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Service with a snarl: What to look for and how to avoid it

No doubt we have all been victims of bad customer service, and no doubt we have left companies and moved on to their competition because the experience, at least in our own eyes for the moment, had been intolerable. Of course, we all have those particularly heinous stories of sub par service and indignant insults, but fair is fair, and perhaps some of those “fly off the handle” experiences could have been handled better; both by the customer and the service person.

Whereas the warning signs of poor customer service seem to be universal in this day and age of technology and good old personal one on one intervention, the adage of the “customer is always right” can never be a one-size fits all solution. It is true that waiting in line or a long telephone “hold” wears down a customer’s patience, and could very well be the foreshadowing of a busy and understaffed company, statistics state Americans spend 37 billion hours a year waiting in line for such services as cash registers, amusement parks, movies, fast food restaurants, and the list goes on.

The real payoff happens when we get to the front of the line or the representative answers the phone. How is the customer treated? Is there an apology for making us wait? Is the service we expect now provided? Is the customer service representative owning the problem, or are we told someone else will have to get in touch with us? The popular recording:

“Your call is very important to us. Please do not hang up. All of our representatives are busy helping other customers,” is only believable to us if we can expect our problems to be corrected or addressed.

The real solution is a customer service representative who is well-trained and intelligent who tells an unhappy customer:

“We’re sorry, and we will make this right.”

On the other side of the customer service debate, however we must remember that customers need to own  respectable codes of behavior. Customer service agents are not FBI hostage negotiators and should not be expected to tolerate screaming profanities, unrealistic goals, and vulgar behaviors. Agreed, everyone can get slightly miffed from waiting in line or being left on “hold” for more than a customer thinks is acceptable, ( could be one minute, ten minutes, or an hour) beginning the conversation in an arbitrary manner is not likely to get the desired results. Try to throw, “it’s the principle” out of your mind and concentrate on the desired end result; whether it is to be a refund, a replacement part, or a better seat in the auditorium for a Katy Perry concert. Nothing replaces the time honored old English proverb:

“You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

Organizations have

to figure out which way they want to operate. Low levels of service are inexpensive, but the high costs of customer dissatisfaction, the lost business, and the money spent to process and repair the damage, takes its toll. High levels of service are expensive, and it costs more to provide those services, but the costs for dissatisfaction issues are much lower.

So the next time you think you are a victim of a snarly customer service person, why not take a deep breath and imagine the “best in life is yet to come.”

How not to act when customer service fails miserably

This week was a drama-filled example of a customer “gone wild” when an incredibly frustrated customer service recording from Reddit was made public on YouTube. Picture a client, who for three hours tried in vain to get an issue resolved at an alleged home security organization, and went from agent to agent until finally customer service representative Michelle left a number for the client to call. The problem with that however, is that Michelle was nowhere to be found, and as the customer’s anger escalated, his behavior became inexcusable; pity the service representative named Mark who finally answered the call.

As we all believed once upon a time that the tooth fairy really existed, and the money left on our pillows in the morning came from an unbelievably beautiful princess with a magical wand, we all want to believe that organizations really want to keep our business and ultimately a customer service representative will come to our rescue. Of course, minus the magic wand, and too many times the long hold period with the repetitious sales pitch and elevator music, the transferring of one’s call to another representative, or the even more fearsome threat of being disconnected during call transfers, inept customer service can push the buttons of the most patient and optimistic soul.

It seems this in particular recording, allegedly from four years ago, pushed this customer’s sanity, because he curses, screams, and even threatens violence by coming to the customer center and using a machine gun. Customer service representative Mark who answered the phone at tech support was instructed by the customer not to put him on hold or even transfer him to another representative for fear of being disconnected again. Mark obliged the customer; we don’t really know why because without the necessary information from the customer as to the problem or even the customer’s identity, how could any questions be resolved? Was the customer service rule at the company never to hang up on anyone or be fired?

Regardless of the hysterics caused by this week’s ballistic outbreak from an out of control customer, it’s a good platform to help all of us not overreact to poor customer service. Not too long ago, most of us remember the airline attendant who went ballistic when a rude passenger angered him; he told the person off and then proceeded to slide down the emergency chute and exit the plane. We’ve seen customers break expensive china, throw diamonds into the rivers, and act so much out of control, we either cringe with fear or laugh hysterically, but a lesson for all of us lies somewhere beneath all that anger and the frustration.

Even if it means walking away from your computer or putting your IPhone away for a rest, stay calm. Most companies do allow their representatives to hang up when a customer calls and is profane or threatening. Have a clear, concise summary of your problem, and leave out the emotions. Be polite to the representative, and try to remember that person is there to help and has no preconceived notion to want to hurt you or not resolve your problem as quickly and effectively as possible. Of course, it’s no surprise when we reach low-level employees who have no discretion as to making exceptions or much talent in the problem solving issues, so be prepared to be transferred when dealing with certain companies. Too many companies don’t put the time or effort into proper training.  There’s nothing wrong with asking to speak with a supervisor, and sometimes it does take time for a return call, but try the obvious remedies first and make sure you hone in on the particular department applicable to your problem. Keep good records of everyone you speak with, and be persistent; again without being rude, and when all else fails, never be afraid to turn to government agencies, Better Business Bureau, or social media.

Everyone agrees poor customer service is frustrating, and as hard as we try sometimes, failures happen. Let’s just hope businesses have enough wisdom to want to keep you as a customer and resolves the issue before it is too late.

Here’s the video:

How credit card companies offer different levels of customer service

Credit cardsCredit cards are an important way of life for most Americans. According to CreditCards.com, the average consumer has nearly $16,000 in credit card debt, and the average interest rates of credit cards range from 10.37% for those with excellent credit to 28% for instant approval credit cards. So are there different levels of service for credit card customers depending on one’s credit and past financial history?

For a consumer who has been involved in a bankruptcy, has judgments or poor credit based upon late or skipped payments, interest rates are always higher, but poor customer service should not go hand in hand with poor credit. Many people in dire financial predicaments have been unfortunate victims of a stressed economy, catastrophic medical emergencies, or divorce, but are now looking to obtain the tools to once again demonstrate their strong financial responsibilities.

Bad credit comes with high fees and interest rates, but as a consumer works their way up into a more acceptable credit score, the perks get better, and the fees get lower. Where it is dubious for someone with a secured credit card based on high fees and  money needed in an account to expect the same level of customer service one receives from the American Express Gold or Platinum cards, it certainly is a reasonable expectation to receive fair and timely service for all credit cards. Unfortunately some credit card companies rate the effectiveness of their customer service representatives by how quickly they can get the consumer off the phone, and then onto the next.

Need to know how to maneuver your way around customer service departments of credit card companies to get satisfactory service? Here are some suggestions:

  • Stay calm. For the more credit challenged consumers, often the customer service departments have been outsourced to another country. No matter while the recording states, “Your business is very important to us, and please don’t hang up, but all of our service representatives are busy at this time,” wait time can be very frustrating and tends to escalate tempers. Customers who are nasty to representatives tend to receive less service and less consideration. In fact, don’t be surprised if a customer service representative hangs up on you if you become hostile and rude.  So take a deep breath, and start the conversation with, ” I know this isn’t your fault ____, but these charges don’t seem fair. Could you help me with this problem?” Say the person by name, and stay professional. Once the representative sees that you are not attacking her personally, you’re apt to get more time and attention.
  • Perhaps you forgot to make a payment last month, and the credit card company hit you with a late fee? Again, remain calm, but instead of acting insulted that the company had the audacity to charge you with a late fee because you have never been late before and sometimes even the most organized people forget a payment, turn it around and explain to the agent what happened. Then ask the service representative to look at your credit record, and ask if there is something that could be done about the problem.
  • Looking to lower your APR or have a fee waived? Ask the representative to review your credit history and explain how much it has improved in the last six months to one year. Credit card companies are forgiving if they see strong and consistent efforts to rebuild credit.
  • Not getting anywhere with a customer service agent? Sometimes new agents do not have the authority to waive fees or increase credit lines.  If you find yourself getting frustrated, thank the agent, hang up, and call again. You might get another agent who has more clout and who is more sympathetic. If that still doesn’t work, ask for a supervisor. Keep going up the ladder; you may get a different answer. For those consumers who have trouble staying calm amid these often frustrating “hoops and loops,” why not use the chat digital online services? Conversations can be kept civil and professional, and there is little chance of losing one’s temper.
  • Keep accurate records. Make sure you keep dates, names, and a record of specific conversations.
  • And when all else fails, take to social media in such forms as Facebook, Twitter, or the organization’s blogs, but stay calm and professional. Someone is sure to answer.

Fortunately there are many credit card companies which strive to deliver excellent customer service. Just remember, you “attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.”

A practical approach to dealing with customer service frustrations

irslogoNo doubt, it has been a tough week for customer service. Internal Revenue Service acting agency head, Steven T. Miller who is resigning from his post stated earlier this week:

“I can say generally, we provided horrible customer service. I think that what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selections.”

And if that didn’t capture enough of America’s attention, how about the Maserati owner only identified as Wang who smashed his $420,000 Quattroporte with sledgehammers to protest the dealer’s poor customer service while shocked onlookers watched?

Of course, the normal customer service experience for disgruntled customers rarely take on the profound consequences as these two examples, but the importance of being able to successfully and calmly maneuver through a maze of frustrating obstacles before getting problems resolved can seem insurmountable to consumers at any moment. With that in mind, the better part of valor calls for the customer to wait until he is calm before instituting contact for a bad product, poor service, or any project requiring the help of an organization’s customer service department.

In businesses that continue to concentrate on the value of great customer service, “chat” lines have become great assets for a positive link between customer and service personnel. The lines of communication are open immediately, and consequently there may be a quicker and friendlier resolution to the problem. Winding one’s way through the phone maze may be infinitely more challenging however, but staying calm and listening to the voice commands will hopefully get you to a representative. Of course, one can always just punch in “0” for operator; that works fine on some systems. If you get the music and are asked to hold, why not place your phone on the “speaker” option and continue with your other work while waiting?

Have all of your paper work available when speaking with the customer service representative. Have the notes in front of you of people you have already spoken with, what correspondence and emails you have already received, customer reference numbers, and any other pertinent information you may have to make the process move along quicker and more efficiently. As you speak with the representative, remember not to be rude, never curse, hold back on sarcasm, and remember that the person you are speaking with isn’t the enemy and probably is not the person responsible for the defective product, lack of promised return, refund, or the cause of the poor service. Human nature commonly follows the basic premise of the more gracious you might be, the more interested the customer service agent will want to extend her arms of helpfulness.

Suppose the telephone conversation and subsequent actions or promised actions of the customer service department doesn’t solve your problem or meet up with your expectations? A popular solution is to take it to social media. Post on Twitter or the company’s Facebook page that the action taken has been less than what should have happened, or that no one has ever returned your call. More than likely, that action will garner attention. And when it’s clear that you need to move up the complaint ladder to a supervisor, again it is suggested to be cooperative and complimentary to the representative you have been dealing with – please don’t say you don’t want to deal with them anymore, but thank them for their time and ask to speak with a supervisor.

By this time most customer service problems have been resolved, but if it’s a fight to the bitter end, then it might be time to email the CEO. Surprisingly enough, some correspondence does make it to their desk while others have had to rely on television news anchors for the latest IRS complaints.

‘WOW’ customer service has to be reliable and consistent

logoOnce again it’s Spring when our fancy changes to thoughts of love and the beautiful outdoors. We picture the lush green lawns, the colorful summer blooms, the pool, the grill, and the patio designed for that blissful oasis as casual parties for friends and family become welcome weekend events. And so the shopping begins. With the convenience of online browsing, the possibilities are endless, but how will our online retailers handle customer service?

Now all of those outdoor pillows, cushions, umbrellas, and rugs are looking a bit shabby from the hot Florida sunlight of the past years, and online shopping is just so convenient; it’s time to measure and order. And that’s how this story begins. The Home Decorators Collection catalog arrived, and I placed an order. The customer service representative was exceptional and spent the time trying to figure out what replacement cushions would have the best result. Unfortunately, after a consultation with our decorator, it was confirmed the cushions wouldn’t fit at all. The next morning the call to cancel the order didn’t turn out as it should have, and thus began a lesson in a customer service failure.

Perhaps every online store catalog or website we see promises to provide great customer service, but it can be a constant challenge to be reliable, consistent, helpful, and make a customer believe an organization lives and breathes customer service. Customer service has to become part of a company’s culture and with the ease and ability of finely tuned humans, these valuable employees must be able to make decisions on service at the very time it is needed. Let’s look into that a bit further through this experience.

As I call to cancel the order and ask to have a written confirmation on my credit card of the cancellation, I am told the company must first inform their vendor of my desire to cancel. It’s only been eight hours, and during that time the company was closed for the evening. When I express my dissatisfaction having to wait at least three business days to be informed my order has been cancelled and credited, I ask to speak with a supervisor who tells me she will immediately put the request through and that I will get email confirmation. And then the excuses began. Home Decorators, as I was told was sold to Home Depot, and according to the supervisor’s excuse, Home Depot’s return policy is antiquated.

I never heard another word from that supervisor, and by the next day, I went online to find more information about the customer service policies of Home Depot online. Their return policy provides for an immediate credit to the original form of payment. If an organization doesn’t have a clear vision of how to do business and how to do it better than their competitors, shoppers walk away. No where else can it be better determined how to treat a customer than to place oneself in that customer’s shoes and determine how you would want to be treated. Growing a successful business demands a strategic plan for spending the time and money to train customer service agents how to think “outside of the box.” Being a good listener and being able to convince a customer you have the empathy and compassion for their problem and you are willing to solve their problem within the realm of your responsibilities, builds consumer confidence and repeat customers. Companies just need to learn to do it better.

For this particular experience, I was able to find an online survey about my customer service experience with Home Decorators, and by the next day I was called and the problem was solved. As an apology I was sent a $50 gift certificate, but will it be enough of a compensation to motivate me to do business with Home Decorators again?

Customers should never be put on the defensive when presented with a negative customer service experience. It took three representatives to get a $600 credit. In the end I received a sincere apology of which I appreciated, but this is an excellent example to show that great customer service doesn’t just happen; it needs to be part of an organization’s ultimate vision and one that should be executed daily.

Walmart’s dismal customer service scores drive customers away


Since 2007, Walmart department and discount stores repeatedly have been labeled with the dubious distinction of having the “worst customer service in America.” The Bentonville, Arkansas based retailer scored a 71 out of 100 rating; the lowest grade for customer service as rated by  The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), an independent national benchmark of customer satisfaction in the United States. As a supermarket, the company didn’t do much better; scoring a 72 out of 100 rating  and similarly low scores since 2005.

The problem with Walmart is multifaceted. Having a person who greets customers at the door is hardly a solution for often poor quality merchandise, poorly trained staff, and dismissive sales associates who seem more interested in going on break than solving customer issues. While shoppers tend to overlook product quality and concentrate on lower prices during tough economic times, once people head back to work and their economics have begun to improve, buyers become less tolerant of rudeness from the customer service desk or inferior merchandise that may have split at the seams after only one laundering. Yet, shoppers can be a forgiving lot if customer service personnel are at the job and eager to please, but that doesn’t seem to happen much at Walmart.

Many Walmart customers opt for one-stop shopping, especially as the gas tank prices continue to rise, but is it really worth the long wait, the rude staff, and the mere frustration of seemingly no solutions to certain product deficiencies? Even Walmart’s e-commerce scored a low 78 out of 100 for performance during the 2012 holiday season. Amazon led all e-commerce retailers with a score of 88 according to For See’s E-Retail Satisfaction survey.

Perhaps Walmart needs to begin with the basics and start to treat employees with respect, offer better wages to attract talented employees, offer competitive health care, bonuses, work incentives, and consistent work schedules. As it is now, the constant turnover of employees make it impossible to properly train and promote talented individuals. The company needs employee pride, a well-tuned culture, and a mentoring program where associates can learn how to deal with customer complaints.

If you’re still a shopper at Walmart and have customer service issues, here are some alternate solutions however that may help:

  • Bypass the automated phone menus if you can. There are many free services to help customers find direct numbers. Check out dialahuman.com for one such service.
  • Have a precise history of everything you have done and everyone you have spoken to in order to rectify the issue. Write it down, have names available, times and dates you have spoken to customer service reps, and how long you have been kept on “hold.”
  • Elevate the importance of your issue by asking to speak with a supervisor.
  • Don’t be negative. Once you get to someone with authority, you want to be cooperative and at least let them think by treating you right, you will want to be a Walmart shopper again.
  • Don’t say “it’s the principle” of the issue. Have a reasonable solution to offer. Don’t be rude, don’t raise your voice, and don’t ever use profanity.

Brick and mortar shopping still remains the most popular, but as shopping behaviors change and traffic continues to shift to online stores because of low prices, greater selections and convenience, customer service needs to improve. It has been stated that consumers continue to lower the bar as to customer service, but it only stands to reason that e-commerce is going to take a huge chunk of business away from organizations that ignore their customers’ needs.

What happened to customer service at Sears?


The entire history of Sears is way beyond the scope of today’s blog post, but a short summary of Sears has its roots dating back to 1886 when the founder, Robert Sears began selling watches in Chicago.  Thirty years later arose the brands of Kenmore and Craftsman, and during the organization’s  billion dollar growth came Allstate, Caldwell Banker, and Dean Witter. Such was the tradition of Sears as it was well known as the General Store and a provider of everything one needed. When Sears introduced their catalog business, retail sales was revolutionized. Color photos of merchandise delighted shoppers browsing the hundreds of pages of shoes, women’s lingerie, washing machines, tools, and even children’s matching outfits; Sears was the ultimate shopping experience for every member of the family while they sat comfortably at home.

So what has happened? According to online surveys, over 80 percent of customers now give Sears poor customer service grades citing reasons of inept management, unreliable products, poor customer service, and a profound lack of employee training. Of course, Home Depot, Best Buy, Walmart, and the Internet giant Amazon have all cut into the general store attitude of Sears,  however there will always be shoppers who prefer brick and mortar establishments and enjoy the experience of the places our grandparents and parents loved to shop. Sadly one of the problems is that Kenmore and Craftsman, although still strong in the Sears’ culture, are now outsourced and sadly that leads to repair problems; so much so that Sears is now a bankruptcy target with a loss of $3.1 billion in 2012.

Can Sears be saved? Probably the best suggestion to Sears would be to bring back the culture of the last century. Customer service begins with employees who want to be working and doing their best. My last experience in Sears in the upscale Palm Beach Gardens Mall was in search of a new washer and dryer when I moved into my new home. Sadly there was an insufficient staff to help anyone, and the salespeople had limited knowledge of the merchandise. According to Measuredup.com, complaints about repairs all through the country are consistently poor for Sears’ appliances, lawnmowers, and even tractors. The cost of repairs seem even more contentious. Consumers driven by finding the lowest prices will ultimately buy online; stores like Sears therefore have to concentrate on their showrooms and presenting superior products, “wow” customer service, and follow-up service and repairs to build customer loyalty and referrals.

Sears went online in 1997, but their entire culture is essentially broken. It’s been suggested that Sears reinvent themselves to focus on men. After all Craftsman tools have always been a male Christmas present staple; for all those weekend home chores. Experts say get rid of the women’s clothes and jewelry and stock up on Lands End merchandise which appeals to men. Invest in some expert staff training, raise salaries to attract the best sales personnel, concentrate on the company’s culture, and rebuild an organization that once dazzled shoppers across the United States.

Photo courtesy of justj0000lie

How to survive customer service blunders in the world of social media

I heard the term “social vampire” in 2005 when it referred to a person who more or less attached them self to someone and piled on attention until they felt that the person they were endowing with excessive flattery liked them in return. And when they were satisfied with that relationship, then the “social vampire” would cling on to the next person – drawing apart everyone’s patience and exhausting all those left behind in that person’s social wake.

Jeff Woodland, a blog writer for Genesys recently equated himself to having been a “social vampire” in his customer service dissatisfaction with his Internet provider and contends a business’ reputation can be greatly harmed via Facebook, Twitter, and company forums. It’s quite simple for anyone who can find  the “power on” button of a computer to learn how to make an impression on social networks, yet it becomes eminently more difficult for an organization to fight back and not lose customers and clients. Are the comments and criticisms being addressed by the right people, is the organization accessible and readily able to deal with complaints, and does customer service and their promises live up to the expectations a customer expects?

The basis for handling any customer complaint is believing that the customer truly thinks they have been wronged. Will customers lie? Are there really people out there who are so isolated, frustrated, or even perverse they would want to destroy a business? Of course the answer is yes, but for the most part the best way to handle a customer complaint online, by phone, by email, or in person, is to stop and listen. Too many agents begin speaking before the customer is even finished, but taking a deep breath, relaxing, and listening becomes an integral part of any problem solving, since we can’t figure out a solution until we know the problem. Next the seasoned customer service representative will want to repeat the problem back to the customer. In cases where the customer is rude, angry, or even vulgar, the better part of valor dictates one waits until the customer calms down.

Once the problem is established, and the customer representative has demonstrated they heard and understood the problem, the next step is to apologize. Customers don’t care if a shipment was delayed, a wrong price was quoted, or an employee tripped and hurt her head. Here’s the time to apologize even if you think everything was done correctly. Just remember, from your customer’s perspective something went wrong, and if it’s not a litigious issue, there is nothing wrong trying to make your customer feel better and that their business really matters to you. Then go about solving their problem, and when using social media, make sure you address solutions either in their entirety if the drama played out on social media, or if you were lucky enough to handle it one on one, at least address that a private message was sent so other readers know the problem has being handled and more than likely on the route to a mutual resolution.

Sometimes, however there are just those customers whose attitudes an organization might consider “firing.” Is the customer worth keeping? Sometimes “social vampires” climb aboard for no other reason than to be dangerous and confrontational. Every organization has to deal with difficult people, but the key is not to react or launch a counter-attack. Never let a “social vampire” bait you. Courteous and professional responses must curb any confrontation before it becomes contentious. Keep the comments respectful, don’t trespass onto personal feelings, but know when to fold your cards and walk away from the table.

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