Introduction To “Radical Customer Service”

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The Miserable State Of Customer Service in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021….

Each minute of every day, 24 hours a day, there are 32,343 Google searches for the phrase “customer service”. That’s JUST on Google, not any other search engines. Amazon lists 424,469 titles for books and documents related to the same phrase. That’s a whole lot of books.

Hardly a day goes by without the release of research and advice about what customers want, and how to improve customer service. Companies like Gallup, Forrester, The Temkin Group, and several hundred others churn out findings, and sell their advice to companies looking to gain a competitive advantage.

Customer advocates deliver keynote addresses at conferences, write blogs, tweet their tweets and exhort companies to do this, that and the other thing to “up their service game”.

Customers share their experiences, often bad ones, on social media. As customers we feel empowered, believing our voices will be heard, and that, sooner or later, making public our grievances, real or imagined, will force companies to give us the customer service we want. Unfortunately, shouting from the rooftops doesn’t mean there are people down below listening and acting on customer concerns. It often feels like nobody is hearing what’s said, or worse, that companies really don’t care.

Over the last twenty years, technology has changed the face of customer service. Customers can now contact companies via fancy phone trees and voice mail. We can email. We can tweet. We can go to company websites to try to find the information we need about products and services. There are “online communities” set up by companies so customers can “crowd source” answers to their problems. Yet, customer wait. And wait. Technology allows companies to ignore their customers faster!

In the words of the inimitable Jerry Lee Lewis, there’s a “whole lot of shakin’” going on. Not movement, mind you, but shakin’ and jiving. The feet, aren’t locomotin”. Lots of words. Lots of talk. Despite these changes, it’s easy to get the feeling that customer service is jogging in place.

Yes, the FACE of customer service is different. The words are there. The interest is there. Yet, customer service is abominable. Terrible.

Since we’re all customers we don’t need research to tell us that the whole experience of shopping, purchasing, and getting help is often frustrating, even rage provoking. As customers we wait in lines for the privilege of giving money to businesses. We don’t like it, even vow to take our business to competitors, only to find that their customer service is as bad as the company we’ve decided to hate. We can’t get decent product advice. In a high tech world few of us know enough about every possible product so we can make informed buying decisions. We look to customer service staff to guide us so we’ll be happy with our purchases. What do we get? Up-sold and cross-sold. We’re told we need the more expensive gadgets by “customer service representatives” who are rewarded for sales, or on straight commission.

Oddly enough, it seems companies make it really hard to give them money. If our purchases are faulty, or stop working, divine help is required to take advantage of the warranties that come with our purchases. Is there a patron saint for warranties? We need one. Maybe more than one.

Customer service, or the customer experience is just plain bad.

Schwartz’s Deli — Montreal Landmark

Schwartz’s Deli is a restaurant situated in what could charitably be called a run down part of Montreal, Canada. Its menu is limited but you will find the most delectable, fatty, unhealthy smoked meat and steaks. It’s also billed as the oldest smoked vendor in the world, founded in 1928. It breaks almost every customer service rule the experts provide. And it’s a raving success. It’s such an iconic part of the Montreal scene that Celine Dion has taken partial ownership.

You’ll likely have to wait to get in. At peak times you’ll be lined-up outside the tiny location, and in the Winter, that means in the cold, snow and wind. When you get in, the seduction begins, and you can’t ignore the odors of cooked meats. The next thing thing you’ll notice is the counter area, and long tables crammed into the very limited space. This place is SMALL. Walking in, it’s not immediately clear how to order. Schwartz’s has its own “system”, if you can call it that, and those of you who have seen the Seinfeld Soup Nazi episode will find the atmosphere familiar.

You’ll likely be seated at long communal tables with other diners, strangers in fact, so forget about privacy. Another thing you’ll notice is the cacophony of sounds as people bellow, both at their tables and behind the counter where your meal will be prepared. Staff yell. This place is just plain loud. You want to pay by credit or debit card? Forget it. Schwartz’s is proud of the fact they haven’t changed in eighty year. If you visit, you’ll also want to be mindful of the bits of smoked meat scattered about on the floor.

And the demeanor of the employees? One Yelp reviewer wrote:

We had to try Schwartz’s like everyone says. Luckily we did not have to wait in line for a table. I think we got the last empty seats. The waiter was horrible. I know they are busy but we are visiting tourists and we did not understand how this restaurant works, except you need to try smoked meat from Schwartz. Waiter was very rude and answered our questions with a very smart tone. Sorry if we didn’t know how to order, and I guess you don’t have to be nice when you always get a line waiting to eat?

The 4 stars is for the food. If I had to rate the experience with the waiter, I’d give it a 1 star.

The atmosphere is a bit dicey, but not to worry, since you probably won’t be there long. The staff encourages diners to wolf down meals as quickly as possible so the staff can see your backside leaving. It’s all about turning over tables.

It sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Yet, while there’s a similar establishment almost directly across the street that has a better reputation — i.e. not being rude to its customers, and providing better service, Schwartz’s wins the race for customers hands down.

It’s a winner. It’s been a winner decade upon decade. And, it breaks almost every rule about customer service. Except one. It’s food is amazing for what it is.

Don’t Businesses Even Care?

Yes, businesses care. CEO’s care. Business owners, whether leading tiny, small or large organizations don’t sit around saying “How can we really piss off our customers?”. Companies don’t set out to provide terrible customer service.

While businesses do care about customer service they care MORE about being profitable enough to stay in business. That’s at the very heart of business, and in fact, our global economy. Corporations have to generate enough revenue and profits to satisfy their shareholders, as represented by their boards of directors, and investors. In large corporations, the focus is on short term gains. If executives don’t satisfy their masters, they end up losing their jobs, whether they have championed excellent customer service or not. Executives don’t like being fired.

Smaller companies, privately held companies need to survive in an era of stiff competition, shrinking margins, and heightened consumer wants. Despite what most of us might wish, customer service is a business tool. It’s only purpose is to contribute to profit. If it doesn’t, or it’s perceived as not doing so, customers get less of it.

From outside of companies, it would seem to make sense that improving customer service would increase revenue and profits. After all, that’s what all the customer service advocates, and customer research companies tell us.

Customer service advocates — the “experts” if you will, write books and speak at conferences bemoaning the fact that companies see customer service as “overhead”, to be kept as low as possible. The experts insist that companies that invest hard, real money in improving their customer service are rewarded with increased sales and profits solely caused by those investments. That’s easy to say when one doesn’t have access to the company books. It’s not true.

Well, sometimes it may be true, for some companies sometimes. Generally, though the people that run companies know things customer service advocates don’t know, or don’t want to know; that customer service IS an overhead cost. They see their numbers. Outsider don’t, and on this particular issue, their numbers, the costs of customer service, versus profits and return on investment are compelling. The causal link between spending more on customer service and profits is not quite so easy to accept, when one has access to the actual numbers.

CEO’s and business owners aren’t stupid. Do you think for a minute that businesses wouldn’t jump at the chance to become more profitable? What business owner, or CEO would turn down an opportunity to increase profits by say fifty million dollars by investing ten million in better customer service?

They don’t make those investments because overall, they do not, will not and do not expect to get a guaranteed return on that investment.

The claim that investing in customer service is always profitable is a misconception. As you’ll see later in the book, it has a lot of mythic company. For example, pundits proclaim the empowerment of the customer — that social media will force companies to improve their customer service. The logic is over simplistic. Dissatisfied customers don’t have that kind of “social media power”, and you’ll learn why they don’t. Even though the The “power of Twitter” is a myth, companies jump on social media, under the assumption that it IS true, believing they can somehow undo any damage that results from the tweeting and re-tweeting of their customer service failures. Another misconception.

The net result, however, is that companies spread their existing resources more thinly, trying to cover Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms in addition to all the other traditional contact points. The thinner companies spread their resources, the worse their customer service gets.

Drowning In A Sea Of Information

If you accept the fact that companies DO care about providing at least decent customer service, albeit not to the same extent that they love profits, the next question is: Why are they not doing the RIGHT things to address the demands of customers? It’s not hard to see changes in how companies serve customers, but it sure seems the changes involve substituting one stupid, ineffective method for another. Companies need to first see the benefits of improving their service, and then, they need to identify things that work. It sounds simple but it’s not. That’s because companies exist in a sea of information. Not only is there information overload, but much of the information is faulty, or not applicable.

In order to make the RIGHT decisions, companies need to have reliable, valid information about what their customers want, and expect. For example, the local grocery store needs to have some idea about how long customers will wait to check out before they get angry enough to consider taking their business elsewhere. Knowing this helps them schedule their employees, and get things just right. The grocery store doesn’t want too many checkout operating, because they end up paying their staff to stand around doing nothing during periods where the “load” is lower. Too few available staff means long waits with the possibility that some customers will simply give up, and walk out.

Information about customers and what they do, what they are willing to accept is absolutely critical to offering a level of customer service that will work for both the business and the customers. If companies act on the wrong information, they’ll get it wrong.

That’s exactly what’s happening. Companies are making the WRONG customer service decisions, because they are influenced by absolutely dreadful research on the topic, and by the “buzz” — the common wisdom about customer service that surrounds all of us. After a while, if you hear the same conclusions repeated over and over again about what customers want, and how to deliver it, the conclusions take on a measure of truth, whether they are true or not. Thus emerges a number of myths about customer service. These myths constitute the “stuff” on which businesses base decision making, and they are flat out wrong as you’ll see later in this book. As with most myths, or urban legends, these myths have kernels of truth embedded in them, and a face validity that is compelling because it appeals to our “common sense”. As they are repeated these myths take on a life of their own, become more and more accepted as they are spread wider and wider, so that they are no longer questioned, but become of the background “factual information” about “how things are”. Not questioned further, they drive decisions in the wrong direction.

So, while there is a lot of “information” about customer service out there, much of it is too vague and general to be helpful. Similar to horoscopes in the daily paper, their face value, because the conclusions are stated so generally, is easy to accept as accurate. Given information overload and that much of the common wisdom is misleading, too general, and taken out of context, it’s not surprising that companies acting on that information are making the wrong decisions.

Conclusion — Follow The Crowd, Follow The Common Best Practices, and Customer Service Gets Worse

We need a different way of looking at customer service, one driven by true business results, and not claims from experts who have a vested interest in selling companies the newest shiniest technological solutions that don’t work.

We need to understand customers at a far deeper psychological level so we don’t do the wrong things.

We need a radical rethinking of what works and what doesn’t in customer service, and separate the garbage research that drives the industry into making really bad decisions.

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