Making It or Breaking It with Customer Service

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

On June 13, Vincent Ferrari decided he no longer needed his $14.95-per-month account with a major online service provider. Ferrari had heard stories about the company’s notoriously poor customer service, so on a hunch, he wired his phone to record the conversation.

What he got is a marketer’s nightmare. After waiting 15 minutes on hold, Ferrari finally spoke to a customer service rep who spent the next five minutes insisting that he shouldn’t cancel the account. Despite Ferrari’s repeated requests to “Cancel…the…account,” the agent wouldn’t give up. The exchange reached the height of absurdity when the rep asked to speak to Ferrari’s father. Ferrari is 30.

There was a time when a story like this would have been shared and laughed over with a few friends. But this is the age of the blog and Ferrari did what any self-respecting blogger does these days. He posted the recording.

The response was overwhelming. More than 1,000 readers weighed in with comments, many lamenting their own customer service horror stories with the vendor. Ferrari was interviewed on the Today show. Google news lists 32 news accounts of the incident. The recording was downloaded more than 65,000 times from YouTube. Demand was so high that Ferrari’s blog server crashed. You can read his story here.

The conventional wisdom that a dissatisfied customer tells 10 people about a bad experience is outdated. Today, they tell millions. Social media is unforgiving in this way. Consider the poor vendor in this situation. One negative exchange with a customer resulted in a firestorm of bad publicity that was wholly out of proportion to the offense. Ferrari had a juicy story to tell and the media loves a juicy story.

For many businesses, customer service is a neglected afterthought. Squeezed to cut costs, businesses are increasingly marginalizing the customer experience by inserting automated phone systems and ponderous Web interfaces between themselves and their clients. Or they’re outsourcing the whole thing overseas. The result is that customers are becoming more and more disenfranchised. And they’re going to sites like The Consumerist to vent their frustration.

I set out today to write about innovative customer service, but in researching the topic, I discovered so much rancor about the state of customer service that I changed course. It seems to me that in the outsourced, cost-controlled, Webified and automated business world, innovative customer service is increasingly about going back to basics. It’s about providing your customers with a speedy, hassle-free exchange with a pleasant human being who genuinely appreciates the customer’s business.

Think of the businesses you patronize that give you good customer service. What do they do right? Chances are they make a positive customer experience part of their value system. Whether it’s an efficient web design, a helpful e-mail newsletter service, a pleasant telephone support staff or a cheerful hello at the checkout counter, they show you that they appreciate you as a person, not just an account number.

So innovative customer service these days isn’t about innovation so much as it’s about core values. Getting back to basics. Sweating the details. How important is a happy customer to you? How dangerous is an unhappy one?

Let’s close with a positive anecdote. The other day, my regular Federal Express delivery guy rang my doorbell just to tell me that it was starting to rain and he had noticed the top was down on my convertible. He didn’t have tell me that; I’m sure he had plenty of deliveries to make. But he took literally one minute out of his day to help a steady customer. I will remember that small courtesy for a long time and will tell other people about it. In fact, I just did!

What are businesses doing to make you a happy customer? Share your stories in the comments below.

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