Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What Happened to Customer Service?

Power outages due to thunderstorms and tornados in the U.S. and Canada for the past few days included phone service, so I tried calling my girl, catherine, at her sister’s Tim Horton’s store, figuring she’d probably be there helping out. I was right.

“May I speak to catherine, please,” I asked. “I’m sorry,” answered the voice at the other end of the line: “catherine has just gone on her break.”

Now, seems to me that the start of a break would be the perfect time to take a personal phone call. However, that’s not the world of employees today. Why would you waste your break on personal issues, instead of waiting until you were back on the clock?

I’m reminded of a few years ago when I stopped at an Ames department store just as it was opening to pick up a few quick items on my way to work. Seems a few people had called in sick. Consequently, for fifteen minutes, before any cashier waited on any customer, the staff hashed out what would be the adjusted break schedule for the day. First things first.

Customer service is so poor today that it doesn't seem unusual when cashiers don't even speak to the customers, talking to other employees instead. People accept ungainly rules and procedures customers must fulfill before the business takes money. Long lines are a given.

Better service is often the personality of an individual employee, rather than a company trait. If every employee promptly provided goods and efficiently processed payment, that still wouldn't constitute good service; that's just what the customer is paying for!

One common business response is "We're just doing what everyone else does." Frame that service policy in Lucite and hang it in the lobby: "In our business, we're just doing what everyone else does." Inspiring.

Unless your business has 100% market share, at least some customers prefer the competition's product. What would make them prefer your product? Lower price is one way, but it doesn't build customer loyalty. If the competition can beat your price, your customers will be gone. Quality service, however, does build customer loyalty, and many customers will stay even when the competition beats your price.

Any business with economic profits will attract competition. Without significant barriers to entry, your product can readily be copied or even improved. But if a business is ahead of the competition in service, that's difficult to imitate quickly.

Yet even businesses with very happy customers sometimes ruin this with careless policies. For example, when I bought my new Toyota, I was thrilled with the dealership. I was there because my old Toyota threw a rod that morning at 199,974 miles, so I needed a new car quickly. They pulled it off, all in the same day! I test drove cars, they shuffled cars around with other dealers, they got all the paperwork completed with motor vehicles, and I was ready to go to financing—not a problem at all, since my credit rating is about as high as it’s possible to get.

Except for one thing. They insisted on selling me Scotch Guarding for the seat fabric and undercoating for the chassis, adding it to the monthly payment. I declined. Mr. Nice Finance Guy turned Gestapo. “Well can I ask why not?” he demanded in a rather nasty tone. “Well first, that’s one hell of a price for Scotch Guarding. Why wouldn’t I just buy a can and spray it on? Anyway, I have an active dog who rides in the car everyday on the way to our run. A little spilled coffee is the least of my troubles.”

“Well aren’t you worried about the car rusting through?” Clearly these guys are trained in high powered sales pressure. “It’s not necessary with today’s cars,” I responded. “How do you know that?” he demanded.

“Look,” I said, tired of this game. “I just drove a car 199,974 in New York State weather. I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the situation.” He finally dropped it.

I was only as calm as I was because I’ve seen it before. This is my third Toyota, and while the first purchase was fine, at the second purchase the finance guy was so persistent and so nasty that I was walking out the door. By chance, I ran into the body shop manager, a great guy I knew from previous interactions at the shop, who immediately stopped, saying, “You don’t look happy” and resolved the situation.

I shared this latest incident with the sales rep. “I was a happy customer up until this point,” I noted. “Why would they want to ruin that?” She could only nod. “I know,” she said. “We’ve had people walk from financing before.” Can those few extra bucks possibly be worth losing all those customers? I shared the experience with the Sales Manager. "Well, by law, if we offer a service to one customer, we have to offer it to all." Talk about missing the point.

A local consultant tells the story of a gentleman who had recently purchased a lusury car from a local dealership, and when a windshield wiper insert wore out after very little use, went back to nicely ask that it be replaced. “He was told in no uncertain terms that wiper inserts were not covered under his warranty and sent away,” explains the consultant. “Where do you think he’s going to buy his next car? Not there! Not only would I have given him the part for the few measly bucks it would cost—I’d have installed it for him and apologized!”

I buy Toyotas for the mileage, the reliability, and the fact that the service department is near my home (I live out in the country). I can tell you, though, that if another company up and coming moved nearby—Hyundai, for example—I’d certainly give them a serious look.

Apple takes this to extremes. They make and sell excellent computers. After that, unless you want to PURCHASE the right to service (at rather high costs), you’re just on your own. They don’t even pretend. They don’t do service. PC vendors aren’t much better. If I were to start a computer business, that’s where I’d start.

Excellent service is a rarity. Any business that delivers it will stand above the competition where it counts--with the customer.


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