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Posted by on Jun 10, 2014

When Customer Service is the Lemon

478196513Although the Federal Government doesn’t often talk of “customers” the way the private sector does, customer service is a key competency of every government employee. Your “customer” may be survivors if you’re at FEMA, internal leaders if you’re in HR, veterans and their families at the VA, foreign governments if you’re at the State Department, other government agencies if you’re at OPM, or taxpayers if you’re at the IRS.

Providing good customer service, however, goes well beyond the competency of the people in the Federal Government. Sometimes highly competent people are hindered by process and tools that destroy the customer experience before the customer even interacts with an individual at the organization.

I recently bought a computer that I think may be a lemon. Moments out of the box I got multiple “Blue Screens of Death” that may be familiar to some of you. When I called tech support I had to wade my way through no fewer than five voice or keypad response menus to get to talk to someone who could answer my questions.

In the meantime, I was continually bombarded with “selling” messages – telling me about how wonderful the computer I was having a bad experience with really was, how important my call was to them, and other automated information that was unrelated to why I was calling in the first place.

When I finally got through to a live person, I had to make sure the company’s database was up to date by repeating my name, address, email address, phone number, and serial and model numbers before they would talk to me about the reason I called. As if they were worried that I was simply bored and just looking for someone to talk to. And when my call got disconnected, I had to go through the entire process again. Some of you may be able to relate to this part of the experience.

We’ve all heard of paying attention to the “Voice of the Customer.” Whether you are a Federal employee dealing with the public, or internal customers, or working in a commercial enterprise, it is important to listen to your customers to make sure you are giving them what they want. I am also confident that this is not news to many of you.

Those who worry about branding and marketing spend a lot of time and money shaping how people view your organization, its services, and products. Marketers work hard to motivate people to make contact with their organization to sample what it has to offer. Lots of money is spent to close the gap between becoming aware of an entity and taking an action to engage with that entity.

So why is it, that once a customer is convinced to pick up the phone to make a call, the organization feels the need to interpose itself between the customer and the designated point of contact? If the goal is to build a sense of community, why are there obstacles impeding that connection? It is almost as if the organization is saying, “We’ve got you, and now we are going to make you jump through our hoops before you get what you came for.” In my case, this is the antithesis of what I am looking for. I was motivated to connect because of my lousy product, and was thwarted at every turn by infrastructure that defeated the very purpose of the connection the organization spent so much money to encourage and nurture. 

If this describes interacting with your organization, find someone to tell. Angry customers only get angrier when they are delayed by irrelevant (to them) requests for information. Timid customers, who had to energize just to make the call, will likely abandon the call rather than endure the delays.

If organizations say the customer is important, then why are their systems set up for the convenience of the organization, often to the detriment of the customer?

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  1. Big, fat, yes! Absolutely agree, Marc.

    I am outraged by the time wasted by companies who claim to want my money and my business. When I worked in publishing, I battered back the IT people we were working with, who wanted to have every interaction go through this labyrinthian process of forms and ‘tickets’ to get to a live person, and have auto-response emails built into the system that people couldn’t just respond to themselves…this has, in my most humble of opinions, not a darn thing to do with real customer service.

    I now own my own business and we are committed to having people to talk with people — going low tech at times in our response systems strategically because we want to be able to get to know our customers and have them get to know us. The money we spend having direct communication is made up, so far at least, by being able to close sales and upsell when we have them on the phone — often easy simply because they’re so thrilled that an actual human being is talking to them…

    • Thanks for your comment, Leigh. There is something in here about a transactional, tactical approach to customer service vs. a more strategic, relationship-building approach. Sometimes, you just want the prolem fixed; other times, when it is complicated, or emotion is involved, people want to be able to connect to other people to explain what they are experiencing, and filling out a form or talking to Interactive Voice Response (IVR) software just isn’t satisfying.

  2. Working for one of the big four banks in Australia, I am incredibly proud of the unique service model in our business banking area. It is unique in that every call made to our bankers is answered by a business banking associate. The associates are allocated to a group of senior bankers and respond to every call. They are available 24/7 365 days of the year and are proficient in the business banking knowledge and have the ability and the capability to respond to majority of clients requests. This model ensures that a business clients need are addressed at a convenient time for them, not the usual banking hours. Most clients have relationship managers that the assoc. can forward their calls to if needed. The assoc. can see if their senior banker/relationship manager is available to take the call. If not thye take a message. It’s personal, it’s engaging and it’s responsible customer service. It allows our bankers more time to build relationships, and less time on the phone. For the assoc.s it’s a great learning experience, putting them at the heart of the client service, learning their pain points and solutions. They become the best business bankers. Proud? Oh yeah, I’m proud!

    • Thank you for your comment, Heather! Sounds like your bank is the one I would want to affiliate with when I move to Australia! My banking experience in the US hasn’t been as positive …. I chose a small bank in hopes of building a relationship over time, but shortly after opening my accounts they went to the dreaded IVR approach, with no help available after “normal business hours,” which is not when I have time to think about my banking. I do use e-banking based on the advice of a good friend, but even that has limitations when not supported by a live person.

      You should be proud to be a member of an organization who values customer relationships, not just in words, but in policies and in actual customer treatment. Having access to information and advice on a 24/7/365 basis can be quite a differentiator.

      A couple of questions for you, and others who may be reading this:
      1) What prompted the decision to institute the “human touch”? Formal corporate strategy? Data driven market research? Seemed like a good idea at the time? Some combination of those?
      2) What metrics do you use to assess whether it is worth the investment to continue?

      An added benefit of this approach is that your associates become an invaluable conduit for the sustained voice of the customer … they hear not only the words, but the tone of the conversations, have a handle on what the customers are asking for, and by capturing this customer feedback, can help expand service as a differentiator in your marketplace.

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