Customer Experience Indifference: Is Uninspired Service Killing Your Brand?



David Lee
01/16/2012

Are you continually coaching your customer service and tech support professionals to empathize with your customer’s experience? If not, you can never create a consistent, brand-building customer service experience.

Do you rigorously hire only people who possess the essential qualities of a great customer service professional—such as empathy, social grace, a desire to please, and interpersonal responsiveness? If not, you will never possess the raw materials required to build best-in-class customer service experiences.

I was reminded of how important these two practices are twice last week. The first experience was when a friend of mine shared her customer service "war story" about the inept tech support she received.

The call lasted three hours.

The tech support person clearly did not know what he was doing, and he put her on hold for ten minutes at a time without letting her know what he was doing or why.

"For all I know, he went to lunch," my friend recounted.

He ended up needing a supervisor to sit with him and help troubleshoot alongside him. When the session finally ended, he asked her to fill out a customer survey. He told her he hoped she would give him a great score.

When she politely—but honestly--told him that wasn’t going to happen, he was genuinely surprised.

"But I fixed your problem, why wouldn’t you give me a great score?" he asked her.

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The concept of "customer experience" was obviously lost on him. His logic was: She got her problem-solved, so why wouldn’t she be thrilled?

The outrageousness of her experience was made even clearer to her when she found out later from her teenage daughter and husband that she could have fixed the problem—as they had done in the past—by simply pressing the router’s reset button with a paper clip.

Not only was this tech support person technically inept—which is both his and his employer’s fault—he was also inept in the realm of Emotional Intelligence…an extremely brand-damaging combination.

This Is Supposed to be an Elite Customer Experience?

The next day, I used a gift certificate to an (allegedly) upscale establishment that bills itself as "Portland’s premier men’s salon". Their market appears to be business professionals who want to duck out from work for a little while, escape the craziness of the world, and be pampered. Their marketing and visual presentation is clearly designed to position themselves for premium pricing by providing a unique customer experience for which a segment of the population is willing to pay.

Rushing to get there on time, I arrive with about two minutes to spare and check in. The lady at the counter offers me water or a beer. I ask for water. She leaves on break, and the water never arrives. I’ll survive, but not a terribly impressive beginning.

I settle into the soft couch, scan the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and catch my breath. The place is basically a ghost town, with three inhabitants: one other customer, one stylist working on him, and one other stylist sweeping the floor. After ten minutes, I check my watch and am puzzled why no one has called for me. I get up off the couch, look around, and make eye contact with the lady who had been sweeping the floor. She’s tidying up one of the stations. She looks at me with a wan smile.

"Hi…I’ve got an appointment for 2:30" I say in a calm, neutral tone.

"Oh yes, that’s with me, I was just coming over to get you" she replies and walks over. "I’m Deidre (not her real name)."

She offers neither an apology nor an explanation for why she was late. Clearly it wasn’t because they were busy.

"OK…my appointment was for 2:30, and it’s 2:40," I reply. Although fairly conflict-averse, I find myself put off by her nonchalance and indifference about being late.

"Yes, I’m ready for you now," she says, still not getting it.

At that moment, I reach the tipping point. My frustration with yet another example of incivility in today’s society, combined with her in-your-face blasê attitude, outweighs my desire to start off on the right foot and to avoid awkwardness.

I hear myself blurt out: "You know…usually it’s nice to apologize when you’ve been keeping someone waiting,"

"I was going to apologize, but you beat me to it," she responds.

As a friend noted later when I told him my story: "That should have been the FIRST thing out of her mouth."

Side Note: Although I never want to come across as lecturing or pedantic to a stranger—or to anyone—my frustration got the better of me. Looking back on it, though, I probably would do it again, but would have waited until I felt calmer. That way, the feedback would not have been easier to receive, as it wouldn’t have been delivered so forcefully or tinged with anger.

During the appointment, we both make an effort to make our time together positive. The tone becomes friendly and casual, and we even laugh about some things. When it is over, I give her a 25% tip, as sort of a "no hard feelings" message.

She doesn’t even say, "Thank you."

Really….?

I walk away thinking "What a classless lady. What a classless outfit."

I told my friend that if it was a department store bargain basement barber shop, I would expect—or at least not be surprised by—that level of service. But for a business whose value proposition is to offer a supposedly unique, upscale customer experience, how pathetic!

So...the Moral of These Stories…

If you want to build your brand through the customer service experience you deliver, if you want your customers to give you great PR, here’s what you want to do:

  1. Take a hard look at your hiring process—Are you getting people with the "service gene" or do you just focus on experience and technical ability? If you’re not doing the former, forget about ever providing best in class customer service.
  2. Get gutsy about your firing process—Wise business owners and leaders live by the "hire slowly, fire fast" maxim. While you want to give people a chance to improve, if it is clear they’re not cut out to give great service, do you, them, your employer, and your customers a favor. Free up their future so they can find work that better suits their skill set.
  3. Continually share the voice of your customer—Collect feedback from your customers about what they love about you, what they want from you, and what frustrates them. Collect stories that illustrate these. Better yet, find customers who are willing to give an audio or video report so your employees can hear directly from the source what they have to say. That will be far more impactful than a written account.
  4. Continually coach your employees, using real examples from their work, to put themselves in their customers’ shoes—Showing concern requires empathy. When you’re on one side of a transaction day in and day out, it is easy to forget what it is like on the other side. An issue that to us is just problem number twenty five of the day, might be a huge, show stopper for the customer. It’s easy to forget that. It’s easy to forget we need to communicate to the customer we appreciate their plight and take it seriously.
  5. Better still, connect them experientially with what it feels like to be on the other side of the interaction. - When I conduct customer service training, we do a simple, yet powerful exercise designed to help customer service professionals remember how vulnerable and needy many of their customers feel when asking for help. In the exercise, participants are asked to recall a time when they were a customer, client or patient and how it felt to be a "stranger in a strange land" where they didn’t know the rules of engagement, or even a modicum of the specialized knowledge the professional they were seeing had. Common examples are going to the doctor, getting your car fixed, or seeing an attorney. Often in these situations we can go from a confident, assertive adult to feeling more like an anxious child needing reassurance. When they recall their particular experience, I have them remember how that feels, what they want in those situations, and what they’ve gotten from the professional that either made the situation better or worse. Do the same with your team.
  6. Practice modeling mindfulness, thoughtfulness, and empathy—Your employees take their cues from you. Reflect on whether you’re modeling the same TLC you want them to give your customers. Better yet, get feedback on whether you are doing that and how you can do it even better.
  7. Invest in ongoing professional development for your staff—Given the repetitive nature of customer service and tech support, it’s easy for professionals in those jobs to feel like each call is "the same old, same old". This leads to boredom, which leads to interpersonal auto-pilot, which leads to mindlessness, which leads to interpersonal cluelessness. You can counter this natural phenomenon by continually introducing new and more refined skills to your team so they can practice them on the job. For instance, teach them how to identify different personality styles by their vocal style, and then adjust their approach accordingly.

Now, what used to be call after call of the same kind, becomes an opportunity to notice something new and different and practice new skills. Suddenly what was old is now very fresh and new. This will bring freshness and fascination to their work, which will boost their energy, interest, and enjoyment…and therefore the quality of the customer service experience they deliver.

In Closing

If you want to deliver a consistently amazing customer service experience, you need to first hire people who possess the capacity to empathize. Second, you need to continually cultivate their sensitivity and empathy by helping them remember what it’s like on the other side of the customer service interaction. The combination of these two practices will help you deliver an experience that leaves your customers feeling deeply understood and cared for…something that all customers crave, but rarely receive. By doing so, you will become—in today’s customer service desert of disinterest and insensitivity—a true customer service oasis.

David Lee, the founder of HumanNature@Work, works with employers who want to improve employee engagement, customer service, and morale. He has worked with organizations and presented at conferences both domestically and abroad.