Consumers Speak: Good Customer Service From Local Boys

John Strong (really!) writes in with a story of the all-too-rare case of good customer service:

I know this is probably too long and not interesting enough but I don’t have an editor and I just felt like I had to tell someone. As a former AT&T customer, after getting screwed by Cingular one two many times and after dropping my phone (mpx200) into the toilet (an accident, don’t ask but yes it was a good time but how can you not have fun on a karaoke drunk bus). I did some research and decided on Verizon and the Motorola E815. It’s fairly hackable (to support OBEX and DUN) with good reception and free (actually -$25 from Amazon) with only a 1 year contract. I ordered the phone and being a good Amazon Prime consumer, I used the next day option because I can’t stand not being connected. Got the phone the next day and tried to activate it but no luck. Called up customer service and said the issue was probably my account wasn’t activated yet and try again later and if it still wasn’t working in the morning, call back. The CSR was nothing exceptional but above average for a cell phone company. Tried a few hours later and bingo, I’m connected and my chills begin to subside. The next morning I call to port my old number and got cheery, friendly and prompt (??) service. They said it would be a few hours but it should be done before lunch. Well, it’s after quitting time and no port yet. I call back and get the best service I’ve ever EVAH had. My call got routed to a local call center here in Portland, OR. I wish I could remember the CSR’s name but she was helpful, friendly, kept me on the phone the whole time, didn’t transfer me anywhere when she wasn’t also on the phone and didn’t let me off the phone until my old number was on my new phone. It took about 20 minutes total but it was the best 20 minutes I’ve had with any cell phone company which includes many wasted hours with Sprint, AT&T and Cingular. On some of the holds, we discussed her crocheting, our love of the local light rail system (called MAX here), the really cheap unlimited service her hearing impaired niece receives, the malls we like, etc. Not sure if it was the local connection that helped but I’m sure it didn’t hurt. Maybe there should be more small local call centers in metropolitan areas. It’s nice to talk a neighbor.

Customer service is an unenviable job. Not only is it dull but it makes you the company contact only when something has gone wrong, causing the representative to deal with irate or frustrated customers all day long. Which makes good customer services all the remarkable: not only has some representative managed to exceed beyond the deplorable level of his or her peers to actually help a customer (as opposed to merely putting them off or driving the customer off in frustration), but still managed to keep upbeat while bearing the brunt of a customer’s ire all day.

Here’s a question for our readers: what do you consider to be the biggest contributing factor in good customer service? Locality? A good company in general? Blind luck? If I were to answer the question, I’d say it actually has more to do with the attitude and insistence of the customer. I find I rarely get bad customer service because I know how to deal with customer service representatives: I am upbeat and sympathetic with what they have to go through, and I make extreme effort to follow even their silliest read-from-the-binder instructions, yet at the end of the day, I am politely unyielding in what it is that I expect from them. Most of the people I know who get bad customer service make the call angry and blow up at the soonest sign of friction; it sometimes seems to me a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. None of that excuses bad customer service — after all, their job is to deal with irate, pissed-off customers — but I tend to find the wheels can be greased pretty easily in the speedy resolution of a problem with just a little patience and goodwill. What do you guys think?

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  1. junyo says:

    Here’s a question for our readers: what do you consider to be the biggest contributing factor in good customer service?

    I used to work phone support, which isn’t pure customer service but the same concept, and honestly the biggest factor was management attitude. You’re going to get pretty much the same quality of work regardless, so honestly if being “politely unyielding” makes you feel better, go for it, but there’s what I can do and what I can’t. The only real differences are whether I smile when I’m talking to you and how much impromptu quality control I’m willing to exercise over the people that I’m going to transfer you to.

    When we had management that had a “determine root cause, do it quickly but actually solve the customer’s problem” attitude we provided a very high level of customer service. You might wait a little longer on hold, but if I felt it needed it (if you had already called once or twice w/o a resolution) I had the authority to ride a call through all the different layers needed to make sure the current customer was working before I hung up. Riding a call is a bigger deal than most people realize, because the majority of “I had to call 5 times” IMHO come from the blind transfer, with the customer trying to explain something they don’t quite understand to someone that doesn’t really care. When you can have a guide/translator/facilitator things go a lot smoother. Why doesn’t this happen all the time? Well, when we had a shift in philosophy to “get them off your phone, all we care about is call volume” the average level of customer service plunged. Because there’s simply no incentive to stay with you to insure resolution; as much as I might want to help, I get punished for giving you time and rewarded for dumping you out of my queue as quickly as possible. They cut staff to the bone and jacked up the call stats; i.e. expected average talk time of under a minute, which also determined your expected daily case load. Under that philosophy this rep would have either been facing explaining why her average talk time was so high and available time and ticket volume so low for the day, or had to be short with people the rest of the day to compensate. Really good CSRs will sometimes put you on hold, not for the transfer or because they’re waiting for anything, but so that they can jump back into the call queue and retrieve a couple of quick calls that help make up for the extra time they need to spend on your case. But good individual effort only goes so far; it makes for a bright spot here or there. To be the norm, the company has to put a basic emphasis on service, view it as a profit opportunity and a selling point of their product, rather than simply as a cost to be borne.

  2. junyo says:

    Sorry about writing a book…

  3. etinterrapax says:

    I worked in phone customer service for an HMO about ten years ago, and my best calls were from people who were polite, nonaccusatory, who kept good records and knew what they wanted (and what they wanted was something reasonable to want), and who had some understanding of the system–both the customer service system and the health insurance system. I could, for instance, get a claim reprocessed relatively easily (and when I left, they were in the process of integrating customer service with some kinds of claim processing, so if I had stayed in that job, I could have done it right then for them). I could tell them what was holding up a claim and what they needed to do, if it was something that they needed to do, to get it moving. I could contact a doctor’s office to tell them not to bill a patient who was covered by us. I spent a lot of time on the phone with billing services, hospital billing departments, like that, trying to get claims untangled. I was glad when I could help people.

    What I couldn’t do: change company policy, change state law, change an insured’s employment status, change insurance options that an employer chose for a group plan, change our premiums, change our stock price, or swap people up the food chain, among other things. I really hated that soon after our call center opened, we lost the ability to transfer people to a supervisor or help desk. It made my job very difficult. Of course, no insured is going to believe that this is the case when you tell them. The company made us the bad guys and left us out to dry. Individually, this mattered to maybe one in fifty calls. But combine it with an employer, say, who makes changes to a group plan that affects 15,000 insured and neglects to tell them that they no longer have pharmacy coverage, and suddenly it makes a huge difference in everything.

    We got combat pay for that job. After a year, I traded out to claims processing for a pay cut, and I was glad to take it.

  4. Benko says:

    i think that it all comes down to the openmindedness of the consumer. because really, CSRs can usually only do so much. they cant change the rules. then its these assholes who become irate over simple things like words. forget what else was said, if they hear the words “you can’t” or “we can’t” they immediately start getting pissed off. i just think people need to expect less from companies. it’s one thing to seek getting something corrected or altered within reasonable bounds; but to assume that your extended warranty is a permit to change the protocols of the company your calling is just rediculous.
    but then there’s the bad CSRs. i think its absolutely essential to outsource your customer service calls to someplace in the western world to achieve any semblance of good CS.

  5. billhelm says:

    Locality is nice but not essential.

    A friendly person who seems like they actually want to help is really the only thing I need.

    I’ve worked in customer service call centers though, so I can understand the perils of first level CSR’s not being able to do anything above the basic stuff. So I’m probably more forgiving.

  6. bigkens says:

    Like everybody else posting, I was once a CSR for a short-lived internets venture. I probably wasn’t that good at it. What I think does make good customer service are two things: a) general competence and b) good listening skills. I don’t expect a CSR to know everything about anything, but I expect them to know how to find the answer. And listen instead of flipping through the manual to find the next talking point. For what it’s worth, I’ve been having issues with a “half.com by eBay” transaction gone wrong, but the customer service, so far, has been first rate. The CSR I talked to was prompt and followed up the conversation with a thorough e-mail.

  7. non-meat-stick says:

    CSRs do have a tough job, but most of them can be helpful. Some CSRs enjoy their work, they realize that they can make the most out of the resources they have available to help out customers. The educate them selves and ask for help when needed. Others want everything handed to them on a plate and refuse to go beyond anything that is not spoonfed to them. BS and politics can rub a CSR the wrong way as well.

    Be nice to these people. Act like you need their help. Chances are the rep you talk to likes it when they can help out and solve a customers problem. When you talk to them, know what you are having a problem with. Saying things like “Your service is this…” or “You sent me this bill…” are not a good idea. That person simply answers the phone, they are not out to get you. Always be calm and never swear! Don’t ask questions they can’t answer, it’s not cute and it doesn’t make them want to help you.

    It’s a tough call. Some customers want a machine, some want a live person with feelings.