Thursday, March 12, 2009

131. Customer service important now

Difficult economic times mean, among other things, that families have less disposable income. It also means that whatever disposable income that can be spent on entertainment or excesses-like eating out, going to the movies or attending sporting events-is precious. Businesses and organizations that rely on disposable income need to realize, under these circumstances, that customer service is more important than ever.

However, and unfortunately, acceptable customer service continues to be an increasing problem-so much that financial guru, Clark Howard, calls it "customer no-service." This collection of customer no-service, in his case, extends beyond entertainment and excesses and includes every service that is available for purchase. The idea follows a similar premise-I am spending my hard-earned money on a product, and I would like that product to be or perform as advertised.

The easiest way for any company or business to remain or become competitive is to keep their product as inexpensive as possible. And, this, as we know all too well, usually comes in the form of finding the most inexpensive labor possible. In American service industries, this usually means hiring teenagers or young adults, in manufacturing, this includes building plants in third world countries, and, in technology or technical support, this often means outsourcing customers service centers to places like India.

We all know and understand the frustration of calling a company's support line. First we have to navigate between several directories or menus, then we are placed on hold and then, finally, we are forced to speak to someone you cannot understand. Worse, this person is usually following a customer support manual-full of "if-then" decision trees. Often they are in no position to speak to anything outside the manual, prompting the advice, "Don't speak to anyone who does not have the authority (or ability) to solve your problem."

Worse than that, however, is the current state of domestic customer service. Sometimes it is nearly impossible to get anything done right the first time. The problem is not just that businesses are hiring the wrong people-it is that they are hiring people who, at times, do not seem to care. It is tempting to scribe a laundry list of examples, such as trying to purchase a meatless Big Mac. Sounds simple, right? One Big Mac minus the meat-that means please make me a Big Mac exactly as Big Macs are to be made, just don't put the meat on it. I have received a Big Mac without meat and cheese, without meat, cheese, and sauce, and a Big Mac that only had bun and lettuce. It is so bad that I never order it through the drive thru anymore-I have to go in and check it before I leave.

Nobody likes returning food or a faulty product, but when it is necessary, it is sure nice to be greeted with, "I am sorry, please allow me to correct our mistake." That's it, that's all I want. Rather, I am often greeted with grunts, or excuses, or arguments-like I did something wrong. My parents owned several small businesses and I know that customers are not always right. People will try to take advantage of situations, in which case companies should stand their ground-professionally of course, but they are not obligated to cater to every customer's complaint. However, when the business has made a mistake, I would like them to understand my inconvenience and frustration. I don't have the time to do things twice.

In these tough times, my wife and I have become less understanding. Treat us rudely, and we'll go somewhere else. Some of our favorite places are now on our "boycott list," which we will jokingly sentence them to after incurring problems. Really, when I go out, I just want people to be nice. I know times are tough for everyone-and customer service is difficult because at times the employee has to be an actor, putting personal problems aside.

Employees need to be trained better, perhaps paid better, and understand that if people are not happy with their service-the business owner that gave you this job will go out of business, and you will lose your job. In working for my parents, it was often easier to understand-if we lost customers, my whole family suffered. The truth is that we are all accountable to someone-whether it is small business owners, taxpayers or shareholders. For some this is a tough lesson to learn.

Recently, when our favorite local pizza place messed up our order, after a very stressful day, the manager on duty, rather than apologize, explained that he has a "bunch of teenagers" working there. Unbelievably, it was almost as though he was blaming us for having unrealistic expectations.

Boycott-six months, maybe longer, if we find a new favorite pizza place in the meantime.

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