Customer Service is a Strategy, Not a Slogan

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineDoes your organization make customer service a priority? I expect that it does. In fact, I suspect that the phrase “customer service” is found somewhere in your mission or vision statement, etched on a wall plaque, proclaimed in your marketing material, and oft orated by upper management.

However, as is often said, “talk is cheap” and “actions speak louder than words.” So the question becomes, do you actually provide quality customer service or just brag about it? Has the vocabulary of providing world-class customer service been bandied about so often that you – and the entire organization – have been falsely convinced that it is a reality, when in fact it has no basis in truth?

An astute and long-time reader may remember a previous column, “A $175 Oil Change“, in which the local car dealership charged $175, accomplishing no tangible results other than changing the oil. This was the only impetus I needed to return to the trustworthy comfort and integrity of my local service station, where I continue to be a loyal and supportive customer of their car care services. Unfortunately, the day that I dreaded came last summer, when they informed me that repairing my heat-producing air conditioner was beyond the scope of their services; I would need to take the car to the dealer.

With trepidation, I walked into the dealer’s brightly lit and tastefully decorated service department. As I walked up to the “customer service” desk, a representative, clad in business attire with tasteful tie, greeted me by name.  I explained the problem and, knowing their mode of operation all too well, asked for an estimate. With a confidence-building smile and positive words of assuredness, he sent me on my way.

His phone call came shortly after I returned to the office: $1,575!  Following my dumbfounded silence, he launched into an extended explanation, mixing mechanic jargon and automotive terminology – which I doubt even he fully understood – seemingly aimed to intimidate me into accepting their costly diagnosis. According to their investigation, a heater problem was also uncovered and somehow related to the AC repair. True, for only $980, I could fix just the AC, but then it would be over $1,200 to go back later to repair the heater.

“Let’s get realistic,” I challenged him, determined to not be victimized again.

The representative apologized that he had no other options and admitted that his “hands were tied.” I declined to authorize the repair and made arrangements to pick up the car. He kept repeating, “I’m sorry; I know I’ve lost you as a customer.”

It took some time, but eventually I heard about a full-service garage with a reputation for honesty. I took the car in. Sitting in a small and somewhat dingy office with a dated décor and amidst organized clutter, I explained the chronology of events, sharing the dealer’s written estimate. The owner of the garage chose his words carefully, “Well, they could be right, but I think we can get it working for much less.” He had a $185 solution that he wanted to try. Plus, if he was wrong, he would apply that amount to the repair the dealer recommended (for which his normal price was only $800). As far as the heater issue, he found no justification for any work.

I followed his recommendation. The $185 AC repair proved to be accurate, keeping us cool through a hot and humid summer, with the heater working without incident throughout that winter.

The dealership had talked ad-nauseam about their top-notch customer service in their ads, promotions, mailings, and sales pitch. They even put on an impressive front, but there was no substance; to them, customer service seemed to be maximizing the repair bill. The garage, on the other hand, didn’t talk about customer service; they just did it.

A second pair of customer service stories are equally illustrative. Although my family is not often prone to renting movies, we did have a membership in a nearby town. My wife and I entered their store, with a two-for-one coupon in hand and the residual amount from a gift certificate on account. Our expectation was that we would each pick a movie and pay for them using the coupon and credit balance. We were wrong.

The first sign of trouble came in the checkout line, when the clerk could not pull us up in their computer. “We got new computers,” he said curtly as he continued typing in vain. After much too long, he impatiently demanded, “When were you last here?” Our answer irritated him. “Well, that’s your problem,” he announced. “We gotta put ya in again.” He took all of our information and had us sign an ominous contract.

As he scanned the DVDs, I handed him the coupon. “We don’t accept these,” he declared disdainfully. Dumbfounded, I asked why. “It’s for Acme Video Hits and we’re Acme Video Plus, now.” I pointed to the in-store sign displaying Acme Video Hits. “We got bought out and they voided all the coupons. It happened three months ago,” he explained exasperatedly, as though this was common knowledge of which only ignorant people were unaware; “We haven’t changed our signs yet.” He typed some more. “That will be seven dollars.”

“You charged us the price for current releases,” I informed him, pointing to a sign for 99 cent rentals of older movies.

“But you got DVDs,” he said with a not so subtle sigh and slight roll of the eyes. “Ninety-nine cents is only for VHS.” He paused and, saving me from another query, added, “They changed that, too.” An unfruitful discussion ensued, but he gave up and got “the manager” when I inquired our credit balance, which had been lost during either the acquisition or computer upgrade.

The manager appeared and with great boldness and partial aplomb, began demonstrating to his lackadaisical charge, proper problem resolution skills. He aptly summarized anew the critical information that we had pieced together from the unwitting clerk. He stated the company line and confirmed the price of seven dollars. However, he soon relented and eventually offered to partially accept our coupon, zero out the balance on our unverifiable account, and only charge us three dollars.

Sensing this was the best we could reasonably do, I accepted his offer and thanked him. He smiled broadly and shook my hand, no doubt assuring himself of a successfully resolved conflict and a customer retained. My wife and I, however, left with a far different perspective. The uncaring clerk had simply dug too big of a hole for his boss to climb out of; damage had been done and it was irreversible.

It wasn’t until a movie rental chain opened a local outlet that we again rented a movie. We walked in and hesitantly approached the counter. Michelle smiled broadly and genuinely welcomed us. Upon learning that we were first-time customers, she carefully and patiently explained how everything worked, including the store layout, membership, prices, and the specials. Her pleasant and easy-going demeanor was refreshing and put us at ease.

As we began browsing, clerk after clerk would momentarily appear, helpfully restating a tidbit of information, providing direction, or offering assistance, then moving away as quickly and stealthy as they appeared.  This was not like my usual retail experience when a clerk asks if I need help and I feel compelled to say “no” even though I do. At the movie store, the clerks’ interactions were both welcomed and beneficial.

When it came time to pay, Michelle, with her effervescent personality and evident enjoyment of her job, made the process of becoming a member both pleasant and effective, reiterating the value of membership and reinforcing the specials. She even did a successful up-sell – which seldom works with me – to pre-pay for several movies; this was quite a feat considering my prior experience with having a credit balance. But when one has a compelling offer that is presented with infectious enthusiasm, it is easy to be successful.

What amazed me most about Michelle, however, was that through all of this, she was training two employees! She had the ability to give them subtle cues and brief instructions in the midst of serving us, without leaving us feeling slighted or inconvenienced.

It is not surprising that I am looking forward to my next movie rental. I have even planned my selections for that snowy weekend this winter, when I take advantage of their “buy two, get three free” special! Good customer service is always an invitation to return.

To be successful, customer service needs to be more than just a slogan, more than mere lip service. It needs to be a strategy, one that is fully and successfully implemented with the customer’s best interest in mind.

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection Magazine November 2005]

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