About Customer Service

Why is it that good customer service is so rare as to be worthy of amazement? How much less does it really cost to annoy your customers than it does to delight them? The more profitable business decision every time is to spend the few extra dollars that it takes to provide superior customer service.

By Alec Pendleton, Big Ideas for Small Companies, powered by The MPI Group

For Christmas, I gave my daughter a fancy wine opener, one of those slick jobs with a lever handle that pulls the cork in one stroke, then ejects it with a second stroke. It was attractively designed, beautifully packaged, bargain-priced — a terrific example of the consumer economy in full flower. It was, needless to say, made in China.

It didn’t work.

On two separate occasions, we tried it, and it just didn’t work.

We put it aside, and I vowed to take it back to the store where I’d bought it, but that was a task I dreaded, and I just didn’t get around to it until last week. Then I discovered that the retailer had a three-month return policy, so I was out of luck. Disgusted – with the product, with the retailer, and with myself for putting it off — I was about to throw the thing in the trash, but then I noticed a phone number on the package: “For warranty information, please call…” Another waste of time, I assumed, but I made the call anyway. Sure enough, I got a recording. Apparently this company imports a lot of different stuff, so they had to sort out what I was calling about. I was assured that my call was important, my time was valuable, blah blah blah, then “for wine openers, press 3." So I pressed 3.

On the first ring, an actual human being came on the line, told me her name — first and last — and asked about the problem. In just a minute or two, she had heard my story, empathized, given me instructions on what to do (take a picture and send it to her), and assured me that they would replace the product at no cost. Immediately — and I mean immediately — after the call, she e-mailed me so I could send the picture by simply replying to her message, and once I did that she quickly responded, assuring me that she had everything she needed and the replacement product would ship soon.

I was amazed! Surprised, delighted, and impressed! And that led me to wonder: why is it that such service is so rare as to be worthy of amazement? Why is it that we dread interacting with “help” lines? Why is it that I put quotation marks around the word “help?”

In a recent blog on the site A One-Handed Economist, Ned Hill wrote about the perils of being guided by lowest delivered costs, rather than life-cycle costs, and I think this is a classic example of that. Because of perceived lower cost, it seems that most companies cut corners in the customer service arena, with the result that we have come to expect that interacting with a call center will involve dealing with a language barrier, getting ensnared in annoying bureaucracies, and being stifled by rigid rules.

But is the cost really lower? First, it’s worth asking if the cost is even significant. How much less does it really cost to annoy your customers than it does to delight them? Not just how much in dollars, but how much as a percent of your total costs, and how much compared to the cost of acquiring new customers, when the annoyed ones leave?

My bet is that the more profitable business decision every time is to spend the few extra dollars that it takes to provide superior customer service. Whether it’s using more caution in hiring, or investing more in training, or opening one more checkout line or phone line than needed rather than one less, the little things about customer service either add up to improved customer loyalty or subtract down to customer annoyance and desertion.

As for me, as soon as this new wine opener arrives, I plan to open a bottle and raise a glass to excellent customer service. It’s certainly worth celebrating!

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