I Learned Why Customer Service is So Bad in America

Well it’s been a long few weeks. My wife and I completed a process that would make Ghandi rethink his stance on nonviolence; we moved. After years of living in the same neighborhood, we thought things were going along too smoothly and decided that selling our house and buying a new one, and moving during the holiday season, was a great idea. The entire process brought to light some valuable lessons in customer service.

The process of moving puts you in contact with customer service representatives from every facet of your life; trash removal, cable, phone, internet, electric, heating, etc. And the first thing I noticed was how true it is that good word of mouth about your company isn’t caused by the experience you give the customer, it comes primarily from how easy you make the process. I am astounded that, in this day and age, so many companies still don’t have a simple, automated process. For some of our services, all I had to do was log onto our account on the company’s website and enter basic information. The others? I’m still making phone calls weeks later. Take this early part of 2016 to examine, not your service or product, but your processes. Are they really easy to use? Or are they just easy for you because you are already familiar with them? My suggestion is to find a nonagenarian and see if he or she can navigate your process. If not, make it simpler. If you can’t find someone in their 90s, call me; I’m about the same when it comes to technology.

The next lesson was on hearing “We can,” vs. “We can’t.” Surprisingly, the companies that have the most resources to draw upon to help the customer often offer the highest level of nonservice. For the move, we decided to save money—and our backs—by renting trucks that I would drive, but have a moving service do the loading and unloading. If you are ever planning a move, I highly recommend this plan. The old saying is true; when you are in your 20s, all you need to get your friends to help you move is free pizza and beer. Any age after that, you have no friends come moving day. We got better customer service from the mom-and-pop moving company than from the multi-national conglomerates handling our other services.

No matter how hard you prepare in advance, when the day of the move arrives you are not fully boxed and ready. Even so, the moving folks said, “No problem, we’ll take care of it.” And a key part of their approach was that we, the customer, were never wrong. No matter what the issue—a box not being closed properly, mislabeling, an additional truck needed because we underestimated our level of consumerism—it was never our fault. The movers simply treated everything as a condition of the situation; a problem that needed a solution, not a scapegoat. This is different than the old the customer is always right. Frankly, I have never believed that the customer is always right, but a person can be incorrect, misinformed, or unaware, without being wrong. Throughout the entire moving process I made many errors, but I wasn’t made to feel wrong about them, I was shown the proper way to correct the situation as well as how to avoid the same problem in the future.

Compare that to any one of the seven dozen calls I had to make to get my bundled cable/phone/internet re-connected. First, I was made to feel wrong; second, I wasn’t educated in how to avoid problems in the first place. Granted, the technology that goes into IT is complicated and there are many steps the customer doesn’t need to be bothered with, but when I spoke to a customer nonservice rep, I was told that my service was “fully transferred to your new address.” My being a normal person who takes things at face value, I thought that was it. When none of my services worked at the new address, I called to find out why. “Oh,” said the rep. “You transferred your service, but you didn’t activate it at the new address.” This was one of many conversations in which I was essentially wrong. No matter how well the rep or technician fixed the problem, I was still left with a bitter taste from the experience.

The other misstep of the IT company was that they know the pitfalls I was likely to encounter, but they waited until I encountered them before educating me. It would have saved everyone a lot of time and frustration had they given me a heads-up first. Imagine how many fewer calls their service department would have received had I been given the information first. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of service calls.

Finally, the IT company was filled with “we can’t.” “We can’t let you keep your old company phone number,” “We can’t provide a forwarding service so you don’t lose customers,” “We can’t make it there until next week to fix the problem.” No matter how reasonable your excuses are for not being able to accommodate my request, the phrase “we can’t” grates on the ear of the person hearing it. If you must ever say “we can’t” to a customer, follow it up with “so here is what I would like to offer you.” Every time I told my wife about a company that couldn’t accommodate a request, she asked, “Did they at least offer you something?” The answer was always no. If a phone call only ends with the rep saying, “I’m sorry,” you will lose that customer as soon as the first other deal comes along. A bitter pill must be followed with a taste of honey.


Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.


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