Another Rant: The Funranium Labs Customer Service Ethos

I do my best to compose these posts with the appropriate level of insobriety fueling me. I like to think that it allows me to summon the correct creativity needed to share More Awesome. In this case, it is the vitriol directed at organizations Doin’ It Wrong.

This morning I just shipped a replacement Stein of Science to a gentleman in Hawaii since the postal service decided to play hockey with his package. I’m girding myself to file the insurance claim (which I slap on every stein shipment for just this reason) but I am warmed by the thanks I received for turning a replacement out in 48hrs and not charging to ship it. With friends from Hawaii and Alaska, I know how goddamn irritating it is to see “Offer Not Available in AK & HI”. May your new stein arrive safely, Max.

I’m often complimented on my customer service and I can credit it to a couple of places: a childhood doing retail sales in a pet store run by my parents and the bad customer service I receive on a daily basis from a dozen or so major companies. Rather than be infuriated to the point I decide obliteration of all customer service reps is the only solution, I try to learn a lesson of what is going wrong here.

And if by some reason Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Verizon, AT&T, PG&E, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Enterprise Car Rental, Kaiser Permanente, Delta Dental, the California Department of Motor Vehicles, or Fry’s Electronics are reading this, please know that I have had the teeth gritting opportunity to learn something from all of you.

The primary failure all of these organizations have had is by approaching their customer service as a potential expense rather than an opportunity to make a future sale. Sure, the future is a nebulous place whereas the cash they already got from me is SOLID. Can’t take the future to the bank. However Verizon, as my favorite dead horse to beat, may rest assured that that they so thoroughly held on to the value of the original sale that they lost a customer of 10 years, my business for the foreseeable future, and (as they’re still getting here) continued bad word of mouth exposure. AT&T has definitely not endeared itself to me but they haven’t, thus far, managed to pass the very high irritation bar Verizon established.

How did these organizations fail me and so many others? One could list the myriad ways, but it comes from failure to understand the fundamental exchange in customer service, which is this:

YOUR CUSTOMER HAS A PROBLEM. THEY NEED YOUR HELP.

It’s really that simple. The next part is figuring out what the problem actually is and what help you can give.The customer has not contacted you because they feel like having a chat and have nothing better to do. If there was something wrong but it wasn’t important, they wouldn’t be spending their time to tell you about their problem.

Unfortunately, I find that customer service normally treats the problem as being “there is a customer trying to take the company’s money away”. The customer’s time is irrelevant to them as this isn’t something that can be seen in the balance sheet, so there is no particular incentive to be expedient. Customer service staff wages are already paid for so there is no particular bottom line gain to the company for them being expedient, only more money lost due to the increased number of refunds and return authorizations they process.

Another matter is the empowerment of service personnel. For large organizations, first tier customer service folks are a gauntlet for the customer to prove they are worthy of service. I can think of few jobs more depressing than one with scripted service interactions. You don’t have the power to approve anything, just provide roadblocks to quickly deny access to the rest of the customer service chain. A former corporate buyer I knew had the habit of immediately asking customer service representatives, “Do you have the authority to approve this?” If the answer was no, she asked for the rep’s supervisor, and repeated the question until she got to someone in sufficient authority to make a decision other than “No”. If you refused to pass her along or, even worse, your script took people like her into account and forced her through the gauntlet, there was price to paid, literally. She billed them for her wasted time on the next invoice they sent her.

The lesson she taught me was, from the customer perspective, the entire customer service hierarchy is superfluous until you get to the point that you hit someone that can make decisions. So, why don’t they have the authority? Either they hired incompetents too untrainable to have this authority OR the employees aren’t trusted to work in the company’s interest. Either way, this isn’t a good sign for the future of the company’s stock.

The alternative is that they simply don’t give a flying fuck once they get your cash. See also: Death by Phone Tree, now with mystery auto-disconnects.

For better or for worse, Funranium Labs is me, my very patient webmaster, my even more patient Lovely Assistant, and the very brave volunteers that fill out the ranks of the Ambassadors…but mainly me. I would like to thank all the organizations that have given me so many object lessons in how to treat you all well. I think I’ve got it down to the point that I could do without any further education.

Oh wait, I have an insurance claim to make with USPS. Pardon me…it’s time to go take an advanced course.