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Resolve Customer Service Problems Like a Fighter Pilot

by Alf Nucifora

I'm trying to stop my griping and whining about bad customer treatment. It only contributes to a heart attack and the offending providers don't seem to care any way. The daily abuses that we all receive are not generally a result of contemplated malfeasance on the part of the provider. Instead, they tend to be thoughtless actions that result from lack of front-counter training, the absence of an internal culture that respects the customer and an operating environment where the offending staff have not been provided with the authority and leeway to take action on the customer's behalf…to do whatever it takes to keep the customer happy.

In a recent letter to a major airline, I complained about an incident where the customer service representative refused to help me in a situation that required breaking the company rules; in this case, waiving the fee for changing a non-refundable ticket. Even though I am a heavy user of the airline, the representative was adamant that he would not "break the rules and lose his job just for me." Incidentally, I was seeking special treatment but only because that same airline had caused me major inconvenience the same day because of equipment failure.

Train Your Staff to be Saboteurs

I am a fundamental believer that within the bounds of reason, the "reasonable man" test so to speak, you can never not do enough for the customer, particularly when the customer is bent out of shape. All too often, provider environments lack a mechanism for dealing with the disgruntled party. The poor staff who interface with the customer don't know how to handle the situation. They haven't been trained and, worse still, there is either an overt or implied threat that they will get into trouble or lose their job if they spend company money resolving the problem.

One of the common genetic elements in all of the nation's top service providers is a willingness to allow interfacing staff to break the rules when it comes to addressing a problem or a complaint. Employees are encouraged to be saboteurs, as long as the sabotage makes sense and results in a happy customer. There is a clear understanding that the best time to deal with the complaint is while the complaint is happening. And, statistics support that fact.

70% of complaining customers will return if the problem is resolved in their favor. That number grows to 95% if it's resolved on the spot.

A Prescription for Action

Fighter pilots make instantaneous decisions. If they don't they die. Ditto with customer complaints. If they're not solved on the spot, the customer will probably never return. Another form of death. Therefore, establish an environment where immediate response is the norm.

Cut Some Slack – Give those employees who deal directly with the customer the freedom and authority to break the rules when the situation demands. In most organizations, it requires an Act of Congress and a string of emails to get authority to give away a $10 voucher. That shouldn't be the case. The best organizations give their employees the discretionary authority to spend a reasonable amount in solving the customer complaint at the time of the complaint.

Don't Pass the Buck – Empower your employees to take responsibility for solving the problem themselves. Teach them to resist the urge to pass it along to somebody higher-up. That takes time and involves the risk that the complaint will be sucked into a corporate black hole and never be resolved. However, in those situations where a higher authority has to be invoked, make sure that the disgruntled customer does have easy access to a supervisor or manager.

Watch the Body Language – Most disgruntled customers are resigned to the fact that they won't receive remedial action. How many times have you written a letter or voiced a complaint and received a cursory response in return? That's if you were even lucky enough to get a response. Customer's have given up. They know it's not worth complaining. It's easier to take the business somewhere else.

Therefore, be on the look-out for the signs and signals that tell you that you've got an unhappy customer on your hands. It's normally a verbal cue, a sign of exasperation. Unfortunately, most service providers have the acuity and sensitivity of a block of granite. Or, they're simply too lazy to care.

Encourage Feedback – If you genuinely want to know what your customer's are thinking, provide them with an easy channel to voice their thoughts. Front-counter employees should always wear nametags for easy identification. Others, including managers, should always have business card on hand. In-store signage should promote the fact that management wants to hear from the customer, whether by email or 1-800 hotline. I love the signs on the back of the 18-wheelers that ask "How's my driving?" More than once, I've called the number to complain about a driver barreling down the highway at 85 MPH, threatening the lives of all those around him.

We've become a nation of pussyfooters. We've encouraged staff to behave like wimps. It's time to empower our employees to buck the consequences, to take a stand... to let them know that they can never do wrong by doing right for the customer. And, if you run an organization that will fire someone for being a customer maverick, it's your loss and their gain. You don't deserve an employee that good.

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