16 April 2007

REAL Customer Service is dead. Long live the imitators…

Maybe it's all the rain we've been having, or the fact that old man winter gave us a sneak peak of summer and then came storming back, refusing to let go, that makes me more "sensitive"… more susceptible to getting really ticked off… whatever it is, it seems like April is my month for outbursts. What is it this time? The simple little concept of "customer service".

"Customer service" is everywhere. You hear about "customer service" every day. Most companies have a "customer service" initiative and/or focus. There are "customer service" training courses. There are statistical and analytical tools built around "customer service". There are even "customer service" gurus! The problem is… nobody seem to REALLY get it!

You would wonder what I mean by that and for a long time I didn't know myself. Over time though, as I experienced more and more of the wonderful "customer service" that companies provide me as a consumer, the ideas and thoughts began to crystallize in my mind. At first, I just knew that I was not happy with the corporate version of "customer service". It didn't feel like it meant anything to me when it actually should. I began to ponder this "customer service". If I wasn't happy with the world's version of "customer service", then what would my version be like? Before I could criticize and classify current "customer service", I had to develop and solidify my own impressions of what REAL customer service would be.

That took time and is in itself not completed process, but an evolving, learning process as new information affects my current perceptions and influences my theory subsequently. As such, I'm sure my theories and opinions will change over time, but I have gained enough solidity of thought to express my theory by now. As the title indicates, I don't believe that anyone actually knows or are in touch with what REAL customer service is anymore. Instead, we're left with some gray, lifeless imitators that shamelessly pass for "customer service" today.

First, let me begin by noting my most solid life experiences, the ones I cognitively am able to recollect, as examples of the total lack of REAL customer service…

We begin in May 2006 with the good old telephone company. AT&T and all the baby Bell's have a sure fire monopoly on land line phone service and with the high infrastructure construction cost, will maintain that for a long time to come. Note that I emphasized "construction" because as long as these companies have been in business, that cost has been recovered many hundreds or even thousands of time over. Anyway, as I noted back then, the VoIP companySkype had announced that they were offering free Skype Out calls to US residents to all of the US and Canada until the end of the year. I figured we would save almost $300 before Skype Out calls became charged calls again and we made the switch. Call quality over our trusty Linksys CIT200 phone was acceptable. At the time my plan was to switch right back to long distance with SBC (since taken over by AT&T or should I say they took over AT&T and took the AT&T name) but the absolute torture that I had to go through just to cancel our long distance option on our land line, left me feeling exploited.

Is it REAL customer service to make a loyal, paying customer pay additional fees to discontinue the use of a service for which they have no use?

Then there was the case where I was about to close on the purchase of an investment property. As you may know, part of that process involves securing insurance for the property. The first insurance company that I called, which was recommended to me by my former realtor, pulled up my insurance history and what do you know? It seems we had a claim recently. Well yes we did. We were burglarized remember? Well as a result of that single claim, they refused to even write me a policy on the new property.

Is it REAL customer service to totally distrust your prospective customer over something that was totally outside of their control?

As we come forward in time to the present day, we find the quality of "customer service" that is provided by cell phone companies. I've been suffering with crappy T-Mobil cellular service for far too long now… almost 3 years… 
Not part of "customer service", but just service quality in general, all the dropped calls have been driving me insane! I live in the city. I work in the city. Their maps clearly show that they have the city covered. So how come I religiously get my calls dropped as I'm traveling down Meridian Rd?!
I'm not nearly as heavily into the whole texting thing as most other people are, but I will send the occasional response to my wife's occasional txt. When the cell phone bill arrives, what do I see? But of course! $0.10 PER every single text message sent. Now I just KNOW that there are plans where texting is free! OK, if not totally free, like Revol, then at least the first 10 messages or so are free. But NO, here's a chance to charge the loyal, paying, sucker of a consumer another 50 cents so let's not let it pass by unexploited!

Is it REAL customer service to charge a loyal, paying customer for something seldom used that doesn't cost the provider anything to provide?

The final straw was this past weekend when we were driving my wife's car to the store. I noticed immediately that the "Coolant Low" light was on intermittently. I thought that was strange because just last weekend we had it into Sears for an oil change and a tire balance and rotation. On top of that, just this past week we had it in at the Chevy dealership to have the entire air conditioning compressor etc. replaced… a $1200 job! So surely one of those two would have at least checked and topped off fluids in the car right? My wife also mentions to me that the power steering isn't working as well as it used to. I checked the fluids and what do you know? Coolant is almost bone dry and power steering fluid needs to be added as well. Washer fluid is also low. We stopped and got what fluids we needed for the car on the way to the store.

Is it REAL customer service to provide only the services you charge for when a couple of seconds in time and a couple of pennies in goods would save your loyal, paying customer from possible damaged or even worse?

So I've listed my short list (what I can remember) of gripes here depicting my doubt in "customer service". So if that is "customer service", what do I see as REAL customer service?

REAL customer service is where the service provider actually CARES about more than just the service consumer's financial purse.
REAL customer service is where the service provider ACTIVELY looks out on behalf of the service consumer.

REAL customer service would have been if SBC/AT&T would have allowed me to drop long distance from my bill WITHOUT any fuss or any additional charges instead of driving my blood pressure through the roof.

REAL customer service would have been if that insurance company (the name eludes me) had acknowledged the fact that there was a claim history and maybe write a probationary policy with higher premiums for the first year or two instead of flatly denying coverage.

REAL customer service would have been if T-Mobil would have looked at my accounts, noted that we don't have a current contract, noted that our outdated contract can be changed to something much better that could INCLUDE the first couple of text messages for free instead of just sitting back and collecting the cash.

REAL customer service would have been if any of the companies that serviced our vehicle that week had simply taken 10 seconds to check the fluid levels and generously topped it off for us. Heck if you really wanted to build some good will you could even put it on the bill, but NOT charge for it. Simply note it as FREE.

My conclusion has been that REAL customer service is meeting someone's need, BEFORE they even become aware of it. That doesn't mean meeting needs that don't exist. The needs are real, but we all have busy lives and don't always know that we have these needs. Having these needs met without us having to worry about it and before we even notice it would only build greater loyalty in consumers.

Alas, we are left with the grand imitators of "customer service" and as a result, consumer lash back occurs. I believe it occurs more frequently than companies know. In my case, SBC/AT&T lost our long distance business for good. The intention to go back was spoiled by the drama encountered by leaving. As a result, we still have our Skype service and if audio quality is low, we use our cell phones instead.
The insurance company that wouldn't write me a policy lost my business and instead, I approached our current insurance agent, Vince "Chip" Felton of State Farm. Chip and State Farm has been nothing but good to us and deserve all the praise and loyalty that we can give them. Chip actually is one of the very few people I've found who knows the meaning of REAL customer service. He'll review our insurance status and policies annually and will contact us when he finds a way we can save money or improve protection at no additional cost. Besides that, he's just a great guy!
T-Mobil is also losing our business… probably forever! Instead, we're moving over to Revol. Why? No fuss billing. For a flat fee of $37 per month each we get UNLIMITED txt, UNLIMITED pics (what would T-Mobil not be charging us for THAT?), UNLIMITED minutes and UNLIMITED long distance. That's right. For one flat fee you get to use the phone as much as you want. Isn't that how it should be?
We don't have options for vehicle service but I'll be talking to my client reps and expressing my extreme disappointment.

So given some of the options we leveraged, is REAL customer service really dead?

Maybe not quite yet, but the flame is dwindling very, very fast amidst a vast sea of "customer service" darkness…


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