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Customer service: the great. the good. the abysmal.

June 11, 2013

jessonline

Great service is transformative. I sometimes find myself inordinately grateful and awed by an experience that exceeds my expectations. It just doesn’t happen that often. How often are you WOWed  by amazing  service? And how often are you infuriated with a lack of reasonably good service? Probably not terribly often, for either one. It seems the norm is somewhere between- most reputable companies will do what’s essentially right- fix something that went wrong, refund your money for a defective product, or replace it. That is simply what we expect. And we’re satisfied with that.

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Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh

The fact is, extraordinary service requires an equally extraordinary effort. The company has to believe in it- from the top down. Evangelize it. And fund it. Zappos lives the ideal of amazing service. Even their online chats have an extra friendly touch that reminds you you’re talking to a real person, who’s not afraid to deviate from the script.  They live service as an ideal. In fact, “Powered by Service” is part of their logo. If you look at the top area of the site- there are 5 friendly messages going on at the same time- ranging from “Free Next day delivery”, to “24/7 customer service by phone or chat”, to “Free Shipping & Returns 365 days a year”…it goes on and on. And they don’t just promise it- they actually deliver on it, exceptionally well. It’s not easy to deliver great service with a level of consistency. Zappos exemplifies the ideal.

Why don’t more companies build a brand on a platform of great service, like Zappos? Most focus on keeping service costs low- maximizing the efficiencies of cost per call, sales $ per call, and so on. Focusing on great service makes it harder to measure success- or at least, makes it much fuzzier. It will cost more to have customer service agents who are inspired and charged with making the customers happy- who are not rushed to get off the phone. It will take more time, potentially cost more in appeasements or expedited shipping. But does it really? Perhaps Zappos has unlocked the deeper metrics of lifetime value for customers who love the experience- who will come back, again and again- who will look to Zappos first, simply because it is such a great experience. Check out Tony Hsieh’s book, “Delivering Happiness” on Amazon, to see how he did it.

Nordstrom is another legendary company with a reputation for amazing customer service. For them, it’s simple- provide customers with the best possible service- and they do so with simple excellence. They are not as over the top as Zappos about being extraordinary. But they are. They do it quietly, and well. You’ll get treated with respect and helpfulness. You’ll get a business card from your sales person. Sometimes even a thank you note in the mail. And you’ll never have any difficulty returning anything- that’s what they’re famous for. The tire legend lives on- whether it’s true or not, doesn’t really matter (for a recap and analysis of the many versions of this legend, see Snopes. I always assumed it was true- now, maybe, not so much. But it doesn’t matter. They live the ideal of service. It’s enough.

I’ve also been impressed with the Amazon Kindle division. I have a family of readers- and we’ve had at least 3 kindles that stopped working within the first year. Even one that went bad within a month. Each time, I’ve been able to resolve the situation with a quick phone call or online chat, getting a new replacement device delivered overnight, with 30 days to return the defective one. The warranty replacements are brand new- not refurbished. These two things make a big impact: overnight replacement, brand new device. When I’ve had to replace in-warranty phones, for example, I always get a refurbished device- which makes me feel a bit cheated.

On the one hand, the consistency of the product quality hasn’t been so great for all our Kindles. But on the other hand, they support the product so consistently and fairly that I’ve never been motivated to switch to a different brand. I’ve never had to escalate an issue with a manger. Never been frustrated by one of these calls. Even the support for out of warranty devices has been pretty impressive. And several of the devices- 2nd generation kindles, have lasted 4 years and are still working. I always feel good about Kindle after one of these transactions, defective products notwithstanding.

It raises an interesting point: we forgive a company its failures if they solve the problem easily and well. When they don’t?  Research shows that an unhappy customer tells up to 3 times more people than a happy one. I’m betting that this is understated.  When you’re frustrated out of your mind with a bad experience, chances are, you’ll want to talk about it. You may even post it on Facebook- immediately sharing it with a hundred or more of online friends. Or post it on the company’s website, for all its tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of fans to see. A rabidly unhappy customer is more of a problem now for companies than ever before.

So there’s the great. And the good. And now we’ll give a short moment to the Abysmal.

Abysmal is…a company that will spend 40 minutes on the phone arguing with you about why they can’t help you solve a 2 minute problem.

Abysmal is…a company that employs an outsourced customer service company with people that are neither empowered nor knowledgeable enough to say anything beyond the exact lines on a script, over and over again, with no training for how to deal with an upset customer.

Abysmal is…a customer service agent who is trained to be so scared to escalate to a manager that they insist that there is no manager to speak to.

Abysmal is…waiting on hold for so long that you have to give up.

The companies that allow “abysmal” service, well, those are the ones that either just aren’t paying attention- or are making a fatal mistake. The company that spends 40 minutes telling me why they can’t solve my 2 minute problem is not going to get my business, next time. The company that uses outsourced customer service agents that can’t help and don’t acknowledge that they are not solving the problem, is not likely to get my business again.

Great (or even good) service takes a dedicated and purposeful effort. It goes back to what I’ve always told my staff about building a great website: shop it yourselves, and shop it often, from beginning to end. Forget your password and try to get a new one. Get a delivery and return or exchange it. Live the experience the customers get. That’s the only way you can truly understand what the customer is experiencing. In the words of Mark Hurst, the founder and president of “Creative Good”, an organization dedicated to the art of Customer Experience, and a great proponent of great customer experience, “It’s hard to get people to consider their actions from the perspective of another person. That is the basis of all customer experience work.”

Enough said.

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