Bad customer service: we’ve all had it, but why does it happen?

In yesterday’s The Haggler (David Segal. Jun. 9, 2013. New York Times), David Segal praises Quicken Loans’ great customer service, which he attributes to their superior corporate culture. We don’t doubt that Quicken Loans provides great service (in fact, we would have scored David Segal’s example quite highly). And certainly, a positive ethos is important to keep employees happy and engaged—but culture does NOT explain Quicken’s success.

If culture were enough, customer service wouldn’t so often be, as David Segal puts it, “so wretched.” The fact is, many companies have “isms,” maxims or principles about serving the customer. Quicken’s response was not great just because of their culture. It was great because they seem to have solid procedures in place. For example, they monitor twitter in near-real-time.  And, they probably teach associates to use the customer’s own words (we call this in-syncness).

Customer service is wretched because most companies don’t have a solid plan in place to bring their abstract ideas into practice.

Let’s get to the crux of the problem. Like in Ground Hog Day, many companies make these same mistakes over and over again—and they aren’t about culture. 

What Goes Wrong

The main reasons customer service fails are that companies tend to:

1. Think Any Answer Will Do. To speak is not necessarily to answer and while it seems ridiculous to have to point this out, all too many customer service programs act like this is the case.

Many companies assume their customer service team is only there to pick up the phone or respond to email, but they don’t pay enough attention to the quality of those responses. That means customers get confusing nonsense, devoid of authentic, useful content.

Here’s an example. The other day, before ordering HBO, I asked Comcast/xfinity if HBO-Go will work on my Roku; the associate blithely said “oh sure.” Since I naïvely believed the guy, I wound up spending several hours trying to get it to work. But it didn’t. Later, a different rep told me “oh no” we don’t support Roku or Samsung TV. Come on now Comcast, it’s not enough to make sounds when offering customer service, aim for meaning too.

2. Treat All Customers the Same. The flawed assumption here is that all customers are alike and want the same things. But come on now, as modern customers we expect more.

Far too often, companies act as though interacting with an angry customer should follow the same protocol as interacting with a curious or positive customer. But, if you’ve ever been upset with a company, you know that’s just plain wrong. When companies fail to recognize your particular mindset and objectives, you get bland, unresponsive, out-of-sync customer service.

And, as modern customers, we’re sophisticated. We know companies collect massive amounts of data about us, so it’s extra annoying that they don’t use that data to customize our service experiences and instead treat us all the same.

3. Invest in Simplistic but False Data. The most persistent of faulty assumptions about customer service is that measuring is an end in itself. But in fact, the purpose of measuring is to accurately depict (with high fidelity) the nature of what is really going on.

Companies are relentless with their satisfaction surveys, but really… those surveys are prone to bias in at least 5 major areas. Even more importantly; satisfaction surveys don’t reflect anything about the customer’s actual state of mind.

For instance, when was the last time you were shopping and stopped to ask yourself, “am I having a 3 or a 4 on a 5 point scale?” Never. Why? Because that’s not how the mind works–it’s not that structured. Besides, modern psychological research has identified a large number of cognitive biases that make us very poor at explaining ourselves, our actions and our reactions. If we don’t know what we experience, the whole idea of satisfaction surveys could be flawed.

That doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t try to measure anything. As an analytics company, we think experiences can and should be measured. In fact, we believe, if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. But just because companies measure things (Were you: Very satisfied? Extremely satisfied? Etc.), doesn’t mean they know how to improve customer service.

4. Assume Associates Don’t Need Examples. While improvisation is important, it’s wrong to think that providing clear examples will impede great customer service. In fact, it’s crucial!

Certainly, improvisation is great for conversations; don’t you hate it when the rep in the store reads you the specs on the product you are looking at—what I can’t read? Or, the phone agent stammers through what is clearly a poorly worded FAQ? Yuck. But, all too often service personnel do this because no one has shown them—in detail—another, better way.

While HR/training offers soft skills coaching (addressing things like empathy and proactivity), that’s not what customer service associates most need: They need to see how to answer real-life questions from real-life customers. Companies need to come up with great answers for specific customer situations and then have associates practice, even role-play, those answers. If executives don’t provide examples, they should not expect their associates to suddenly dream up great answers on their own.

What can you do as a customer when wracked by wretched customer service? Start by asking for the supervisor. Then the manager.

And, as a last resort, write David Segal.

Let’s improve the customer experience with better customer service! And never forget that in order to improve you need to measure.

Categories: Customer Service Evaluation
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