Customer Serve-less

Jul 29, 2009
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

Every time I encounter customer service that is so bad that I just have to write an article about it. (I call it cheap psychotherapy). You see, I think most organizations cause their own problems because they hire the wrong people to represent them on the phone.

In this article, I refer to my experience turning in a leased car. I always treat the companies I encounter anonymously; let’s just say this organization’s first name rhymes with “smells” and its last name rhymes with “cargo.”

Its logo, a cute little stagecoach pulled by a team of fast-moving horses, is so engaging that one can almost smell the sweat and manure. But enough about sweat. Let’s talk about manure.

When I asked the company representative where to return the car, the rep said I could not return it to a dealer (unlike every other leased car I owned). The rep explained they only had ONE (1!) drop-off location in Georgia. I would have to drive there … so much for convenience. On the other hand, the drop-off point could have been Guatemala.

A few days after I delivered the car to the inconvenient drop-off location, I received a bill for damage to the door. Since I had taken 360-degree pictures of the car before I turned it in, I knew the charge was nonsense. I called another customer-service rep in the End-of-Lease Department. After a short argument, they said they would look at the pictures I sent and call me back in 24 to 48 hours.

144 hours later

After 144 hours, I called again. This time I struck pay-dirt! An agent answered the phone in a droll, bored voice (I could tell I was interfering with his latte). I explained my situation and, although he sounded greatly inconvenienced, he grudgingly went to look at the pictures I emailed 144 hours earlier.

When he came back on the line, he said my pictures were inadequate. Another department would have to examine them (apparently, full-color digital photographs taken with a very expensive camera are insufficient proof when compared to personal opinion).

I said, “I was told that last week.”

He replied, and I quote, “Well, I’m telling you now.”

Stunned silence.

I said, “Can you please have your name?”

He was not intimidated. “M”, he drolled. (Again, I will be socially sensitive and not name names; suffice it to say M is the first name of a jar used to store fruits and vegetables).

I pressed onward. “And, what is the name of your supervisor?”

“We do not give out that information. You have to go through our process. You can’t just ask to talk to a supervisor.”

My mind raced: “Am I in a stooge in one of those reality TV shows?”, “Is Howie Mandel going to pop out of my phone?” … “Was ‘M’ in training for a government healthcare position?”, “Will I have to sacrifice a blemish-free goat before I can talk to a supervisor?”


I could go on about “M” and his smells-cargo employer, but the real point of this article is that hiring front-line customer service people is more important than most managers believe. Organizations are happy to get our money, but the true test of sincerity begins when things go wrong. Unless the organization is the only game in town, customer service is one of its few opportunities to show customers it cares — or not.

Clearly, M and his employer cared less.

A good customer service agent needs five critical skills. Some can be trained and some cannot. They need skills to: 1) empathize with the customer’s plight; 2) listen and gather relevant information; 3) use questions to clarify the problem; 4) engage in joint problem solving; 5) and, do follow-up.

Why These Five?

When a customer complains, he or she is experiencing two problems: 1) a task problem with the product or service; and 2) an emotional problem. Most people would agree they are not in the mood to solve problems when are angry or upset. This is why customer-service reps need empathizing skills. Empathizing helps the customer and representative relate to each other.

Only when the customer calms down can the representative begin to ask questions and gather information. This skill requires active listening skills and well-honed questions. Discovering what went wrong, and why, minimizes the potential for a repeat problem and maximizes the potential for a happy customer.

Joint problem-solving is the natural next step. It’s the time when customer and organization come together to work out a mutually acceptable solution. This does not mean giving away the store, nor does it mean the customer is entirely wrong (see the M-jar, smells-cargo example above). Finally, it takes some form of action in the form of follow-up or next-steps.

So what should recruiting look for in an applicant? What is trainable? Well, based on your experience, do you find it easier to hire someone without empathy and tell him or her to be empathetic, or hire someone with natural empathy skills? Is it easier to hire someone who is not smart enough, or hire someone intelligent enough to probe for information? Is it easier to hire someone with poor listening skills, or, hire someone with natural listening skills?

Back to the Ranch

From a customer’s perspective, M-Jar was in the wrong job. Instead of customer service, I would suggest he seek a career that used his natural ability to be snide and insolent … a career where he does not have to deal with intelligent life forms …

As for the company who hired M? Its hiring system either failed to identify all the critical factors important to performing a customer service job in a competitive environment, or it had no clue what to look for.

As for me, I’m out there sharing my story about a well-known company and using them as a personal example of what not to look for in a customer service job.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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