Sunday, December 19, 2010

Customer Service Surprises - Maybe There's Hope

They keep telling us that we are up to our necks in a service economy. I don’t know about you, but it seems like with the advent of the "net" the world has been turned on its ear. It wasn’t too long ago that I traded at those bricks and mortar stores based on how I felt I was treated as a customer. That was then and this is now. Now it seems you walk into a store and you feel like you should go buy a lottery ticket when you even find a sales clerk, much less someone who knows how to say "customer service."

The other side of the world used to be, and still is on many sites, that you considered it a major coup to get any email responded to much less the answer to your question or issue.

It could well be that I am obsessive on this subject because we feel our company lives and dies on customer service. This whole concept was one of the prime reasons when we started ExecuNet that a key driving principle was that this was a "membership" not a subscription.

To give you and idea of just how obsessive we were about it, even though we went online in 1995, it still took me a couple of years before I relented and said it was okay to allow people to join online without having to talk with us first. People thought I was nuts, but I was adamant about the fact that while we were indeed a for profit enterprise, this was to be an enterprise built on relationships not transactions.

I am not embarrassed to say that it remains a great source of pride here at galactic headquarters that the vast majority of people who choose to join ExecuNet still come to us by referral from current or former members, and we’ve been at this for 23 years.

In any case, back to the customer service world: Not sure what your experience has been but in recent months it starts to feel like maybe we’re starting to "get it" again, and what really blew me away was where I saw this taking place. I offer up two experiences:

When I finally woke up to the fact that I had not signed up for social security (I was eligible in April), and it never dawned on me until November – talk about not feeling your age!) I picked up the phone with more trepidation than you can imagine. I was fully prepared for a real life experience that if it wasn’t so painful could easily be on Saturday Night Live or Jon Stewart.

But check this out: From the time I got to a real person (which I admit took a bit of doing going through the phone tree, but was not impossible) I thought I was either dreaming or had the wrong number. I could not have been treated any better if I were a season ticket holder at Neiman Marcus. "Would you like to make an appointment to come to the office, or would you prefer to handle it via a phone appointment and we’ll call you at your office?" Whoa! You mean I don’t have come to you? That practically sounded like an offer to make a house call and I thought that had gone out with high button shoes! Bottom line from that first call until my first check arrived was crisp, professional, and very "user friendly."

My next move was on to Medicare, and while the phone trees there started to feel a bit like an old Bob Newhart routine, whenever I spoke with someone, which given my lack of skill in following any sort of instruction written or verbal, was fairly frequently, I had a similar feeling ~ wow, maybe my tax dollars really had been working – at least they had been working on providing some really good customer service training in places where I fully expected it to be more like a cross between a root canal and my first visit to the DMV before they too seemed to have gotten their act together.

The second and almost equally mind blowing experience was when my wife decided she was so frustrated with AOL that she wanted to shift to Verizon since we already were on Verizon for our cell phones and house phones. I entered this task fearing the worst as well. I was even more worried than with my dealings with the SSA in that this involved the need for me to have some semblance of understanding of the tech side of cyber space. Not a good sign at all given that the extent of my tech skills pretty much begin and end with my TV remote, and she takes that away from me so often that if they offered remedial training for it I would likely sign up.

Bottom line again: There was not a single person I spoke with over the course of a few days when I had time to deal with all of this who was not as courteous and understanding and responsive as they could be, and this included explaining our phone bills as well as walking (with me it was actually crawling) through the install process.

My belief has always been that there are at least two key truths about a business relationship:

1. All of us will always be willing to pay a premium for a quality product or service, and

2. If I am treated as a valued customer, I will remain loyal to the product or service almost no matter what.

The "loyalty" contract may be dead from a careers perspective (that’s a whole other subject) but my desire as a person to be able to demonstrate my loyalty is still a pretty big motivator for me.

I am loyal when I am recognized for who I am, and when I get customer service as in these two unexpected cases I have cited here, it gives me some hope that as a business community all is not lost.

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