Service Sold It

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineGrowing up I remember a commercial on the radio with the tag line, “Service sold it.” Even as a young child I was able to grasp the concept that this business provided such a high level of service that their mere reputation was sufficient for them to close sales and gain new business.

Over the years, I have heard this mantra repeated, again and again, either verbatim or conceptually, by various local, national, and international companies. Yet I no longer give this grandiose platitude serious consideration. Indeed these words now have a hollow ring to them; they reek of disingenuous assurance and hold an empty promise. What was once good business turned into nothing more than good ad copy and now simply gets lost in the clutter of messages which we no longer believe. In fact, the louder this claim is trumpeted, the less I trust it. The greater the hype, the more I assume that their service is lousy and that their ad campaign’s only goal to convince us – and them – of the contrary. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, “He who can, does. He who cannot, talks about it.”

It seems that no one provides good service any more.

Over the past couple of months, I had to place a series of calls to my favorite computer company. They are still my preferred vendor, offering a quality package at a good price, providing fast shipment, and facilitating the ordering process. Yet their customer service is rotten. Two prior interactions with their “customer service” staff resulted in one failure and one partial success. My latest episode, requiring a dozen or so phone calls over the span of weeks, ultimately resulted in a satisfactory outcome. But it required great patience and persistence, long hold times, being transferred to the wrong departments and back again, and talking with “English” speaking reps who could not effectively communicate in a language I comprehended. One of the more humorous instances was the rep who said, “Excuse please the silence while I hold you.” To accomplish my objective, I had to escalate my call, invoke their “100% Satisfaction Guarantee,” and insist that they accept the return of my entire order — not just the computer in question. As you might suspect, I deem it a waste of money to buy their extended customer support plan.

Being a glutton for punishment, I attempted to resolve an ongoing problem with my caller ID. The feature that sold me on the product was the promise that, working in conjunction with call waiting, it would display the number of a second caller while I continued talking to the first. Unfortunately, it never worked. I called repair and reported the problem. I was given the time and date by which it would be repaired. It was not. I reported it again. No change. I pulled out the multi-page manual and found a small-print footnote, which said that the feature I desired needed to be installed separately. Thinking I was on to something, I called and ordered it. Again, the promised due date came and went. I called again, only to be informed that the feature was not available in my area. Four people (and their accomplices) decided to ignore the issue, deferring it to someone else or hoping I would give up, rather then simply check to see if the service was available.

On to cable TV. With the escalating costs of my cable bill, it eventually became cheaper to switch to satellite. Now I can get 100 channels and still not have anything decent to watch! The installation and support of the satellite system was excellent (more on that later), but the simple act of canceling my cable service took months. Each subsequent month a new bill would arrive, announcing an escalating monthly balance. A call would be placed to the cable company; an assurance would be given that our service was indeed cancelled and that they had no idea why we kept being billed. This went on for over six months. I seriously doubt that any company can be that incompetent, so my cynical nature wonders if they were intentionally doing this to pad their receivables.

I was recently able to install DSL service, but the big challenge came in disconnecting my no longer needed dialup Internet line. Because of a previous series of orders, my Internet line somehow became the billed number and my listed number became secondary. The representative, fortunately one knowledgeable and thorough, apologized that the only solution was to cancel the entire bill and the reinstall my main line. This would only be a billing function and my phone service would not be interrupted. However, there would be side effects. First, I would need to call their DSL division to make sure my DSL wasn’t cancelled and to update my billing arrangement. (Apparently, this was not uncommon, because later the DSL representative immediately understood what I was asking and knew just what to do.)  Then I would need to call my long distance carrier to make sure that when my service was “reinstalled” I would be put on my same rate plan and not their higher default plan. A third call needed to be made for my white page listing. Surprisingly, each call had its desired effect. But imagine the turmoil that would have ensued had the first representative not fully informed me of all the ramifications and exactly what needed to be done. Exceptional customer service, however, would never have put me in the position to make those calls in the first place and even good customer service would have done so for me. Service didn’t sell it, being the only game in town did.

Everyone has been similarly frustrated with poor or non-existent customer service. (Remember the “self-service” paradigm of the dotcoms? They are still out there.)  We all know someone who left one company because of poor service and then subsequently left their competitor for the same reason. Then, after all available alternatives had be tried and consequently rejected, they were faced with the necessity of returning to a previously unsatisfactory company. Their new goal was to pick the company that was the least bad.

Doesn’t good customer service exist anymore? Fortunately, in some cases it does. In previous columns, I mentioned my mechanic and optometrist, both stellar success stories. In concert with this, it is noteworthy to mention that the authorized agent for my satellite television is a local company. Is this the reason for my satisfaction with the installation? Is being local the key? No. My local credit union, bank, and doctor have all caused me great consternation on occasion. Besides, there are other good examples that are not local. To produce this magazine, the sales, graphic design, and proof editing are all handled by extremely competent individuals who are not local, yet provide an exceptional level of service and responsiveness. A common factor here is that they are all very small organizations. So then, is company size the key? No, many other small organizations have shown a definite ability to disappoint.

Although being local and being small are two elements that decidedly allow the potential for better customer service, they are not requirements; the real key is relationship. With each unfavorable example I gave, I dealt with a department, not an individual – not really; the representative had no accountability to me and no stake in the outcome. With subsequent calls, I would talk to a different person. To them I was not a customer; I had no real value to them. I was just another phone call – a problem – one to get rid of in the shortest time possible, so they could go on to the next call, and eventually punch out for the day.

However, with each company that I cited as a positive example, it was a specific person who made the difference, my primary contact. This was someone who genuinely cared and had a real interest in the outcome, someone who was willing to stay late and make me his or her most important priority if that was what was required. While these things are critical and most appreciated, an underlying theme is that in each case we had established a rapport and developed a relationship first. It is because of this one-on-one personal relationship that exceptional customer service can exist.

Does your call center provide this same one-on-one personal relationship to your clients? What about to your clients’ callers? Can you honestly say, believe, and prove that “service sold it?” If not, what changes do you need to make? Whatever you do, don’t settle for being the least bad provider.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of  Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From Connection MagazineMay 2004]