6 Lessons from Customer Service Hell

My wife Sharon and I recently experienced a day of customer service hell. This arose from our interactions with six different businesses. While none of them is a startup, our experiences provide some great customer service lessons for entrepreneurs. Here’s our tale of woe:

  • The management company for our daughter’s college apartment told us they deducted a double rent payment from our bank account. In an email filled with grammatical and spelling errors, they told us we had two options: (1) apply the payment to next month’s rent; or (2) wait four to six weeks for a refund. By the way, the management company did this same thing a year ago and promised it wouldn’t happen again.
  • Sharon tried to redeem a gift card online for a couple’s cooking class. The website wouldn’t accept the gift card number. When she called to book the class by phone, the representative said Sharon would need to call the company’s internal IT manager and “work it out with him.” She called and left the IT guy a voicemail, which he never returned. Finally, Sharon followed up, talked to the IT guy (who was abrupt and unhelpful), and ultimately was able to redeem the gift card.
  • Next, I called an appliance repair business for our refrigerator/freezer. This was a follow-up to a previous service call that hadn’t resolved the problem. When I asked how soon we could get repairs, the customer service person told me the service guy was on vacation for two weeks, so it would have to be after his return. Our frozen food remains in the garage freezer. This company has half a dozen technicians.
  • Sharon called a healthcare provider to book an appointment. She explained to the receptionist that she needed a date on a “Monday or Wednesday.” The receptionist gave her a time on a Thursday. Sharon reminded her that she needed a Monday or Wednesday appointment. Eventually, they figured out a date.
  • Two weeks before, I bought a used off-road vehicle from a dealer. The salesperson told me they would need to get the title from the previous owner before they could deliver the vehicle to me. He promised to keep me updated. After no updates from the salesman, and multiple follow-up phone calls from me, I finally learned yesterday that they hadn’t requested the title, but hoped to have the vehicle to me by the middle of next week, 18 days after I bought it.
  • Finally, working with our neighbors, we’re trying to arrange for a delivery box for packages in the mountain canyon where we live. After unsuccessful attempts on the website and multiple phone calls, Sharon was told the only way we could make these arrangements was to discuss the matter with employees at the company’s large distribution center in Salt Lake. That center has no phone number for consumers, so a 50-mile drive and unannounced in-person visit is the only way to handle this request.

After reading about all of that occurring in just one day you’re probably wondering what we did to offend the cosmos, or whether a curse has been put on us, or if we’re the victims of a voodoo hex. We’ve wondered ourselves. It was a REALLY bad day to be consumers. But as an entrepreneur, I think you can learn some lessons in customer service.

The first thing an entrepreneur should focus on is to create a culture where the team learns to put themselves in the shoes of their customers. How would you feel as a consumer if you had the experiences we had? What would you tell your friends and family about your experience? Empathy goes a long way. If a mistake has been made, how would you want it to be made right? Train your team to put yourselves in your customers’ situation, and imagine how they feel as they deal with your early-stage company.

Startups must do a second thing: keep their word. If you tell a customer you’ll do something, do it. If you promise to call them, do it. If you tell them you’ll keep them updated, do it. If you say a product will be delivered on a particular date, do it. Don’t lie. And remember the old adage, “under promise and overperform.” Customers feel much better if you promise to call them on Wednesday and do it, than if you promise to call them Monday and don’t do it until Tuesday. The airlines have gotten better at this. They now pad arrival times on their flight schedules. Even though I know this is occurring, I love it! I’m constantly arriving “early.” Keep your word.

Third, create a listening culture within your startup, particularly when it comes to customers. We can all be better listeners, to be sure, but when dealing with customers it’s critical. Before leaping to solve a customer’s problem, really listen to the precise details first. Don’t offer Thursday appointments when your customer just told you she needs dates on Mondays and Wednesdays. For in-person encounters, stop typing, stop talking, stop thinking about what you’re going to do, look the customer in the eye – and LISTEN.

Fourth, remember: it is never your customer’s job to fix a problem you created. That’s your job. It’s never a good idea to tell a customer who’s run into your failure that she has to “call the IT guy and work it out with him.” If anyone needs to talk to the IT guy, tell the customer you’ll do that. Or better yet, apologize to the customer that she couldn’t redeem her gift certificate, take care of it, work things out behind-the-scenes, and then fix processes so it won’t happen again. Train your team to take ownership of not just “processing” a customer concern, but personally resolving it.

Fifth, empower and encourage your team to fix problems quickly and creatively. Call centers typically track “first call resolution,” which measures how many customer problems get solved with one call. Strive for that same kind of approach in your startup. Delay is the enemy of customer satisfaction. Relatedly, sometimes regular processes need to be changed to create customer delight. If someone is on vacation, for instance, teach your team to find another way to fix the problem.

Finally, make it easy for customers to interact with you to solve problems. We all know mistakes will happen. Why not anticipate that and make it as easy as possible to get things back on track? Live chat on most websites is getting quite good. Emails should be returned promptly. Phones should be adequately staffed. Voicemail is a necessary evil, but such messages must be returned promptly.

“Customer success” is a buzzword with startups. And, in general, that’s a good thing. But nuanced notions like Net Promoter Score, renewal rate, average lifetime customer value, and the like, all begin with the basic blocking and tackling of treating your customers well. A startup can’t succeed if entrepreneurs forget the basics of customer experience.


About the Author:

Paul Brown is the James Lee Sorenson Presidential Chair and Professor (Lecturer) in the Entrepreneurship and Strategy Department of the David Eccles School of Business and a Managing Director of the Sorenson Impact Center. Professor Brown also advises and serves on the boards of a number of early stage companies. Prior to joining the faculty he co-founded and co-managed a $300 million healthcare venture capital fund.

One thought on “6 Lessons from Customer Service Hell

  1. US customer service has taken a real nose-dive. Our friends from Japan notice it immediately. So, when they call for customer service the first thing they ask is whether Japanese translation is available finding service to usually be much better via that route.

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