Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When customer service goes bad

Customer service, when done well, can create loyal customers. Done poorly, it can wreak havoc on a business' reputation that goes far beyond the initial bad encounter.

Given the vast abundance of websites that allow customers to review their consumer experiences, good word can spread quickly about employees who go beyond expectations to help customers.

But bad word can spread even more rapidly. A musician whose guitar is damaged on a flight might, for example, take to YouTube with an original song detailing his instrument's travails and find more than 10 million people viewing his melodic complaint.

Good news travels. Bad news explodes.

Many spurned customers take some solace in going as far as they can to share their shopping pain. But some customers just want to know how far they should go in trying to set things straight. Is it enough to correct a bad transaction? Or should extra steps be taken to make sure the poor customer service provider is held accountable?

P.B., a reader from Charlotte, N.C., recently made a purchase using one of his credit cards. He approached a sales associate to make the payment.

"The associate wasn't eager to help," writes P.B., "rendering no greeting, exhibiting no eye contact, and taking the card rather flippantly."

On the associate's first attempt to swipe P.B.'s card, the associate told him that the transaction failed.

P.B. asks if there is a problem. Silence from the associate.

A second swipe of the card also fails. Now, P.B. is growing concerned, particularly because a third swipe of his card follows. Finally, the associate indicates that transaction was successful and he returns P.B.'s credit card. P.B. leaves frustrated by the experience, but figures at least his objective of paying for his goods has been reached.

A few weeks later, P.B. receives his credit card statement. Apparently, all three of his credit card swipes went through and he is being charged three times for the single transaction.

He calls his credit card company, which corrects the error without any fuss.

Now that he's done that, P.B. wants to know if he should notify the company directly about the errors and its associate's indifference. "Or should I take no action, chalking it up to poor customer service and apathy?"

Anyone who has worked in retail knows how challenging working with belligerent customers can be. But providing good customer service for routine transactions should always be the norm.

Had P.B.'s situation just involved a rude associate, he might chalk it up to bad experience and take his business elsewhere. But given that his encounter resulted in incorrect charges made to his credit card, the right thing is to notify the business. It not only puts the company on notice that one of its employees is risking its reputation, but also lets it know that the same associate may be exposing the business to financial problems down the road if his inability to process credit card payments continues.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Ken G. said...

I never hesitate to provide feedback on outlandishly poor customer service, knowing that it'll be balanced with praise when deserved. I recently called a financial company and had a pleasant chat with a gentleman who expertly resolved my issue. Before I hung up, I asked, "Is there a superior to whom I can relate my excellent experience with your customer service?" He was happy to transfer me to someone who then put a positive mark on his record.

It's as important to let a customer service representative know what to change as it is to let them know what to keep doing.

Oddly, in the few instances where I've had to relay my experience via postal mail, I almost always get acknowledgement of complaints but never of compliments.

Caitlin Kelly said...

As someone who has worked recently in retail, I know there is a larger story here: most companies don't train associates. The associate in question -- however it appeared at the moment -- may also have felt too embarrassed to do anything else or too intimidated to call over a co-worker or manager to help. It doesn't excuse poor service, but there are many reasons these encounters go wrong.

When you meet poor customer service, you're meeting the company's priorities face to face: low wages, no raises and no commission result in 100%+ turnover in that industry. The gap between what customers want and expect -- and receive -- is a function not only of individual associates but widespread corporate policy that devalues them and depresses morale.

Anonymous said...

It appears this simply involved a customer dealing directly with a company, who employed an indifferent and ill-trained salesperson. Had I been the customer, after the first attempt to "right the wrong", with little or no help from the "associate", I'd have taken the case to the credit department, if not the highest company officer available. In these days where every nickle counts, to put up with such indifference, if not outright apathy and almost ill-temper from someone who supposedly qualifies as a salesperson, to placidly go along and do nothing but wonder how to check to see if the account was forever confused by the incompetant salesperson, is simply not the way to assure yourself of satisfaction. This is the state we have gotten to in our wonderful world of sales.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

EKB said...

When I began part time work in Customer Service in 1976, I was trained by a supervisor for three full weeks. By the time I left the store in 1984, they were throwing kids on the sales floor with only enough knowledge to run the register. I made a little flag saying "trainee" for one such kid, and told her to stick to me like glue for the next two or three shifts. Customers were patient when I walked her through the transactions.

Allison Shapira said...

Great post and really insightful comments as well.

My husband and I both use our blogs as a way to highlight good and bad customer service. For instance, three years ago I had a very negative experience with Landau Jewelry, and the blog post I wrote still receives comments from people who have had similar experiences.


We sometimes receive thanks from the companies we praise, which I think is a testament to the companies' commitment to connecting directly with its customers. Social media provides a valuable platform for companies to understand how their customers feel (positive or negative).

Charlie Judson said...

As a business owner I must say how much I appreciate it when a customer who has had any negative experience with us speaks up. Although praise is fun to deliver, and we like it!, delivering criticism can be uncomfortable for some and I suspect we usually don't hear it. That's why I am so grateful when a customer goes to the trouble of giving us honest feedback. It is a very valuable thing and they certainly have no obligation to be helpful to US. Although I have not read it I've seen a book titled, "A complaint is a gift." The title says it all.

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