Really Bad Customer Service

Monday, July 10th, 2006

Vincent Ferrari recorded his conversation with AOL when he attempted to cancel his service. This conversation has been written about in blogs, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and, I suspect, many other places. It is a lesson in really bad customer service. Just in case you missed it, here is the link:   

After Ferrari repeatedly said, Cancel the account,” the customer service rep said, “You’re going to listen to me whether you want to or not. . .,” and then proceeded to try to sell him additional services.

The Times reports that AOL fired the employee. That was the wrong approach. This problem is a systems problem – and not just the work of a bad performer. Certainly “John the Rep” could have used better communication skills, and kept his own frustration in check, but somewhere John had instructions to do whatever it took to try to keep people as customers. The Times reports that in 2004, AOL signed an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission about problems related to (care to make a guess?) subscribers’ requests for cancellation. That was followed last year with an ”assurance of discontinuance” reached with Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general, concerning -yes – subscribers’ requests for cancellation. In both cases, investigations had revealed that AOL practiced a strange form of customer service, continuing to bill subscribers who had called to cancel, and had thought that they had done so, but who were marked down as ”saved.” (July 2, 2006)

Far too often customer service is treated like an individual performance problem, when the real issue has far more to do with what the company rewards and punishes. If it values keeping customers at all costs, then you can bet that customer service strategies will reflect that value.

If you really want to make sure your customer service is at least adequate, ask yourself the following:

Do we address customer requests even if we don’t like what people are telling us? (If you are looking to see where I put the correct answer to this question, you can quit reading, your company is doomed.) How many people get their problem solved on the first call? I called one of my Internet providers four times. Each time I got very courteous people on the line who seemed to want to help me. Each one gave me a different answer – and each one was wrong. I just want the problem fixed. After each call, I get a survey that asks about my experience, and nowhere do they ask if the problem was solved. It’s nice that the reps were pleasant human beings, but their niceness had nothing to do with their ability to solve the problem. Hint: Don’t survey customers on their experience. Forget about “Was the customer service rep courteous?” type questions. That shows that you care more about process than result. And that you believe that individuals are the reason why your customer service is good or bad. Try this instead: Ask if the problem was solved to their satisfaction. If no, then ask questions that help you learn why the problem wasn’t solved. On the other hand, if it was solved the first time, then you can ask questions about the customer’s experience.

Once you start solving problems first time, then ask the following process questions:

How long do people need to wait on hold when they call in? (Over 5 minutes is too long.)

How many “press 1-type” options are they given when they call? Over three is excessive. Call me old-fashioned, but I recall when actually people used to answer phones. A novel concept, I know. How many people must someone talk to get an answer? (If a customer is transferred more than once it is excessive.)

Do customer service reps have the skills and resources to solve problems? Some computer companies give reps a question and answer sheet. If you call in, they read you the answer. If your problem doesn’t fit into one of those handy boxes, you’re lost. One call center has never even seen the products they represent. Take a test drive and monitor your own blood pressure, joy, frustration, confusion, and satisfaction during the process. And then ask yourself, would I buy from my own company? If you addressed those questions seriously, you could save a lot of money that you may be wasting on customer service training – and maybe retain far more customers. I wish you well.