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Customer Service (or Disservice?)

The squeaky wheel may be the one that gets the oil, but we’ve got to be a lot more discerning with our customer service methods to determine if there’s actually any real service taking place at all.

How to use SMART Goals in Business

In the decades before the Internet, smart phones, or AI, one of the most quaint components in the realm of the American retail establishment was the “courtesy desk”. The drama played out like this: the customer comes to the store and purchases the item, takes it home, and discovers that it’s missing gizmo B. Knowing full well that it’ll never work properly without gizmo B, the customer returns to the store with the defective item, heads to the courtesy desk, provides the attendant with the sales receipt, and proceeds to relate the nature of the issue. Depending on store policy, the customer is either provided with a duplicate of the defective item in exchange, or given a refund of the purchase price in cash or store credit.

In the desire to promote the retail establishment as an enterprise which values its customers and wants to provide them with a happy purchasing experience, the business owner has extended a courtesy to the buyer. Instead of leaving an unsatisfactory transaction as is, at least a basic effort has been put forth to make things right.

Today, we might be more likely to use the term “service desk”, or probably just “customer service”. But the underlying concept of creating a better experience for those we’re serving remains the same. And yet, there can be times that “courtesy” and “service” end up just being wishful thinking. The 1950’s saw the birth of a technology known as Automatic Call Distributor which ushered in the era of the call center. Now, instead receiving a busy signal if a call was placed to a “service” center and there was no one available to help, callers would instead find themselves in a queue with a prerecorded message informing them that “all calls will be answered in the order in which they are received.”

But here’s the strange drawback: it kind of became a vicious cycle. Companies wanted to be able to provide service to customers who were unhappy with something related to a purchase, and so they used technology to streamline the process of working with the customer to resolve the issue. And, by making it easier for customers to interact with the company, more customers decided to do just that. Maybe they had legitimate complaints, but they also might also be using that easy access just because it made them feel empowered to complain whether they had cause to or not. So instead of spending just a few minutes in a queue, the ultimate result was now that many customers found themselves having to devote an inordinate amount of time waiting to actually speak to a representative. The phrase “we are experiencing extremely high call volumes” would’ve never been heard at the old courtesy desk.

The other negative of this new methodology of customer service was that the quality of assistance being provided suffered as a direct result of the sheer volume of requests for help. As anyone who’s ever worked in an inbound call center knows, it can be next to impossible to maintain a calm and cheerful demeanor when every call you complete immediately thrusts you into the next call. Customer service reps find themselves battered all day long by an endless barrage of pleas for assistance, and having to suddenly change gears to move from one customer’s need to the next can’t help but take its toll. The net result is a high turnover rate for the reps and the likelihood of having to deal with an inexperienced new hire for the customer.

Today, with the advent of AI, everything has been ratcheted up a dozen more notches. Now, someone visiting our website can maybe interact with a chatbot, which may end up sending an inquiry our way if the issue doesn’t automatically get resolved. Perhaps we’re using only directly interactive communication on our website, which could mean an instant message from a customer or an inquiry sent to a generic “info@” mailbox. More and more technological advances open up additional avenues for someone to air their grievances about the services or products we provide, and all of that communication has to be monitored, evaluated, and escalated to the appropriate party if the issue isn’t resolved up front. So, all of this raises an important question: are we really serving our customers? The squeaky wheel may be the one that gets the oil, but we’ve got to be a lot more discerning with our customer service methods to determine if there’s actually any real service taking place at all.

All of this can be a lot to navigate for a large corporation, but it can be downright overwhelming for a small business. If you own a company with fewer than 15 employees, there’s a high probability that everyone is wearing multiple hats and is stretched pretty thin. A cumbersome and demanding customer service model won’t do anyone any favors, and yet it can seem impossible to deal with problems unless you invest your money and time into some complex technology solution. There can certainly be value in doing that, but there are also important things to consider as you structure your service processes that will do a lot more for you than the bells and whistles of the latest piece of tech.

The old expression “the customer is always right” is so ingrained in the psyche of American business that it can be tempting to introduce an unrealistic sense of obligation to move heaven and earth when someone complains about your product or service. But this has to always be done in a balanced and discerning way. What would you do in a scenario where you knew that the customer wasn’t really right? Suppose you sold a delicate and breakable product to a customer and one of your employees watched while he walked across the parking lot to his car, opened the trunk, and forcefully threw it in. Then, several hours later, he returned to your store and angrily demanded a refund for “defective merchandise”? Would you feel like embracing the courtesy desk mentality then?

This can also come into play in business settings where the person would fall more into the realm of being a client who is seeking services from you. By doing so, the client is communicating that there’s something they can’t do because they lack the necessary skills or experience and they’re instead relying on you to take care of it. The client relationship is a lot more nuanced than the customer one, because you’re not simply providing a generic piece of merchandise to someone in exchange for money. You have to cultivate a client relationship, and part of that processes involves helping the client to understand that they need to be willing to trust your judgment as a subject matter expert when it comes to deciding the best way to do things.

Working with a client should always be a collaborative experience, but you have to know where to draw the limits. Depending on the nature of your business, you may have a little bit of flexibility with how you do things, but you ultimately can’t compromise the standards of conducting business in the way that you know is correct. If a client become arbitrary and demands that you do things their way, that might be fine it it’s just an issue of aesthetics or taste. But if you’re being asked to do something that flies directly in the face of what you’ve determined to be an ethic or standard for how you do things, you simply can’t compromise. If you do, you run the very real risk of destroying your credibility by doing something substandard or just plain wrong.

Although it might be uncomfortable to do so, the better approach would be to let the client know that there’s not an alignment of goals and values between the two of you. It would be better to lose the business of the client than to do something in direct violation of the core values of your business. It may not look like it on the surface, but taking that stance actually is providing service to the client. It’s more beneficial to you to direct that person elsewhere than to become something you’re not just to make a quick buck. One of the best things we can do to establish customer/client service in our business is to ensure that we consistently provide what we do in a way that upholds the essence of who we are and doesn’t lose focus on the purpose that drives our efforts.

When it comes down to it, the most constructive element for cultivating positive customer service is setting proper expectations. Most people engage in business transactions in good faith, but there’s invariably someone acting squirrelly who just wants to see what they can get at your expense. Establishing clear and relevant parameters regarding how you provide your goods or services helps to answer questions upfront and show that you place real value on providing those you serve with a good experience. All the tech in the world can never replace having some kind of constructive dialogue with those who seek out your business so that they really understand who you are and what you can provide for them. It’s all about balance – give all you can without literally “giving away the store”.

Customer service can be one of the most daunting aspects to operating a business, but soberly examining what you realistically could and should provide will give you peace of mind and make dealing with you a lot more enjoyable for those you serve.


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