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 ServiceReal 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.