Whatever Happened to Customer Service?

Monday Author: Susanne Skinner

A survey by Bain & Company found that while 80% of companies say they deliver superior service, only 8% of customers find that to be true.

Last week I was online searching for a glass I had seen when we visited a distillery in Scotland. It’s a special glass designed to get the most out of tasting and experiencing the many flavors of Scotch. At the distillery they were £10 each, which was expensive, and I didn’t want to carry them back.

Customer service is hard enough when you are dealing with people in the same country but when you off shore this function you mitigate the problems in an already complex process – for both sides. When I got home I found them for much less at, of all places, Bed Bath and Beyond. I placed an on line order for store pick-up and attempted to apply an on line 20% off coupon. A message informed me that it would be applied when I picked them up.

I presented myself at the store and was charged full price. I explained the situation and the cashier called a manager over. I explained the situation again and to my utter astonishment she responded, “What is it you’d like me to do?” This felt like a no-brainer.

Me: “Apply the coupon.”

Her: “Of course, do you have it?”

Me: “It was on line, and said it would be applied when I paid for them.”

Her: “Yes, but you have to have it.”

Me: “It was an electronic coupon…”

Her: “Then I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

Those of you who know me understand why this answer did not work. I asked to speak to a higher authority and when one appeared I explained myself for the third time. The store manager’s response: “we will make a one-time exception but in the future you must bring in your coupon”. At this point I felt like the conversation was missing the other two Stooges.

This is not an isolated BB&B incident. When my walking partner Cyndy went in to purchase a food item she was charged tax. There is no food tax in Massachusetts. Cyndy pointed this out to no avail, as the cashier looked at the register tape and said, “Yes there is. It’s right here.”

Calling a manager produced the same result—a declaration of certainty about taxing food in Massachusetts. Cyndy knows her tax law and called him on it. He went off to research it, returning 20 minutes later to admit that Cyndy was right. When she returned the following week the same thing happened, as they made no attempt to correct it.

The Call Center

A call center is a primary communications channel between an organization and its customers. Most of our telephone customer support has been off-shored and it is rarely a good experience if you have to call them.

The last thing customers want is to struggle with basic communication when they are trying to get a problem solved. We call the support line with high expectations only to be greeted by a message with a variation on the theme of, “Your call is important to us. Please enjoy this twenty minute musical interlude while we try to find someone to help you.”

There is also the dreaded, “We are experiencing high call volumes and you should expect a longer than average hold time.” When you add it all up, it is poor service with very little thought given to the customer.

A call center is a primary communications channel between an organization and its customers. Most of our telephone customer support has been off-shored and it is rarely a good experience if you have to call them.

Typical Offshore Call Center

Bain reports that ninety percent of executives see customer service as critical to their business success. In the same study more than seventy percent of senior call center executives admit their companies fail to meet customers’ expectations.

It is the parallel universe of knowing good customer service is essential to their success; with a tangible cost and risk of unhappy customers deserting them for a competitor, yet they are incapable of providing the effective and timely service that will prevent it.

Customer service is hard enough when you are dealing with people in the same country but when you off-shore this function you mitigate the problems in an already complex process—for both sides. The money saved by off-shoring customer service is lost on the other end when an unhappy customer takes their business elsewhere.

I’m not just talking about the foreign language barrier, I’m taking about low quality internet, poor phone connections (head sets are notorious for echoes and delays) scripted answers and the obvious cultural differences. This combination is not only frustrating; it sends a message to the customer that says their problems are not important enough to be dealt with by your company directly.

I am the Customer

A company’s reputation is only as good as the customer service it provides. There is no substitute for this—you have it or you don’t. Its roots are at the top of the company where budgets, resources and priorities are determined. If customer service is well executed, it’s because there is executive leadership commitment to make it so.

Many companies have outstanding customer service—they haven’t all gone downhill. One that stands out is Zappos. Free shipping, free returns and a high-quality call center make me a happy customer.

I recently placed an order for Timberland boots. I ordered the wrong ones and the child for whom they were intended informed me they were not steel toed and needed to be exchanged. I called Zappos, spoke to a helpful, sympathetic in country customer service representative, and in ten minutes the problem was resolved.

She emailed a return shipping label; sent out the correct pair of boots (which arrived in two days) and said even though there was a $12 difference she was zeroing it out for an even exchange. Zappos’s CEO Tony Hsieh says, “selling happiness is our business, and it doesn’t make sense to outsource your core competency.” He gets it, and he’s the guy at the top.

It can be done.