June 22, 2018
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With phone-based service, the customer isn’t always right

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director, Northeast CONTACT

“Thank you for calling.”

Oh, great; I know how the rest goes already.

“Your call is very important to us.” So, if I’m so important, how come it isn’t like the old days when operators were standing by to pick up the company phone the instant it rang and ask what they can do for me?

Naturally, the answer is nothing is like the old days, and many companies have little interest in doing anything for me, with the possible exception of getting me to stop calling. We should just accept the reality and move on, except there are times we really need service that’s more than lip service.

When we make those calls it is with the expectation that we will get some sort of help. Some companies embrace the philosophy that their customer service representatives are there to provide that help. Others would prefer that callers simply went away.

Emily Yellin wrote a book titled, “Your Call Is (not that) Important To Us.” It’s a well-researched look at customer service since 2001, when a Pew Charitable Trusts report noted a growing concern over ever-increasing rudeness in our society. The book documents sizable amounts of money spent on customer service, with less-than-proportional increases in customer satisfaction.

Awareness of the problem goes back much further. In 1969, an advisory report by 32 businesspeople to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called for a “workable feedback system for customer complaints and inquiries.” While business and political leaders embraced consumerism as a concept, Yellin suggests the system is incomplete with varying efficacy.

Lengthy times on hold complete with annoyingly soothing music snippets are likely consumers’ top complaint. Failure to do anything to resolve their problem is likely a close second.

That said, let’s face the fact that the customer is not always right. That increasing rudeness that makes most of us flinch every time it happens cuts both ways; customer service reps have been the victims of some scathing remarks, even threats, by irate callers. While those callers may have legitimate gripes, their rhetoric and choice of words can be excessive.

The customer service pros do their venting on blogs, some with names too rude to include in a family newspaper. They commiserate mostly about company policies that prevent them from telling callers how they really feel.

What the pros are taught to do instead is really listen to a customer complaint, accept the feedback about the problem and figure out how to deal with it. The smart ones avoid talking down to customers, quoting “company policy” or citing “terms and conditions” of a sale. Callers want to end up with a shred of dignity as well as a solution. Good reps might first ask a customer an open-ended question that lets the customer explain the problem and get away from the emotion.

“What’s a fair solution?” might be the next, logical question.

Callers seeking help should document their calls, noting dates, times and names of people spoken with. Urge the agent to work with you, realize it’s a business relationship and be aware that not all companies value customer service equally.

Northeast CONTACT usually urges people to skip the call or email and go to the top. Document your problem and any attempts at resolution in a letter to the company president or CEO. Send the letter by certified mail and request a return receipt so you know the letter got there. State facts, include pertinent documents and give the recipient reasonable time to respond.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or email at contacexdir@live.com.

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