What Happens When Your Customers Aren’t Looking

Brian Cantor

A recent encounter with a customer service article made me wonder how customer service managers view their customers behind closed doors.

Neither a particularly-new article nor a particularly-sophisticated one, "13 Things a Movie Theater Employee Won’t Tell You" caught my eye due to the certainty of featuring content related to the customer experience. Within a mixture of some rather obvious reveals (cinema employees know all the tricks customers use to sneak into theaters) and some considerably dubious ones (don’t trust the concession nachos, hot dogs and pretzels) was a rather telling one:

"Chances are, if you complain to the manager and he sides with you, he’s just putting on a show to calm you down. The manager might pretend to yell at me for a minute, but he’ll pat me on the back the moment you’re out of sight."

Given the importance of maintaining an image of customer-centricity, it is not at all surprising that a manager would put on a friendly faèade, even if he truly believes the customer is wrong.

It is, however, quite surprising—and disappointing—to learn that managers will privately dismiss customer feedback and complaints to their staff, sending the message that customers are to be tolerated rather than satisfied.

The movie scenario calls to mind a similar experience captured in a classic "Seinfeld" scene ("Seinfeld" has a relevant commentary on almost every issue; this is not my first reference to the classic TV show, nor will it be my last).

Upon learning that the rental car organization that took down Jerry’s reservation did not, in fact, reserve the car, the comedian adopts a confrontational tone. The attendant vows to speak with a supervisor about the situation and can be seen engaging a person behind a closed door.

Jerry muses to Elaine, "Uh, here we go. The supervisor. You know what she's saying over there?... Hey Marge, you see those two people over there? They think I'm talking to you, so you pretend like you're talking to me, okay now you start talking… Now you say something else and they won't yell at me 'cause they thought I was checking with you."

Sure enough, the attendant confirms that the "supervisor" was unable to truly remedy the situation.

This situation, scripted roughly twenty years ago, still holds true as a routine con for many organizations. In far too many cases, the customer service representative feels content to give the appearance of fighting for the customer rather than actually doing so.

The manager (assuming the person consulted is even really the manager), meanwhile, focuses on facilitating the ruse rather than facilitating resolution. And at the end, both manager and rep move on with their lives, firmly believing it was the difficult customer—not the poor organizational practices—that produced the temporary hiccup.

This type of customer service cannot stand.

Customer service is not about the words in a call center script. It is not about billboards that talk about putting the customer first. It is not about a mission statement.

Hell, it is not even about smiling and assuring the customer leaves temporarily happy.

It is about exercising an unwavering, unbreakable commitment to satisfying the customer and assuring the organization does everything to maintain that satisfaction.

In such a scenario, customer complaints are a problem because they represent an intolerable breakdown in customer-centricity—not because they represent an "annoyance" for representatives and managers who have to convincingly act like they care.

And in order for that mindset to be achieved, there must be complete consistency in how your organization approaches its commitment to the customer.

If you, as a manager, have convinced your representatives that the customer is important enough to putting on a charade of customer-centricity, then you most certainly should not undermine that sentiment by patting agents on the back when they "get it wrong."

By any definition, the customer service representative position is an unforgiving one, and agents should not be made to feel like they are unappreciated for dealing with jerks, but they similarly should not be celebrated for losing sight of customer-centricity.

No matter how often we throw around clichês like "the customer is the representative’s true employer," at the end of the day, it is the organization—not the customer—that signs paychecks and dictates an employee’s future. The rep will, therefore, take cues from management, and if those cues are that "our job is just to prevent the customer from flipping out…once he’s out of earshot, we can make fun of how silly and fat he is," the rep will feel no accountability to resolve issues on his own.

Instead, he’ll know that he simply has to smile and look like he cares. If need be, he can dump the situation onto management, who will produce some sort of shallow, instant gratification before sharing a laugh at the customer’s expense.

Management should not be consulted because it makes life easier, nor should it be used as a peacemaker to cool tension between an angry customer and a non-customer-centric rep. Management should be consulted because it has the authority needed to make special resolutions work; it should be contacted because the rep sees value in a collaborative effort with a supervisor, not because the customer feels like his issue was previously falling on deaf ears.

When you, the customer service manager, pat your agents on the back, consider the message you are sending. Are you applauding their effort in doing everything they possibly could to appease the customer?

Or, are you offering solace for the inconvenience of having to deal with a customer that actually wanted to be satisfied?

Image credit: Sony TV