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When Customer Help is Not Very Helpful

It seems everywhere you turn these days, you hear someone else telling you about how the importance of customers: Your call is important to us. We're listening to our customers. We need your customer feedback. With all these people focused on the customer, you'd think things would be pretty darn good for those of us on the customer side – especially in light of the recent recession and tough economic times.

But if my recent experience is any indication, the message that customer-facing personnel are there to actually help the customer somehow isn't getting through.

Here are a few actual situations we've come across in the last several weeks:

  • An important medical test was delayed for over a week because the wrong insurance company was contacted by the medical provider for a preauthorization. This was in spite of the fact that I had confirmed the correct insurance information twice on the phone with the provider and our insurance carrier doesn't even require preauthorization for this particular test. The response from the scheduler: "Well, this must have been changed in another part of the record, because it's not in the part of the record I need to access." To compound the problem, the test results were delayed for two weeks while the medical provider put them in the queue to be processed – requiring our physician to make numerous phone calls to resolve the issue.
  • We made a hotel reservation for our 19 year old daughter with a major hotel chain and confirmed that there would be no problem with her checking in without us present – only to have her show up at the hotel 400 miles away from home and be told that they could not accept guests who were under 21. In spite of the fact that the national chain's policy was to accept guests over the age of 18, this particular hotel had its own more stringent policy, which the corporate reservations people appeared to know nothing about. (Eventually they relented and let her check in, after a long, frustrating delay).
  • I decided to upgrade a part of our home media system and had a long online chat with a rep of our service provider who told me I could go into their local location and pick up the equipment myself, rather than sit home and wait hours for it to be delivered. I went to the local store, only to be told that this piece of hardware wasn't available at the store, hadn't been available for awhile, and probably would not be available there for at least another 6 months, if ever. To get this, they suggested, I should go online, order the part and schedule an appointment to have it delivered.

While I have no qualms mentioning the companies in these incidents (Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Hilton Hotels, Comcast), the reality is in any given month, there will be other stories from other similar companies. Unfortunately, these are not isolated cases.

Why in this age of the customer do these terrible customer experiences continue to happen? One likely reason is the disconnect between how companies say they want to treat their customers and how they tell their customer-facing support staff to react in the face of customer issues and concerns.

The problem is that the employees in each of the situations I encountered were doing exactly what they'd been told to do. They were likely following orders to the letter, and in fact their performance and their compensation may be based on whether or not they behave exactly as they were directed.

What's missing is a lack of understanding of how this by-the-book focus impacts the bigger picture for a business. As a consumer, I may be forced by circumstance to continue the relationship with you as my supplier for some period of time ,but sooner or later I will become fed up with the fact that your employees are instructed to treat me as a problem or an interruption from their regularly scheduled day. Then I'll vote with my feet and my wallet by going somewhere else.

Just as importantly, I will tell other people how I've been treated. We've always known that dissatisfied customers tell at least 4 times the number of people about their experiences as satisfied customers do. But in this age of social media and networking, this effect is magnified exponentially by blogs, Twitter posts, Facebook status updates and even newsletters like this one.

That's why it's so important to make sure that your customer-facing staff understands the values you want your brand to embody, and that they are empowered to translate this into actions you're your customers. This means stepping outside the box, or, in this case, the rule manual, and doing the right thing to help a customer in need – not just following procedures to get them out of the way as soon as possible. That's because a customer who has raised a problem and had it appropriately resolved, becomes even more loyal than one who has never had a problem at all.

Ask yourself:

  • What customer-related behaviors are you and your executives modeling for your employees?
  • What are the implications of allowing your customer reps to think outside the box?
  • Are customer-facing employees who go above-and-beyond rewarded – or are they punished?
  • How do you handle non-standard or complicated situations?
  • Do the systems you've put in place support or hinder your ability to really serve your customers?
  • How easy would your customers say it is to work with you, and how easy would your customer service employees say it is to work for you?
  • Do you look for opportunities to turn customer problems into loyal customers?

Customer support can be difficult. It's tempting to imagine how easy your life would be without those pesky customers. Unfortunately, without a new approach to helping customers, you may actually have the opportunity to find out.

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