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Alf's Articles

You Lost A Customer But Never Knew It

by Alf Nucifora

It all began with a plumbing problem that occurred at an odd hour. A call to the home warranty company with whom I'm insured for home repairs, American Home Shield, was met by the inevitable computer-generated, voice-responsive menu of options none of which precisely matched my problem, a clogged water pipe. Any attempt to circumvent the system or speak to an operator resulted in termination of the call. A subsequent service call by a repairman from a locally-contracted plumbing company resulted in refusal to fix the problem accompanied by poor service and an unresponsive attitude on the part of the repairman. ("I've got more calls with more serious problems to make!") To add insult to injury, the call service fee wasn't covered by the insurance policy, a point of no dispute on my part. But had I had the opportunity to explain the problem to an operator when I initially called in, we could probably have determined that the a clogged kitchen pipe wasn't covered, (it's buried in the contractual legalese), saved me the $45 I now have to pay for a wasted call, and maintained me as a satisfied customer rather than an abused ex-customer. My contract is up next month. Needless to say, I won't be renewing.

The takeaway from the incident is not deteriorating or inconsistent customer service. That's a given nowadays. The more important issue, and a matter of life or death for any business-to-consumer brand, is the failure to heed a distraught customer, attempt to diagnose and rectify the problem and leave the customer with a favorable disposition toward the brand, even if the problem cannot be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Sometimes all it takes is a willingness to listen and a few soothing words in response. The irony is that in my case, the AHS customer service folks I appealed to after the fact were respectful and courteous. But they didn't want to listen, and closed off discussion without finesse or right of appeal. If the complaint didn't fit the script, discussion was over. To this day, I feel I have a legitimate complaint that any customer-centric company would respond to with some form of concession. It's the unheard gripe that galls, the inability to have one's day in court, so to speak.

Time for answers

While they may not accept it with good cheer, most customers understand the need to automate. Ultimately companies must resort to technology to improve productivity, reduce labor expense and deliver affordable pricing to the end user. Whether you love it or hate it, the Wal-Mart model works, and that's where American business is headed. Both customer and company would prefer not to see the human component maintained in the transaction, but the dynamic of the modern marketplace rarely permits that luxury. And truth be told, the human interface is not always that satisfying. Try talking to faux-American operative in a Bangalore boiler room and you'll understand what I mean.

Companies have to learn to deal with the grey area in automated customer service response…what happens when things go wrong. Currently it's a void into which lost customers drop. They disappear from the face of the earth, or worse still, from the brand's embrace. To compound the concern, anecdotal evidence and experience would indicate that most companies don't have a feedback mechanism for knowing which customers they've lost, or why.

How can this be rectified?

First, impose an authentic listening system. This means training customer service staff to go beyond the script, whether face-to-face across the store counter or via phone or email conversation. What is called for are customer shrinks, capable of intuitively recognizing the early warning sign of customer dissatisfaction and possessing the presence of mind and authority to deal with it.

Second there must be a procedure or system for surveying the customer's state of mind at the conclusion of the transaction. The Japanese and German auto companies are fastidious in their mail or phone survey follow up. One wonders, however, how responsive they are to any complaint noted in the response. Phone company operators have now been taught to end every conversation with the question, "Have I addressed every issue that prompted this call and have I provided you with a satisfactory solution or response to your need or inquiry?" Good for them. If AHS had asked that question, they would have received a resounding "No!" which ideally would have prompted referral of the complaint to a higher authority or somebody better trained to deal with a sensitive situation. There must also be an orderly and structured mechanism for processing complaints and remaining engaged to the point where the complaint has been resolved, or the customer anger appeased and frustration erased.

Losing customers is inevitable. Try as we may, not every customer can be left happy and satiated. Some are downright unreasonable. Others are genetically disposed to be unfaithful to their brands as they pursue every hot deal and traffic promiscuously in the coupon trade. But to lose a customer for wont of listening or failure to provide a channel for mediation is bad business, and suicidal. Brands that exhibit that behavior are telling us they don't care. Fine by me. I'll spend my money elsewhere.

A postscript. I always attempt to contact companies that I criticize in my columns to allow them to present their point of view. AHS responded just as this column was going to bed. In addition to offering to waive the questioned service fee, their courteous representative emailed the following response. "AHS is focused on continual improvement which we base on all customer feedback, both positive and negative. We are aware of the user difficulties experienced with our current IVR (interactive voice response) system and have been aggressively working to change and correct these issues. Our new system is set to launch within the next month.

Changes made to the system are a result of AHS initiated customer focus studies devised to grasp the flow customers most often take when calling in. The new system will have better flow, with better organization, be more intuitive, (and) be aligned for smoother transition."

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