Is Your Company Providing Real or Fake Customer Service?

Public vs. Fake Customer Service?

Driving down to Hilton Head for a family vacation, I realized that I’d forgotten to reserve beach chairs.  I scrambled to find one of the confirmation letters I’d printed and called the number at the bottom of the page.  After a few rings, I was nothing less than shocked to realize that I’d reached the direct voicemail of the general manager of the resort.  Immediately filled with regret, I hung up.  It felt as if I’d violated a tacit agreement – customers don’t get access to top brass….do they?  Clearly, I would never call a GM for this type of mundane request – but it did make me think about the larger customer service issue and my natural (almost visceral) reaction of regret.  My reaction illustrated that as a customer I’d become so accustomed to not getting direct access to those in leadership positions (and more often shuttled around aimlessly within the bowels of the organization)…..But, it made me think…..should it be that way?

Just a few months earlier, I’d had an unfortunate experience with an online photo gifts company.  Although their website home page stated that orders placed by the date I placed mine would arrive by Father’s Day (there was a HUGE countdown clock emphasizing the point), the tracking information I received indicated it would arrive several days later.  When I called “customer service” no matter how much I tried to explain to the representative that the website advertising was inaccurate, she kept reading the standard shipping schedule information (from her script ostensibly).  When I couldn’t get her to understand my specific point about the inaccurate website advertising, I asked to speak to a supervisor.  Unfortunately, the supervisor call wasn’t much better.  Refusing to understand the website problem that I was attempting to highlight (in part so they’d be prepared for other complaints), she finally relented and offered to do me a “favor” and try to expedite my order.  Frustrated, I asked to speak with her manager.  Although she said there was no manager available, she did provide an email address.  When I asked for contact information for someone on their executive team, she suggested that I “check their website”.  Of course, I checked their site and found names with zero contact information.  Admittedly tenacious at this point, I guessed the email address using the same email convention as the one she provided for her manager.  I then emailed their customer service department, her manager, and members of their executive team to highlight the error on their website.  To their credit, within hours I received a call from a marketing manager (likely in part because I’d copied executive leadership) who apologized profusely for the CSR/supervisor handling of my call (he’d listened to the call recording) and mostly to thank me for pointing out the website error.  He pointed out that my feedback gave them an opportunity to correct the wording error on the website and avoid additional complaints/refund requests.  After I hung up the phone I couldn’t help but wonder…..should the customer have to be a private investigator in order to be able to share feedback with a company they’re patronizing (particularly leadership within the company)?

It made me start thinking about real customer service vs. “fake” customer service.  I can’t help but think that if company leadership has made an intentional decision to make it exceedingly difficult for customers to provide feedback and/or contact management directly, they’re just not that interested.  One would think that maintaining open dialogue with customers would be considered a good thing, but these days…not so much.  Quite often I’ve found that contact information for sales or reservations is readily available (if not shoved down your throat), and most companies will typically have a general or related 800 number, but it’s become frighteningly common to not provide any vehicle for customers to share feedback directly with company management or within “customer service” management ranks.  This type of “fake customer service” is one where the company is really just pretending to provide some sort of customer service support, but their processes and infrastructure make it clear that at best they have an anemic customer service operation that has little impact on the rest of the business and at worst they consider the customer a complete annoyance two seconds after point of purchase and choose to ignore them.

Characteristics of Fake vs. Real Customer Service

Fake Customer Service Real Customer Service
Customers are forced to hunt for phone/email contacts to address common customer service issues. Customer service contact information is prominently displayed on the website (they make it as prominent as they would sales or reservations information).  The most customer centric companies might even consider some sort of reward to encourage feedback because they really want it!!!
To provide feedback customers are forced to call a 1.800 number connected to a call center half way around the globe. Customers are provided direct phone numbers for contacts in various departmental areas in addition to generic customer service.  The most customer centric companies provide direct email addresses if not phone numbers for executives as well.
Customers are not provided CSRs’ names or other identification information when it’s requested. Customers are immediately given a representative’s name, operator id and direct call back number at the start of every call.
Managerial contact information is withheld from customers or CSRs make it difficult for customers to interact with managers (e.g. require managers to call them back instead of having them available to talk to customers). Customers are provided manager contact information whenever it’s requested.  Executive leadership contact information is displayed on the website.
Companies maintain a general customer service email box or phone support line, but it’s done really just to “check the box”.  Ultimately, the feedback isn’t valued, funneled to senior management, or acted upon in any meaningful way. Companies take customer service seriously and reflect that by having formal processes for analyzing and acting upon the valuable feedback received.  The most customer centric companies follow up with customers periodically to thank them for the feedback and share how they implemented their suggestion or addressed their concern.
The only people within the company who speak directly to customers with any regularity (except sales) are customer service representatives.  Customer service as an organization is fairly isolated.  It’s an obligatory department but not well integrated into the rest of the business. The corporate culture is one where customer service is viewed as everyone’s responsibility (to an extent).  Each functional area (e.g. senior leadership, product development, marketing, etc.) has some direct customer contact regularly (e.g. everyone takes 5 customer calls/week?).  Similarly, goals, metrics, and reward systems are designed to ensure that everyone is motivated to enhance customer service.

*Analysis is derived in part from the 2016 Professionalism Matters “What Customers Really Want” Survey Report.

With respect to providing more direct contact information for leadership and other key staff, I’m sure that some will argue that exposing direct email addresses and phone numbers for executives, etc. could create opportunities for unwanted solicitations, spam, etc. but I’m sure there are viable technology solutions to guard against that.  Furthermore, those companies who have provided more transparency seem to have managed around those issues.  My sense is that this concern is largely a red herring for companies whose leadership simply doesn’t want to be bothered hearing directly from customers.  When it comes to hearing directly from customers, learning about their experiences, and using that feedback to continuously improve – they’re just not that interested.

The relationship that a company builds with its customers is a sacred one.  And when the company is really just pretending to care, it feels like a dysfunctional one where the boyfriend or girlfriend says they’re serious, but they’re really not.  They don’t want you to know where they live – they always wants to meet out and they give you a cell phone number but not their home phone number.  After awhile, you get the message – time to break it off – why expend time and energy on someone who clearly isn’t that into you…Ultimately, many customers will make the same choice.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant.  She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA.  She can be reached at  Connect with her on Linked In @ and Twitter @DanaBrownlee. 

5 Tragic Customer Service Mistakes

Customer Service Mistakes…Are You Making These Common Ones?

If you’re like me, you’ve had more than your share of horrible customer service experiences leaving you scratching your head in frustration at the fact that companies seem to make the most glaring customer service mistakes (that could be so easily remedied)!!!!  I’ve certainly wondered….

  • Why does the automated phone system ask me to punch in my account number a zillion times if the representative’s first question will be “Account number please?”
  • Why is it so hard to find an actual customer service phone number for many companies these days?
  • Why can’t you just apologize up front if you made a mistake and act like you care while you’re at it?
  • Why can’t you listen to what I’m actually saying????
  • Why can’t I get a number to call you back if needed – YOU, the agent I’ve neem talking to for the last 30 minutes, not the main 800 # where I’ll have to start all over!
  • If you know you have times when you can expect “higher than normal call volume”, why can’t you staff up for those and not leave me on hold for 15 minutes?
  • Why does it seem like I’m talking to someone who’s hired just to read a script instead of someone who is really knowledgeable and equipped to solve my problem?

Having analyzed real customer feedback from the 2016 Professionalism Matters “What Customers Really Want Survey” (see full report here), I’ve identified 5 TRAGIC Customer Service Mistakes too many companies are making!

Most customer service efforts are focused on “fixing” the problem instead of eliminating it. What’s the difference? Eliminating the problem is about identifying the root cause to ensure that problem never occurs again while “fixing” it is about addressing that specific customer’s complaint and moving on to the next call.  When I ordered a tie for Father’s Day with my infant son’s picture on it and realized that the company put the wrong baby’s picture on my tie, I immediately called customer service.  Although the CSR (in a very matter of fact tone), immediately offered to refund my money, I was more disconcerted to see that she had ZERO interest in figuring out why this happened and what steps she should take to ensure this problem didn’t happen to anyone else.  In contrast, I read that in an effort to truly find/fix root cause problems one company had decided to eliminate traditional “customer service” and instead have their developers/engineers take all customer service calls.  This approach not only ensures customers can talk directly to the person who can fix the root cause problem, but it also encourages a broader set of employees have direct customer interaction.

Most companies have a “customer dissatisfaction infrastructure” where CSRs are low skilled, poorly compensated, or not highly valued.

Within a company organizational structure, Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) oftentimes have the MOST regular, direct customer interaction – in many ways they are the face of the company and have a HUGE impact on not just customer service levels but ultimate customer loyalty as well.  Customers may try a product or service based on the specifications of the specific product/service, but they often stay with/leave a company based on the service they receive over time.  Given the fact that CSRs have SO much influence on customer impressions, you’d think that they would be highly regarded, trained, and compensated….WRONG!!!  It’s exactly the opposite in too many cases. CSRs are typically among the lowest paid staff with a 2015 median annual salary (according to Bureau of Labor Statistics) of just $31,720. They’re often entry level positions requiring little education/training.  The low pay most likely negatively impacts employee morale, turnover, candidate quality and other factors that can have a dramatic downstream impact on customer service levels.  Companies must not just make changes in how they recruit, train, and reward CSR staff but also shift the corporate culture to acknowledge the importance of the CSR role.

Increased automation and outsourcing has resulted in decreased customer satisfaction.  

Customers HATE IVRs, phone trees, and phone automation systems but for some reason, companies seem to insist on using them. To make matters worse, customers are insulted by being asked to input account information (sometimes multiple times) only to have to repeat it again once the agent takes the call.  It just makes the “automated” system seem useless in addition to being frustrating.  Even if it’s not practical to ditch IVRs completely (particularly for large call centers), companies should seriously consider streamlining them to require a response to no more than one automated question.  Another option could be providing email or IM customer service as an option for customers who prefer that to minimize the volume of live calls (and thereby minimize the need for automated support).

Outsourcing call centers overseas may save money short term but it also creates significant customer frustration and decreases customer loyalty.  82% of survey respondents indicated that they have difficulty understanding their service representative due to dialect.  While there are likely cost savings associated with outsourcing call centers, it’s questionable whether the savings outweigh the long term cost associated with reduced customer satisfaction/customer loyalty.  Also, the purported “cost savings” may not actually be as significant as they appear if customers are having to make multiple calls (instead of one) in order to reach a representative with whom they can effectively communicate.

CSR scripts encourage a robotic, insincere experience for customers.

Many respondents commented on the “lack of empathy” they feel from CSRs during customer service interactions.  Having extensive “If they say this, you say that” scripts are the perfect recipe for robotic, sterile interactions.  Even the most well intentioned CSR is likely discouraged from actual unique, personalized connection with the customer when a word for word script is stuffed in their face and they’re told to follow it….or else! Furthermore, scripts seem to discourage active listening possibly because the agents may be anticipating what the customer is going to say (based on the options in their script) instead of actually listening to their specific scenario.  Indeed, when asked how often they felt CSRs truly heard/understood their concern/issue during customer service calls, only 35% responded “Often” or “Always” (view full survey results here).  Anecdotally, they frequently cited this refusal to listen as a key point of frustration.

Companies should definitely ditch the scripts and instead encourage CSRs to actively listen and pursue true, authentic customer interaction.  More specifically, CSRs should strive to achieve true “customer connection” within the first two minutes of the call.  This connection typically includes a sincere apology if the company dropped the ball in any way, reiteration of the customer’s issue (to ensure they know they were heard) and/or a statement of empathy for any inconvenience.

Companies are increasingly removing or minimizing live agent customer service options even though customers clearly prefer addressing customer service issues by phone.

In today’s era of social media, chat/IM, and email, companies seem to be trending away from providing live customer service representatives.  Interestingly enough, our survey revealed that respondents overwhelmingly (49%) preferred addressing customer service issues by phone.  Text/IM came in a distant second at only 19%. Respondents were also frustrated by the increasing prevalence of companies “hiding” their phone contact information deep within the website – ostensibly to make it so difficult to find that customers will give up and opt for other less costly customer service options like email, chat, or social media.  In short, customers feel that trying to reach customer service should not feel like an episode of CSI!

As advancing technology reduces barriers to entry and industries become more and more competitive, companies must do more to keep the customers they have and gain new ones.  I for one have been underwhelmed by most companies’ attempts at customer service and feel a rebranding is in order.  What about “Customer Enthusiasm”?  In today’s social media obsessed world where a really bad review from the wrong dissatisfied customer on the right social media site can make a marked difference in your bottom line, shouldn’t the new goal be “customer enthusiasm” – how do we excite customers and make them not just stay with us but rave about us publicly?  Indeed, it seems that the proverbial “cheese has been moved” in the customer service arena and what “worked” yesterday may not be sufficient tomorrow.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant.  She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA.  She can be reached at  Connect with her on Linked In @ and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.