Get Off Your Knees

Dan Hull asks, “is it just me?”

Year after year, the cult of customer/client service “trends” stridently in books, trade journals, company meetings and on the internet. Service gurus are multiplying. Everyone is writing, gushing and testifying about the importance of service, often implying that service is no problem to establish and maintain. Businesses in every industry are proclaiming in giddy, self-congratulatory tones that service is, and has been for the last fifty or so years, a “core value” and “touchstone” of their success.

And yet every year, the service that each of us experience on a daily basis in our own lives is getting worse and worse.

Empty, fuzzy rhetoric tells us how much they love us instead of actions showing us that they care.  They repeat, ad nauseum, their apologies for our inconvenience, though the failure to perform as promised, as we paid for, is no inconvenience.  And then ask if there is anything else they can do for us, despite the fact that the words “anything else” don’t apply when they’ve done nothing for us to begin with.

But you don’t want to be rude and demanding?  After all, wouldn’t it make you an unpleasant person to expect people to whom you pay money to perform or fulfill the function you paid for?  You confuse being nice with being passive, with being a pushover.

This is their game, and you’re playing it superbly. They count on your being a nice person, too nice to push your complaint after the sweet apology and recitation of their company policy.  After all, it’s a policy. Whatever could a customer service representative do?  And isn’t it your job to simply sigh, nod your head, and reply, “I understand,” as you hang up the phone and take it like a sucker?

Just about anyone who sells anything. Retail, mainly. Retail banking, insurers, phone companies, utilities and the scads of outside “tech” guys charged with keeping your computers running are the worst. Exceptions: Trader Joe’s and GEICO, and that’s about it. So let’s start getting feisty at stores, coffee shops, on the phone with customer care reps, at doctors’ offices, everywhere you pay for something. Remind them all you have options and choices. You’re a customer, consumer, client or patient? Get off your knees. Demand things. Make them earn or keep your business.

Feisty is a kind way to say that you’re not being rude to demand value for your money, goods that work, services that comport with the promises that induced you to pay for them.  Here is a business secret: they don’t really love you. They just want your money.

But it’s not just you.  You are screwing it up for me. For your mother. For your cousin in Des Moines.  When enough of you get down on your knees and take it, the companies know they will get enough money from the passive buyers that they can ignore the handful of people who expect promises to be kept.

If everyone, however, stopped playing the docile patsy, the chump who nicely responds to the CSR that he “understands” that company policy, the one that says you’re screwed and they’re not, rules the world, things would change.  You see, if everybody decided that they were no longer going to flush their money down the toilet by paying it to people who fail to fulfill their promises, then the business model would have to change.

It wasn’t always be this way. There was a time in America where legitimate companies (there were always snake oil salesmen) made products that worked, that lasted, that lived up to their promise.  That time could come again, but only if you get off your knees.

Trust me, the CSR doesn’t really want to be your bestie. Her name isn’t really Suzie either.  If you hurt her feelings by not stopping when she utters the magic words “company policy,” she will survive.  Try it.  Find out how it feels to get what you paid for.

23 comments on “Get Off Your Knees

  1. Todd E.

    Non-Lawyer, discard as necessary.

    I’ve been working in call centers since 2003. First AT&T Cellular (NE Region) then HP (Desktop Support and Escalations) and now Arkansas Blue Cross, Blue Shield.

    In ever job where I’ve worked as a CSR, I am earth shakingly aware of just how replaceable I am. I am employed based on my ability to show up on time, my ability to follow a script, and to not lose my temper at customers/members.

    Most customers imagine that we have far more knowledge, training, and capability than we actually do, or that, failing, us, there’s a higher person that they can get to who will make things better. This is mostly not, in fact, the case.

    Our systems are generally not cutting edge, no matter what our product is, our software flawed and crash-prone, and we’re concerned about meeting our metrics so that we can keep our jobs.

    But it beats McDonalds, right?

    There’s a lot of push to provide the illusion of choice because it makes the consumer feel “in control” but in truth, once you’ve chosen a path, a contract, a product, you’re locked in, and if you move to a different company, it’s really just their variation of the same thing.

    The CSR industry is highly aware that customer service is the real difference, but in many respects, the industry continues to believe that fear is a better motivator than relationship.

    And they fear their employers more than they fear you.

    1. Mark Draughn

      I run into people like you a lot. Hard-working customer service people who are bright and cheerful and well-spoken and courteous…and who have no way to help me with my problem.

      And then the next day we’ll get an email asking us to take a survey about the experience. Thinking “Now’s my chance to tell them how awful their service was!” we click the link. Only it turns out the questions are all about you:

      “Did the CSR address you by name?” Well, sure…

      “Was the CSR friendly and easy to understand?” Yes, but you see, the problem is with your policy on holiday returns for items bought through the web but returned to a store. You have a restocking charge which really…

      “Did the CSR thank you for being a customer?” Yes, but HE’s not the problem, you dumbass! It’s your policy that’s idiotic and makes me want to blow up your offices!

      “Thank you for your feedback. We appreciate your business.”

      And so it goes…

      1. SHG Post author

        By being the “face” of the company, or at least the only person who can be reached, they have to suffer for the company’s faults. That’s their job, to take the anger and diffuse it if possible.

        1. Todd E.

          Precisely. Even under escalations management, the purpose (at least ideally) is to educate the member as much as possible so that they understand the full range of actual options.

          This, of course, does not always occur, which is a failure, whether on the part of that rep, or on the part of those who educated/employed them.

          Much like the issue that the legal system has with seeing defendants as guilty, many CSR’s begin to see all customers the same way…simply there to use their time, to make unrealistic demands, and not to listen. It must be the cause of a CSR professional to fight that trend, to remain aware of each customer or member as a real person with actual needs, and with a new need for education and communication.

      2. Mike ONeil

        Yea, and what I wanted to say in response to the survey is “The CSR did exactly what you trained them to do. But you gave him no authority to solve my problem. They deserve praise for following your directions. But, your CEO is a fucking moron who holds his customers in contempt”.

        But the survey never lets me do that.

        I design surveys for a living. Rule 1: Ask the right questions, or you get garbage.

    2. SHG Post author

      Dealing with CSRs is one the things I truly hate do to, as it’s asking the impossible. But to the extent they have any authority to resolve a problem, it needs to be done. The scenario reflects our willingness to take it, and if we weren’t, then CSRs wouldn’t be in the position they are.

    3. Rick Horowitz

      I actually don’t complain about this as much as I used to. The amount of money I’ve saved by simply writing off one company after another is truly amazing.

      Turns out, I don’t need as much crap as I thought I did, and I don’t just mean the unnecessary purchases of things I used to think I “needed,” but also the crap CSRs are taught to feed me if I’m stupid enough to shop with their companies.

      Food at home is better for me, cheaper, and I don’t have to worry that some bozo thought “very light sauce” meant an extra bottle of mustard instead of a whole bottle of ketchup on the small hamburger.

      Now if I could just find a grocer that didn’t start shutting down check-out lanes whenever the line drops below six customers.

      I’m about to consider growing my own food.

  2. Rich

    Aside from the Megacorporations (cable/phone, airline) my experiences in the USA have been very good. I can’t remember the last time I had a bad experience eating out or in a grocery store. Car dealers have a bad rep, but last year I managed to buy a very low miles 2012 Chrysler 300 3.6 for $20k. Every time I drive it I am amazed I got such a great car for so little money. And at the dealership, they bend over backwards to make sure I’m happy. If my wife wants to return something to the store just because she changed her mind, no problem. Again, apart from the government backed monopolies I mentioned before, I personally feel I get better service and product for a better price in the USA than anywhere else I’ve lived in the world (especially Europe)

    1. SHG Post author

      And does this mean anything to anyone else? Does your happiness change anyone else’s misery?

  3. Bruce Coulson

    The first person you reach with any customer complaint will have the ability to forward your issue to someone who might be able to resolve it, in most cases. Many times, they won’t even be employees of the company whose product or service you have purchased. And often, they’re not permitted to transfer your call to that company (that would sort of defeat the real purpose of hiring a company to handle customer service).

    You might be lucky enough to have a common enough complaint that established procedures exist to handle and resolve the problem.

  4. P.J. B.

    I’ve been in customer service for almost 10 years now, though only the last year has been at a call center. I’ve worked for 3 different companies during that time.

    The current job has been enlightening – I’ve been present when our director has met with various executives and different department heads as customer service issues arise. He’s fully aware that good customer service means that employees need to be empowered to help customers on their own – without getting locked into a rigid policy or a lengthy approval process. To a large degree, he’s successful at keeping our CSAs empowered to make decisions, and that empowerment shows in our Key Performance Indicators, survey scores, retention, and so on.

    But the other places I worked at, it was clear that employees weren’t trusted at all. We couldn’t be empowered because we would give the farm away and destroy the company. For CSAs, those scripts and locked-in policies aren’t really about getting better performance, or cutting costs. They’re because they didn’t trust their own employees.

    I’m not sure if I could trust a company that doesn’t trust the people it chooses to represent itself.

  5. Dan Hull

    Nicely done–and thanks. I’m surprised more people don’t write about the reality of service, say, 99% of the time. Instead, you see almost daily “client-service-is-a-good-thing-so-go-get some” pieces in many languages. No one disputes that building customer service cultures–like Good Crops, Motherhood, Sweetness & Light — is a good thing. Building, maintaining and enforcing them: I cannot think of anything harder or more important.

    1. SHG Post author

      And I appreciate your being my muse, but from now on, please wear pants. Long pants. Thank you.

  6. Marc R

    Bad CSRs became routine when mom n pops were bought by larger corporations. I vaguely remember local phone companies like Southern Bell and when you called “0” you could have a substantive call with the operator on topics from how they logistically transfer long distance calls to what type of phone you should by. And they could fix your problem on the spot, and the hold times were much quicker.

    I don’t see one large company breaking the mold and upgrading CSR. The method would seem to require smaller companies. Do you think large companies can be incentivized to provide better assistance or would they eschew profit to be known as “different?” For instance, I’ve had great CSR experiences with Dropcams, from email to phone service (saying Hello after 3-4 rings rather than an automated system), and even their chat-box on the website is very helpful.

    1. SHG Post author

      The fish stinks from the head down. And I suspect it would smell better the same way. It can happen if a company really wants it to happen. But it requires a significant dedication, it’s expensive, it requires trust, which requires excellent training, and they have to believe that it’s in their business interest to do.

      That’s where we come in.

  7. David Sugerman

    Interesting for what is missing from this discussion. The CSR feel good window dressing is part of a a bigger piece of consumer predation that includes the loss of consumer protection. Your rights disappeared via the fine print contracts of many of these same transnational corporations. Your purchases–cable TV, your mobile phone and data plan, the student loan you took out, the car, the credit card–all of those things came with fine print “agreements” that included the waiver of the right to trial by jury and the right to participate in a consumer class action.

    This may seem off topic, but it is part and parcel of the whole. By ending effective means of consumer redress, you have very few options but to take it on the knees. Sure, you can go elsewhere, but there aren’t many alternatives. And when push comes to shove, and you’ve been ripped off–not just bad service, but taken to the cleaners, your “remedy” is an arbitration system that is about as straight as a funhouse mirror.

    Please continue to hold. Your call is important to us.

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