R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Customer Service Edition

There seems to be a trend in the technology market lately to provide just enough customer service and support necessary to keep the customer/consumer locked in.  Below is a conversation in which I participated recently which is indicative of my statement.  The names have been changed to protect the guilty:

Customer Service:  Hello, my name is ****, how may I help you today?

Customer:  Hello.  My name is **** and I am calling for support on your **** product.  It appears that members of my company have individual accounts with your online CRM system and I need to get them merged.

Customer Service:  It seems that you have duplicate accounts.  They’ll need to lose out their accounts.  They can’t be merged.

Customer:  If they close out their accounts will the settings that they entered be lost?

Customer Service:  Yes.  If you want them to be under the central company account they’ll have to enter their information again.

Customer:  So there is no way to merge the records?

Customer Service:  No, I’m sorry.  That is just not possible.

Customer:  Okay, thanks.  I don’t think you’re service is going to work for us.  Thanks anyway.

Customer Service:  I’m sorry I couldn’t resolve your problem today.  Is there anything else I can assist you with?

Customer:  No.  That will be enough.

Customer Service:  Thank you for contacting ****.  Have a great day!

There are variations on this theme but the result is the same.  In this example, the customer assumed that a logical merging of records could be achieved for the various accounts, given that the company team tried the application and made a buy decision.  First line customer support had a set script.  Taking multiple accounts and merging them under one organization, say for something like a CRM system would normally be considered basic functionality.  The possibility is that the company either didn’t anticipate the market needs or that first line technical support was not skilled enough to listen to the problem and escalate it if a solution was possible.

Another example follows:

Customer Service:  Hello, my name is ****, how may I help you today?

Customer:  I just acquired your software and am having problems on the install.

Customer Service:  Okay, I can help you with that.  What problems have you experienced?

Customer:  Well I went through the documentation posted on-line.  You state that the software is compatible with the latest operating system but your instructions are for an older version.  The dialogue boxes don’t match but I was able to get through most of it.  When I get to step 10 to install I get the following error message: *****.

Customer Service:  Okay, I can help you with that.  First, please ensure that your computer is on and is plugged in.

Customer:  I’ve already done that.

Customer Service:  Now, open your Control Panel.

Customer:  I’m well past that.

Customer Service:  Now double click on Software.

Customer:  I’m past that.  I’m on step 10.  Is this the same as the documentation or are we doing something else?

Customer Service:  Now go to Uninstall a program.  If you find an earlier version of our software please uninstall it.

Customer:  I’ve already done this.  I’m on step ten.

Customer Service:  Okay.  Now close Control Panel.

Customer:  Okay.

Customer Service:  Now download the new software from the link provided in our e-mail and save the file to your desktop.

Customer:  I’ve done this.

Customer Service:  Okay.  Now once you have the installer on your desktop double click on it.

Customer:  I’ve done this….

You get the picture and have probably experienced similar conversations yourself.  I went through the trouble to explain to the rep that I ran a software company and had been using their software for several years, but the latest build was the first that had install problems.  I was expecting some knowledge beyond my own.  I was even hoping that knowing that I was a power user that the supplying company would appreciate that this was a problem that they needed to address.  Instead they dumbed-down technical support to a script to be followed by personnel who many not even be users–let alone power users–of the software in question, or they may be “paper” certified software technicians with no appreciation of the actual operating environment.

Turns out that there was a driver conflict that could be resolved, but I had to go to technical chat rooms to find the proper resolution.  I could only imagine what someone without the same technical skills as my own would do.  Probably return the software if they could.  If they couldn’t they would financially reward a company that doesn’t care about the customer and not be able to fully obtain the benefits of their purchase.

Then there is this issue:

Customer Service:  Hello, my name is *****, how may I help you today?

Customer:  I just bought your software but need assistance in the initial install.  I have some questions about setup options.

Customer Service:  Do you have a license number?

Customer:  Yes, its *********.

Customer Service:  I’m sorry but you do not have telephonic support for that level of service.  I’ll be happy to take a credit card number.  Otherwise you’ll need to fill out our on-line form.  We respond within 48 hours with your solution.

This is probably the worst kind of bait and switch.  You acquire a piece of software and have a follow-on question, or may need some assistance on the initial install.  You may have even purchased initial training but upon going back to the software you find that there is some inconsistency between the documentation and what you were taught.  In order to get the issue resolved–which is clearly the responsibility of the technology company–you are asked to pay more for the answer to your question.  This is a situation where there is a confusion on the part of the technology company.  They are in the transaction business or some other business related to pressure-cooker sales.  Perhaps they should seek financial rewards in the food service industry.  The business they are definitely not in is the software business.  This is the more coercive version of “do you want fries with that burger?”; except you are required to get the fries if you want the burger after you’ve already paid for it.

The problem here, of course, is the use of technology as an insulator to customer service.  But defining our terms is important here.

What I mean by customer service isn’t some PR exercise.  While it is important to speak courteously, avoid arguments, listen carefully, etc. those are approaches to delivering customer service, not customer service.  This is akin to political parties saying they need to appeal to a political block of voters by speaking nicely to them while ignoring their socio-economic needs and concerns.  It’s window dressing and, as Lincoln said, it will fool some of the people only some of the time.  Eventually they figure it out for the scam it is.

Customer service is based in the ethic of reciprocity and contracts.  If we sell something we are engaged in a public activity.  With this public activity comes public responsibility and accountability.  This means we should act in the same manner as if our actions were a universal, were the roles reversed.  Leadership and good management are necessary ingredients to good customer service as much as internal operations.  As a matter of fact, my own observations over the years have confirmed that if a firm treats its own personnel poorly there is little chance that it will treat its customers any better.

It is incumbent upon all of us who play an influential role in the technology industry to reverse the trend to “good enough” customer service.  On-line chat, e-mail, and on-line documentation are all convenient techniques for leveraging technology in delivering customer service, but nothing can substitute for active listening, problem solving, responsiveness to customer needs, and timely action.

A few years ago I worked for a software company where our most popular customer service rep, who was also our most effective customer service rep, was also the most volatile.  I cringed whenever he would interrogate a customer on their issue.  It wasn’t until I met those customers in person at a conference or user-group meeting that I realized that he was both highly respected and highly sought-after.  When I asked why I was told that even though his manner was sometimes direct and “cranky,” that he stayed with them until he understood their problem and then found the solution to their problem as quickly as possible.  Oftentimes he went above and beyond the call, instructing them on the systems and procedures of the project management specialty in which they were engaged to give them a full understanding of how the software was designed to operate in their environment, giving them a full, practical understanding of its intent and value.  He was considered not only a technical support rep but a mentor and teacher.

I understand that for widely used consumer products such a high standard is not always possible, given the wide differences in basic technological knowledge and skills present.  But I have also seen the race to the bottom in customer service in specialized software, particularly in the project management space, as well as other industries.  Comcast is only the latest poster child for this standard.

My own approach in business has been the same approach I used when I wore a uniform and held a public trust.  This approach assumes respect for the individual or organization that is the customer.  It requires an understanding of their business, an appreciation of their risks and goals, and how the software that they have acquired fits into the business model.  It requires a commitment to ensuring that the solution is designed to optimize the data that will inform the business processes involved.  If they are a public agency, then a commitment to the public trust is essential to our own conduct.  It involves a commitment to excellence in the products and services provided to the public at large.

I learned as a young Navy officer from one of my mentors that there are many roads to the same destination.  We choose which road to take, but only two or three will get us both to where we want to go and allow us to live with ourselves, assuming that we aren’t either a sociopath or an extreme narcissist.  You don’t have to take the same road that I have chosen in order to succeed.  But as project managers, as software developers and companies, as businesses we choose our road and through our actions make the world what it is.