Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Entrepreneurship Notes: 3 Issues in Customer Service

Why do so many companies offer such bad customer service, when everyone knows better?

If you think of it, it is really amazing how bad things can be. I have worked with companies which preach the value of customer service all the time, but fail to deliver only too often. And, as a consumer, I am appalled by what I keep getting everyday – not from the start-ups but also from big companies – big enough to maintain customer support departments.

As an entrepreneur, one must know a solution. No one wants to offer bad customer service. So, how most companies end up offering such miserable services? I have heard people say that customers are at fault – they don’t read contracts, for example – but that is as dumb a statement as you can get. The real culprit here is that Marketing Director who devised such a ‘clever’ contract in the first place, so clever that the customers don’t read it.

Bad customer service usually catches up with the provider. We have seen big companies being shunned by customers for this reason – leading to their downfall. Even it catches up with governments these days, and they are desperately trying to improve the act. And, for the start-ups, they simply can not afford it, as for them every onlooker also counts.

So, where do things go really wrong? I have always spent time in a customer facing role, and I can suggest some pointers where things usually go wrong. However, one of the key jobs of an entrepreneur is to be in touch with his/her customers – watching the situation and knowing when things go wrong [for this, count nothing out – including making customer support calls by you or sending a friend posing as a prospect].

So, here is a TOP Three Reasons list – where your customer service may go seriously wrong:

Issues in Proposition
Too often, companies draw up ‘clever’ contracts and product propositions, often misunderstood by the customers. Leave out the fringe companies which do it intentionally. But this is more common than anyone would imagine, and I would say most companies try to do it some way or the other. What is the point otherwise in writing ‘£9.95 a month for Unlimited Broadband [for the first three months, £21.99 thereafter. A Minimum 12 months contract applies]’?

Sometimes, it is only clever marketing – but guard against being too clever. When the entrepreneur approves of such campaigns, the sales guy may take it as an approval for omitting the fine print to those who are dumb enough to ask him.

So, if your customer issues arise more out of not reading/ understanding the terms of service – let’s say, if it is higher than one call in your entire period of existence – it is wise to check whether you are being too clever.


Issues in Communication

This is familiar territory, isn’t it? We all know how bad an impression that Indian Call Centre guy created about such-and-such company, by not greeting properly, or by not understanding the commonest of English expressions [for example, what do Australians mean when they say "Scona rine," an expression phonetically recorded by humorist Alistair Morrison? Answer: "It's going to rain.", OR, What anatomical appendages are used to pay for something that is outrageously expensive? Answer: an arm and a leg]

However, it can indeed be larger than that. The biggest issue in customer service communication is disinterest [and the biggest winner is, vice versa, interest and ownership]. I have seen a client call customer service of a company to say that her software programme is not working, only to be told by the customer executive that ‘but it is working on my computer, ma’am, so the problem must be at your end’. The problem was indeed at the client’s end - her browser was not allowing pop-ups. However, this particular customer was furious about how she was treated.

So, how you solve this problem? By reiterating that customers are all important, all the time! Well, most companies do that all the time, so where is the problem? I guess the answer lies in a common management practise of customer segregation [is the correct term – segmentation? But I do think ‘segregation’ is more appropriate.]

Issues in Segregation
After I started my career in customer support for an e-mail company which had severe service problems and needed customer service intervention too often, we were going mad handling the volume of calls and complexity of the tasks needed to be done. So, one day, the floor manager made this ‘discovery’ – not all customers are equal, at least some of them are more equal than others. I remember being horrified – my middle class upbringing revolted by such a concept – but, as I know now, it is a very well-entrenched management concept.

I wont repeat it, as I know you know it already. But, this culture of ‘prioritisation’, which I learnt subsequently working with a large company for many years, is the single biggest mistake in customer service.

When a distressed customer calls in, it is your interest and empathy that matters. You inject strategy and legal niceties at that point of contact, I can assure you that you will out of business soon. I have read CEOs talking about missing the human factor for their customer service issues – basically meaning that their excellent processes are failing to deliver customer satisfaction because of a ‘human failure’ at the point of contact. Dig deeper, and you will see that too often than not, customer segregation is steeped into the culture of the company, and they have strategically ‘de-humanised’ the process of customer service.

I am writing for start-ups and for my own start-up, and hence this summary about surviving the Customer Service challenge : don’t be clever. Be human, be transparent – bring the spirit of the corner-store in your enterprise. Don’t segregate, remember the morale of Sainsbury’s story [They were known to be phenomenally rude to the small suppliers, only to discover that over time, those small company executives went on to manage large companies, and did not bat an eyelid to forget the ‘special relationship’ the retailer may have enjoyed when the going was good]: today’s small company executive may represent your biggest buyer tomorrow. Every situation is different, but there is one simple principle – be human.

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