“To Serve Man” – a critical look at customer service

Property marketIn September, The New Yorker writer James Surowiecki posted “Are You Being Served?” and brought up some interesting points about customer service and the lack thereof. He reiterated the Steven Slater 15 minutes of fame as the airline attendant slid away down the emergency chute after telling off a rude passenger. Slater became a sort of folk hero of customer service contempt by more than 200,000 people on his Facebook’s fan page.

People are fed up with poor customer service and customer service departments. Case in point is my own story of NationStar Mortgage Company based in Texas. When Riverside Bank went belly up, their mortgages were randomly dispersed; NationStar was assigned our mortgage. The first month we sent our payment, NationStar, through their own disorganization misplaced our check, and by the middle of the month when I noted the check had not been cashed, I called the mortgage company to find out what happened. The customer service department suggested I pay the mortgage again; I let them do an automatic withdrawal from my checking account and told them I would be putting a ‘stop payment’ on the original alleged lost check. Instead they found the check a few days later, deposited it, and of course the check had already been canceled. They then charged me for the ‘stopped check.’ Repeatedly, I called to straighten it out; repeatedly I was assured it was done, but each month the extra charge was on my statement. It wasn’t until yesterday that I finally touched upon Brittney Vaughn, a customer service agent who stepped out of the box, found a supervisor, corrected the error, and sent me a written authorization of the reversed charge.

So what’s the problem? All of these companies talk the talk, and tell us how important customer service is to them, so “please stay on the line until the next customer service representative is available.” No matter what they might say, customer service departments are expensive, and when the economy is stressed as it is now, departments that don’t bring in revenue are most likely the first departments trimmed. Much like when a family is in a financial crunch, the immediate rent, utility, and food bills come first; the life insurance and other intangible services are forgotten. According to Surowiecki, there’s a huge difference between what a company says about customer service than what the consumer says. Surveys answer how many rings it takes until an agent answers the phone or how many customers can be helped in an hour, but that doesn’t address the agent who is responsible for solving the problem. In my own example, I spoke to five different agents; not one of them solved my problem until Brittney appeared.

Now if you’re thinking that reduced prices have affected customer service, there might be a small argument, but it is quickly dismissed by discount companies such as Zappos and Amazon. Of course, these companies have made customer service part of their culture; that means spent great effort, time, and revenue to train their agents. More of the problem just centers around business priorities. If you’re a new customer, “there ain’t no ocean deep enough” to gain your business, but if you’re an existing customer there’s reason to be wary.

To Serve Man,” written by Damon Knight and featured on a video from “Twilight Zone,” Kanamits, an alien race landed on Earth and promised to be helpful toward the cause of humanity. They presented the Earthlings with a book with the seemingly innocuous title of “To Serve Man” which gave sage advice on nutrition and health. At the end of the story, “To Serve Man” was merely a play on words of dual meanings; “assist” and “provide as a meal.” Yes, the book turned out to be a cookbook.

photo credit: alancleaver_2000

One Response to ““To Serve Man” – a critical look at customer service”

  1. Glenn - Customer Experience Evangelist said:

    Nov 17, 10 at 4:06 pm

    Great article.

    I think the shift from perceiving customer contact centers as “cost centers” to one of “value centers” is necessary. What keeps a business afloat? It’s not it’s finance department. It’s not it’s media department. It’s not it’s C-level. What keeps a business afloat is it’s customers. The people who pay for the product or service from a business, and the people who create value for a business (aka employees). For many years, these people were treated as “cogs in the machine”. Many still think of these people that way. But without the cogs, would a machine run?

    SO many refer to contact centers as “expensive” or “costly”. Think how most businesses would suffer without the existence of these contact centers. In fact, contact centers reduce costs. They increase value. They are not “expensive” or “costly” by any measure. That’s like saying health care is more costly than a dying population. Think of the real purpose of the contact centers. To deliver customer service. That customer service is a competitive necessity for most. When it’s done badly, that’s when contact centers are costly. But when customer service is done well, contact centers provide nothing but value. Far more value, imho, than just about every other type of marketing or advertising brands can invest in.

    Just my personal opinion.

    Hey, thanks for your thought-provoking article!