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Give Your Receptionist a Raise

Customer Service is Sometimes Your Only Real Product

“Now all that matters is if you can install your own Ethernet card without having to call tech support and confess your inadequacies to a stranger whose best career option is to work in tech support.” – Scott Adams

As engineers, we tend to think that we create our company’s products. Along with our friends over in Manufacturing, we make what we sell. Everybody else in the company is just ancillary; a kind of necessary evil.

Trouble is, nobody told the customers about that.

Customers – or end users, if you prefer – have a nasty habit of valuing the wrong things. They irrationally emphasize minor features, they ignore important specifications, and they reward useless characteristics. In short, they’re untrained, unqualified, and unprepared to accurately judge the true value of our engineering prowess. Those fools!

Ask any marketing person and they’ll tell you that “the product” means more than just the tangible gizmo. Sometimes “the product” isn’t even the product at all. Sometimes it’s the cloud-based service that comes with it, or the packaging, or the overnight delivery, or the financing strategy, or even the color of the plastic. All of those characteristics, and more, factor into your customers’ buying decisions and their later satisfaction, so you ignore them at your peril. So how do you know what’s important?

Start with your receptionist.

If you’re like most small- to medium-sized companies, you don’t even have a receptionist. This is the 21st Century, after all, so you’ve got an advanced voicemail system, a good website, an active Facebook page, and a terrific user forum where customers share troubleshooting information. So customer service more or less takes care of itself, right?

Let me give you a contrary example.

I recently had a life-altering experience with a certain large telecommunications company. We won’t name any names, but their logo looks suspiciously like the Death Star. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for years – decades, in fact. No complaints. In fact, last year I voluntarily upgraded my service and started paying them more money. High fives all around.

Except that after a year with the new service, I decided it wasn’t as rosy and wonderful as I’d expected, so I decided to revert back to what I’d had before. No problem; just call the same toll-free number I’d called earlier, tell the cheerful call-center employee that I wanted to undo last year’s change, and can we please go back to the way things were. Piece of cake. Ten minutes, tops.

Except that it didn’t turn out that way. The first call was just the start of a spectacularly miserable, Kafka-esque customer experience. The first call-center employee transferred me to another one, who wanted me to repeat my whole story before she transferred me to a third person, who then heard my story all over again, before attempting to transfer me yet again before the line went dead. Thus endeth Day One.

Day Two. Picking up where I left off, I reconnected with the call center, carefully dictated the Customer ID and Case Number I’d been given, and proceeded to wait on hold for more than an hour. (During which time I was subjected to unending prerecorded pitches for the company’s other products.) Speakerphones make long waits like this more tolerable, but they’re still a waste of time. Heaven forbid that you get up to make a sandwich at the exact moment that your “Customer Care Consultant” picks up the line and decides you’re no longer listening. After 72 minutes of holding (I counted), I was connected to yet another employee who said he’d transfer me to the appropriate department. More advertising-on-hold, until precisely 5:00 PM, at which point the line went dead. Presumably, the whole Customer Service department gets off at 5:00 PM Pacific Time. Which is odd, because I’m pretty sure I was talking to someone twelve time zones away. 

Day Three. Again, I voluntarily check myself in to voicemail jail. This time I get a cheery employee who, while we’re waiting for her computer to boot up (really?) offers to lease me an Android tablet for the low, low price of just $60 per month. Seriously? What does a new tablet have to do with changing my service, and isn’t $60/month kind of expensive? I can buy a brand new Android tablet for $40 and own it outright. Why would I lease one from you… and how much of a kickback are you getting on this deal? She seemed nonplussed at the implication that perhaps she didn’t have my best interests at heart, and has your computer finished booting yet? She said she’d escalate the issue to her supervisor and that I should expect a call back within 90 minutes. More waiting by the phone. You can guess how that turned out.

Day Four. We’re now up to nine different Customer Service employees; I’ve been writing down their names. The newest person today says that he can definitely fix my problem; he just needs a few moments to “access the system” and will call back before the end of the day. (The end of whose day?) He’s also careful to instruct me to “keep the line free.” Meaning what? That I can’t use my phone until you call back? The day ends quietly – predictably – with no return call.

Day Five. I’m getting good at playing Solitaire on hold, although at this point a round of Doom would be a lot more satisfying. Surely I’m speaking to the wrong people, or calling the wrong numbers, or not explaining myself well? It can’t really be this hard to change my service, can it? It was so simple to upgrade – why is it so hard to change it back? The cynical me already knows the answer to that. By the midpoint of the day I’ve been transferred a few more times – we’re now up to 12 – most recently to “Elaine in Tampa.” Odd that she should make a point of naming her location in an American city. Is this some sort of escalation policy – that I get transferred closer to home at the rate of one time zone per day? If so, I’ve got only three more days to go! That’s got to be some sort of progress, right?

It’s now Day Six, and patience has long departed. Elaine’s great-great-grand-descendant in the customer service hierarchy is explaining to me how she can’t possibly downgrade my service until another year has gone by (two years total) because of something to do with the Yellow Pages. Sorry, what? You mean those antiquated dead-tree phone books that your company doesn’t even print anymore? Is that your excuse?

Evidently that’s their story and they’re sticking to it. When in doubt, blame the Yellow Pages.

In the end, they made my decision easy. I cancelled my service entirely. Ironically, that was easy. One phone call, one person, a few ID numbers and passwords, and it was all over. Poof! Just like that, a 30-year relationship with the company, severed.

It felt great, but only in the “it feels good when it stops” kind of relief. Dealing with the company’s support staff was so nightmarishly frustrating that anything was preferable. Worst of all, it was abundantly clear that virtually every member of their support staff was motivated to sell me something, whether it was a $60/month tablet, or new subscription services (“Are you not paying attention? I’m trying to cancel a service, not add a new one!”), or to make up random stories about how my simple request is impossible to fulfill. It wasn’t just incompetent; it was blatantly crass and unethical. Now when I see that Death Star logo, I think of a big explosion and all the hapless little stormtroopers scattering through empty space.

So what’s the moral of the story? That service is a real product. And I don’t mean service as in, “software as a service” or “service uptime” or any of the other misappropriations of that term. I mean real service. Serving your customers. Absolutely nothing about my dealings with this company related to their technology, wonderful as it must be. Improving the “product”’ would have made no difference, whether that meant increasing bandwidth, or bolstering security, or passing out free modems. This wasn’t about hardware, or software, or even “value-added services.” It was a failure to serve; a refusal to do what the customer asks.

I’m sure the company, like so many others, thinks that its massive (and massively undertrained) offshore customer-service staff is a good use of its investors’ money. I’m sure they’ve got lots of charts and graphs to prove the ROI. And I’m sure that somewhere else, in another meeting room, there are just as many PowerPoint slides documenting the steady decline in customer satisfaction. And that nobody in the organization sees the correlation between the two. One side crows, “Hooray! We’re lowering customer-support costs!” while the other side laments, “Oh, no! We’re losing customers!”

All it would have taken in my case was one person to tap a few keys and make the change. It’s not technically difficult, I’m sure. But the entire staff had been trained, scripted, and incentivized to prevent that. Customer Service had been perverted into a revenue center. You can’t have it both ways, and, in this case, they lost the business entirely.

Don’t make that mistake. When your customers dial the phone or hit the website, make sure they’re 15 minutes away from satisfaction. It’s probably the only time they’ll actually talk to you. Happy customers don’t call up just to say “hi.” Disgruntled ones do, and it’s your job to make them happy. Your receptionist – you do have a receptionist answering the phone, right? – could well be the one and only representative of your company they ever speak to. In fact, that’s exactly what you want. That’s the goal you should work towards: a single call to a single person at a single phone number or URL. One-click satisfaction. Give your receptionist a raise and make sure she’s the best representative of your company you could ever have.

Or watch out for those proton torpedoes in your exhaust port.

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