A Narrow Path

Stephen Yagielowicz

Is your "customer service" costing you customers?

Don't be too certain of your answer, especially if all you're basing that answer on is "sure, we have a customer service department," or "our billing company handles that..."

Companies of all sizes mistake the notion of "having" or "investing" in customer service for actually "offering customer service." In the above examples, your support department is only as good as its staffing and their motivation (financial and otherwise) to excel at their task — likewise for billing company or other third-party support services — no matter how good their reputation is, or how well they deliver on their promises and your (and your customer's) expectations.

And they can only be effective when working with proper policies.

Sometimes, the problem is not the people you employ, but the technology you deploy.

Recently I was at a friend's house when the phone rang: it was a marketing call by a prepaid cellular service provider — and an automated call, at that. I was told that it was a fairly regular occurrence, despite that phone number being on the federal do-not-call list.

Wanting to help put an end to the spam, a quick trip to Google provided me with the company's customer service number. While I was pre-disposed to liking the company, although not a customer (good branding by them!), I was determined to end these calls.

The automated phone system, as expected, made me jump through a few hoops until the option to speak to a representative was listed; forcing me to wade through a variety of offers, such as "top up your minutes," and "get a new phone," etc. They took a nice shot at an upsell, but I just wanted to tell someone to "stop calling here."

Expecting the "speak to an agent" part to be straightforward, I was at first impressed by the phone system's "help us direct you to the right agent," approach — but as I looped through the very specific options it presented, a narrow path of little boxes they wanted to stuff me neatly into, I was dismayed by a lack of a final option, "none of the above…"

I was equally frustrated at the compartmentalized, departmentalized, specialized and separate nature of the support team; as having chosen some specific support functionary, I was transferred up (or down!) the support chain, until I reached someone, somewhere, who apologized, wrote down my friend's phone number and said "I'll pass this along."

Well, the rep was nice anyway, and at last report, the unwanted calls have stopped.

The cumbersome experience of this company's support structure, however costly and well-intentioned in its design and thoroughness — possessing such a glaring omission — will prevent me from ever becoming a customer. A petty consideration, perhaps, but the "help" team upset me and that's not a good way to build a relationship with any prospect.

Take a moment to evaluate your own customer service chain: play "secret shopper" and call in to ask a silly question, complain about something arcane, request a follow-up sales call, or try to cancel a website membership, as appropriate — then note how long it takes for the phone to be answered, a reply to be received via email, or other contact.

What did your support team do, or not do, for you? Were you satisfied?

These days, the customers you have — and those you don't yet have — need to be accommodated; and while you may have a great team, you may not have thought of every possible client need.

For these folks, be sure to include "none of the above…"