With this post I will begin a four-part series that examines the importance and relevance of good customer service. For each post I will cover a specific customer service theme and as the title suggests I will offer real world examples good, bad, and ugly. For my first post I’ve chosen a theme that I believe is at the heart of what customer service means – helping. In this day and age of easy access to online forums, help articles, how-to videos, etc. it is easy to suggest that customer service doesn’t quite hold the importance it once did but that notion is easily dispelled the second you get a flat, or your AC goes out on a blazing August day, or you’ve made an honest mistake when paying a bill. In times of crisis we are sometimes forced to rely on good old-fashioned customer service be it via phone, in store, or online and nothing is worse than when you are at your most vulnerable and need help you get hit with fees and fees for fees! We’ve all experienced that sinking feeling when you ask for help and the response is “Sure, that’ll be $195 including service fees”. It begs the question, should customer service cost? The short answer is technically yes, because customer service, like parts and labor, costs companies and must be accounted for somewhere but we the consumers just don’t like to pay for it when we need it most. I’m no different; it’s like pouring salt on an open wound when I have to pay additional fees for an unexpected expense. Below I will go into a few personal examples I think illustrate how to properly service a customer and keep a customer because let’s face it bad customer service equates to lost customers.
I’m an optimist so as such I’m choosing to start with an example of customer service done right. This past year my town and has seen more than its share of severe weather and my neighborhood has been hit particularly hard. Last summer a massive hail storm hit that required basically every home to get a new roof. This is not a quick process and would continue on for at least ten months. Just when it seemed to be tapering off another equally massive hail storm hit and the process started over fresh. A particularly frustrating side effect has been the insane number of nails and screws I’ve picked up in my tires. My tires were under warranty from such acts but unfortunately the Sears that I had purchased them at had shuttered its doors and the next closest Sears Tire Center is 25 miles away. I remembered once limping into a Discount Tire store while vacationing in Colorado and had a pleasant experience so I thought I’d give the location that was a couple of miles from my house a shot. I would not be disappointed. I arrived with a large screw protruding very close to the fretful “no-patch-zone” and was welcomed at my car by a technician with a clipboard. After taking my mileage and checking tread depths all around he took me inside where he then pulled my exact tire from stock and comforted me by showing me that the screw had likely not penetrated the no-patch-zone. Within thirty minutes the same technician would be standing in front of me with my keys in an extended hand. “You’re free to go,” would be his greeting. Confused I asked, “What’s wrong, what do you mean free to go?” He grinned and said that there was no charge for patches. I’m sure I gave him the stink-eye when I asked, “What’s the catch?” He said that was their policy and to have a nice day. More stunned than relieved I left only to return two weeks later for a nail this time in another tire. I was met with nearly the exact same result except this time they found another screw I hadn’t seen and patched both again for free. Over the course of the last year I have returned at total of 9 times, no exaggeration, all for nails or screws between my two vehicles! On eight of those occasions they removed them and patched them when necessary and never once charged me. Only one time did my wait ever exceed an hour and every time I was treated like any other paying customer. On only one occasion did I actually break the dreaded no-patch-zone. Frustrated as I was especially considering the tire was still at 70% tread life I distinctly recall saying how glad I actually was to finally give them some money. Of course I couldn’t resist haggling them down $25 if I bought a matching pair to which they happily agreed. There’s nothing ever fun about sitting in any waiting room much less at a tire shop but I can honestly say when I needed help Discount Tire did just that and though they could have stuck me with a patch fee or try to swindle me into an unnecessary new set of tires since I never bought any from them like most other tire shops might have they instead just helped me. The fact that they did it for FREE no doubt clinched my loyalty and trust for a long time coming. Gaining one’s loyalty and trust is precisely the holy grail of getting consumers hooked on a product or brand and Discount Tire has done just that with me and now I’m telling everyone about it!
In stark contrast to this example is the flood of Fees that has invaded our consumer world. The most penalizing ones seem to come at the lowest points. The most glaring example is bank fees, specifically overdraft fees. Most banks will hit you with an overdraft fee on each transaction over your balance. Couldn’t the point have been served just as well for a single overdraft fee for each day? Seems horribly harsh considering a simple oversight could tip someone’s balance in the negative for as much as $4 or $5 over the course of say 5 transactions in a given day but depending on what order they come in this could result in three transactions that were in the red. Translation $106 in the negative for going over $4! Nothing like hitting you when you’re down right? How about this embarrassing example:
A couple of months ago I paid my cable payment online but made an error when typing in my checking account number. The payment of course did not clear. They sent a letter but it did not come in their usual branded envelope so I set it aside to open later in my pile of junk mail. I then erroneously missed the due date for the next month’s payment by two days. So one night at precisely 11 PM our cable went off and displayed a troubling message on the tube. I went to check my account online only to discover I had no internet (both phone and internet was also thru my cable co. so phone was out too). Perplexed I called the cable co. with my cell phone to discover the issue but most vexing of all were the fees that had accumulated! $25 check return fee, $50 dollar deposit each for phone, cable, and internet, and $20 reconnect fee for a grand total of $195! All because I made a very human error when entering my bank account number; ironically the cheapest fee was the reconnect fee! Of course I got on the line with the collections department and made my passionate plea for mercy and to consider my flawless record as a paying customer for the last twelve years! I was successful in getting most of the fees removed but not the nasty taste from my mouth. Mistakes happen folks and a little mercy can go a long ways towards one of the key ingredients that I mentioned make up good customer service – Loyalty.
So if you’re thinking this last example was partially my own making and could’ve been avoided entirely well you are likely right. I can man up to my mistakes and pay for them but $195 for a documented mistype was just plain excessive particularly to a customer without a blemish on his long-standing record. If you still don’t agree maybe this final story will strike a chord. Imagine it’s 102 °F outside and you’re sitting at home recovering from a serious surgery and your AC goes on the fritz. This just happened to my sister-in-law. Thankfully she has an extended home warranty for occasions precisely like this right? So very wrong! Several phone calls and 24 hours later a repairman finally shows up to confirm what was obvious due to the racket coming from the unit outside, a bad compressor. Another call to the third-party home warranty company which I will, with great disdain, name here (American Home Shield) and they tell her they can’t do anything until the repairman puts in his report. Another 30 hours would pass before they say they received the report. They would claim that the compressor would take 3-6 weeks to get or she could just get a whole new unit for thousands of dollars. They of course would not pay for a new unit but only for the repair of the existing unit. Another day of limbo and phone calls pleading for a second opinion (at my behest) would ensue until finally I’m livid and decide to take matters into my own hands.
I visited the AC manufacturer’s website and easily located their local dealer. One phone call to the local dealer and I would reach a very nice lady. I would explain the situation and ask her to check on availability of the compressor. She would return my call a couple of hours later with fantastic news; not only was the compressor available and could be installed by them the next day but it was in fact still under the original manufacturer’s warranty to boot! This had to be music to the home warranty company’s ears right? Wrong. The dealer was not in their preferred network and now suddenly the original repairman’s report magically read that a power surge had taken out the compressor, the condenser, the evaporator, and the fan motor while somehow never tripping a single circuit breaker! Incredulous! Suspect too no doubt. It’s become quite clear that American Home Shield has no interest in paying on any claims (this is actually her third home related claim with them and all others were not paid due to technicalities like this). At time of writing this post this story still plays itself out but what is clear is the fantastic help she’s getting out of the service company I found (go me). In fact the same day she called they came out within a couple of hours and even took it upon themselves to bring out a loaner window AC unit to keep her cool until they can work something out. Tomorrow they will be installing the infamous compressor only (since there was no surge thus no damage to any other components) at 1/10 the cost she thought she would face with albeit likely out of her own pocket. My sister-in-law commented to me how best of all she felt like the 2nd service company (I’ll gladly name them – Suntech) gave her the impression that they genuinely cared about her well-being. Oh and remember the request for the 2nd opinion she put in, they just called to schedule a visit after the repair will already be done and more than two days after she requested the 2nd opinion. Most ironic of all is that the first repair company is literally called Second Opinion Heating and Air Conditioning!
Though I suspect but can’t prove collusion with the repair company this all falls on the shoulders of her home warranty company and I suspect an internal policy to do everything possible to deny service to the customer. My poor sister-in-law’s saga is in its 5th day with them and she’s no closer to help or resolution than the first day she called them. Criminal! I made exactly one phone call and in about four hours she had temporary relief from the heat (thank you Suntech) and in little more than 24 hours after that one call she will have her AC fully restored.
Customer service is an extension of the goods and services most businesses are expected by their consumers to provide. Businesses and manufacturers who wish to make good customer service a high priority need to remember that at its core it means helping your customers. Consumers expect it and they expect it most when they need it most. Again I must reiterate if you want to build brand or product loyalty and trust when a customer comes asking for help, HELP THEM. Going above the call of duty and asking no more of them will clinch that loyalty and trust which will translate into future loyalty dollars. One more thing, I don’t think anyone can deny the power of word-of-mouth. By following this simple advice the next time somebody needs tire repair or AC repair customers like me will gladly volunteer, “I know a guy” or “place” and that “guy” or “place” could be you or your company.