The Lost Art of Customer Service: Collateral Damage, Quel Dommage!

It being the season of giving, with consumers doing our respective parts for the economy by spending, you’d think that that the businesses would hold up their end of the bargain by putting in the requisite additional customer service time and resources that the holidays, and all that extra consumerism, require. Think again.

Last month, Chase sent me a direct mail piece offering a Continental Airlines Presidential Plus credit card. The low-APR, no-annual fee offer was designed to compensate for privileges lost via Continental’s removal from the American Express Membership Rewards program, which goes into effect as soon as the Continental and United Airlines merger is complete. Eager to sign on to avoid any lapse in travel services, I followed the offer instructions and was directed to a website where a pre-filled online application was supposed to await me. Problem was the mini-site kept rejecting the special invitational code in the mailer. Inconveniently and presumably erroneously, no phone number was attached to the offer, nor did the mini-site include any link for technical assistance—or help of any kind. As of this writing, I should have the credit card in hand. However, I have yet to track down even a number or resource that can help me partake in this exact offer.

Last month, I called Hilton Hotels to reserve one of the many rooms that had been blocked out at a special rate for my brother’s wedding. I called 3o days in advance, as the Hilton instructions directed, but the reservation specialist still told me that the contract reserving that rate had expired, and therefore, was not able to offer me a discount. Both the Hilton agent and I knew that one call to the bride would have cleaned up the error. Rather than saving me the time, the angst, and the few extra dollars, the rep stood firm—no discount. It took me another hour to connect with another agent from Hilton hotel who was willing to walk the walk of the company’s “be hospitable” philosophy and give me the measly though appreciated discount of 20 bucks.

Last month, I switched units in my apartment complex, transferring utilities like Time Warner cable service in the process. Unbeknownst to me, the Time Warner agent treated my simple transfer as new service. I moved and found myself locked into a package that was similar to but not quite the service I previously had—with a new monthly fee that wasn’t quite the same either. I made four phone calls to correct this error. I still await the return of a call from a supervisor that all four representatives had promised. On my fifth try, I finally connected with a rep who had the logic and power to simply fix the situation.

I know, I know. Woe is me. You too have countless similar stories to share. Like me, you probably wonder at moments like these: What the heck happened to good, common-sense, responsive customer service?

The explosion of technology and social media in the past few years presents a gazillion ways to reach customers. Yet it’s never been harder or more labor-intensive to actually connect with customers. (You might want to reference The Future of Advertising by Danielle Sacks in Fast Company Magazine.) That being the case, when you do have direct-dial opportunities with ongoing customers or with potential new ones, shouldn’t those conversation scripts and guidelines be perfected by now? As budgets continue to be tight and marketers are forced to experiment with new, unproven platforms and approaches, fragmentation among media buys feels forgivable, in my opinion. Fragmentation in good, old-fashioned land-line customer service, however, is just plain wrong—especially in brands that have been around the block. A lot of my recent mishaps seem due to poor training. Or no training at all. In either instance, the ensuing, chaotic customer-service mess is probably the result of the high number of experienced managers who have become jobless–collateral damage in the wake of our economic catastrophe—taking all their years of institutional knowledge and customer expertise along with them to the unemployment office. A lot of built-up brands now seem to have an influx of untrained and inexperienced “bodies” manning the trenches, which can make for bad experiences and, ultimately, bad—and potentially forever lost—business.

As we wrap up 2010—a climate of economical uncertainty that’s been the primary hallmark of 2007, 2008, and 2009, and most likely what the chilly landscape of 2011 will resemble as well—I say it’s high time for companies to take retake control where they can. My advice for companies of all sizes is to consider throwing some money internally. Keeping your brand story internally intact through a well-versed, knowledgeable staff is as important as taking your brand story outward with ad messaging and social media programs: Employees at all levels have to be trained to carry your message out, empowered to avoid dead ends, and encouraged and incentivized to always find a happy ending for your customers. There should be no holes in your brand story.

The kicker: It’s not that hard to please customers. And we will remember it. The other day I called American Express to inquire about recent activity. I was pleasantly surprised when the rep extended me a lower APR for being such a good customer. It was a gift. No questions asked. The call left me with a warm and fuzzy thought about Amex. Contrast that with my ongoing saga with Chase and Continental, where, four phone calls in—to redeem an offer extended to me by them, no less—I’m still left holding the bag, with no card in hand. It’s time and money wasted for both myself and the various representatives who I drill (and I do drill) for information. Unlike most other customers, though, I will take the extra step and continue calling (or visit a branch) because I want that card with the low APR, with a waived annual fee. I want my happy ending. Would be nice if someone awaited me on the other end already ready to gift me one.

Happy New Year. May you be well-served and serve well.

Filed: branding, public relations

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