in no way empower them, or the people that they are talking to.

I remember another time I was talking to a credit card company (another interesting topic in and of itself) and the person I was speaking to said, "I understand, mam." I was so angry and frustrated at that moment that I said, "You don't understand... anything!"

People are often told that for a person to hear them, they have to feel validated, heard. So, in a case like what I was experiencing, the rep - a "paid voice" as far as I was concerned, since he couldn't seem to help me - was probably told to say, "I understand." The unfortunate part of that, though, is that, unless a person is truly in another's shoes, or has been in a similar situation, something like that can come off in a way that is less than genuine and manipulative.

This is more a function of company policies than that of an individual employee. I feel badly for those who have to work in that kind of environment. They have to deal with the public without any decision making authority, without any real ability to truly help.

I once worked as an Information Operator - the kind that you might call from your cell phone to get a number. In order to me to keep my job and/or be eligible for pay increases I was required to keep my average call length down (if I remember correctly) to 20 seconds or less. Occasionally I was required to help people with directions, and sometimes people called with other issues, and I would do my best to help. Sometimes I would stay on the phone, just to do what I could do in the name of providing "service." Oddly, that was not what I was paid to do, and was often penalized for my more than willing nature (which the callers certainly appreciated).

I lasted in that job only as long as I had to. It really was most unenjoyable. I love to help people, so it was quite apparent I was in the wrong place. They wanted people who could "think," or so they said. I suppose any company can do anything that they want to, do it any way they want to, and call it a "service".

I find myself wondering how does that effect us in the long haul? If companies are focused on the bottom line over the customers who provide the income that provides that bottom line, is it really in their best interest? What could it be like if we had a Miracle on 34th Street world? Just in case you've never seen the movie, Santa at Macy's actually tells people where to shop for Christmas gifts - including shopping at the competitor - Gimbells. After some upset, Macy's decides that it should be the store that helps the customer, and makes it company policy to tell people where to go for the things they need, if what is desired is not within their store. The idea flabbergasts Gimbells, while it brings Macy's even more business! If I remember correctly, Gimbell's counters Macy's move by doing the same thing.

When did this shift happen? When did it become okay for companies to disregard those who they are supposed to be there to help? I am pre-supposing, of course, that companies begin because they want to "help" others. That opens up a whole other conversation, and if I keep going, that will take me down a whole other path. So I think I will end here.

Would, as always, love to know your thoughts!

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