The Lost Art of Customer Service

One of the best customer service people I have met is my former administrative assistant, Brenda. She was so good, I often had her reach out to clients or colleagues on my behalf. One of my female colleagues told the story of how Brenda had reached out to her while she was on a plane trip down from New York to see if she needed any changes to a report the next morning. This was at 10 pm. Changes were needed and Brenda came in early the next morning and made the changes for this colleague in advance of the Board meeting for which the report was intended. The traveling colleague was effusive with praise, but this was par for the course for Brenda.

I mention Brenda as excellent customer service is becoming harder to come by. It is a lost art. Just today, I had to close out a mutual fund account with a bank because they could not stay out of their own way. What should have been an easy transaction for a custodial account that would have kept business for the bank left me with two choices – close the account or set up another account for my son. Well, I am sorry it was just easier close the account and the bank lost future business as a result. This is not the first time I have had to navigate through their processes to accommodate something. Last year, I wrote how I had to go down to the branch to pay them a fee to have the bank wire transfer money to their own mortgage company. Mind you, I could have done this transaction online in about 45 seconds, but was told I should not pay off the balance in that manner, as it would mess them up.

Customers have to be the navigators of their customer service. This is especially true when calling customer service representatives (CSRs), who tend to handle more routine problems. When you have a problem that takes the CSRs off script, then you need to help them through the process. Have your information handy, know your questions and what you want to accomplish, but most of all be patient and extremely diplomatic. Even in the examples above, I was patient and kind, but persistent. It is OK to tell them this is puzzling or troubling, but if you become a jerk about it, your chance for a successful interaction declines. And, it is more than OK to ask for a supervisor, but if you were a jerk to the first person, you are flagged to the supervisor as a belligerent caller. So, be pleasant, but be persistent. You do catch more flies with honey.

One of the dilemmas in dealing with CSRs is their processes get in the way on unusual issues. For example, in dealing with a need to change a prescription drug from a generic substitution drug (which made my son break out in a rash) to a “dispense as written” brand name drug prescription took some effort. The drug company agreed to the substitution after his doctor sent in a new prescription form, but then I got a denial letter days after my call and had to call again. The CSR said the denial letter was automatically sent and I would be getting another letter soon with the approval of the change. “Why could you not stop the first letter from going out?” I asked. “Sir, we cannot do that,” she said. “But, that is confusing,” I responded. “I know,” she replied.

The worst calls to make are the dreaded technology support calls. I know they are at a minimum a two-hour call, so the patience of Job is required. The calls could be called Saturday killers as it is not unheard of for them to last longer than the two hours. Nothing is easy when something on your computer messes up or a virus gets through. I appreciate what they do as they try to figure out what in the heck happened, but it does exhaust your patience and diplomacy skills.

Most people vote with their feet and don’t do business with companies after very poor customer service experiences. Often, our hands are tied and we must use these providers, such as the prescription drug company that my employer uses. Changing banks is also difficult and they know it. I have so many things tied in with this bank, a change would take a major effort. Plus, the other problem is where would I go? Most banks tend to get in their own way, so a change would not assure better service. So, I accept the historical known bank relationship to one where I would have to learn how to navigate a new system.

The only answer is we need more Brenda’s in the world. If we had more, customer service would improve and maybe we could spend less time on the phone or online. Other than that, I wish for each of you a major dose of patience and diplomacy.



25 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Customer Service

  1. This reminds me of a post I wrote a long time ago called Grumpy Secretaries. I’ve worked front desk and clerical jobs, so I know how hard it can be, but some of them could really stand to smile or look up at the customer every once in a while!

  2. Customer service is a lost art. I’ve been on both sides of the issue. The funniest tech support call I actually received was when a client called very upset that the screen had gone dark as they were working on the program. Turns out there was a power outage at the time.

    One time I was on one of those extended holds where I had to have been number 900 in line to be helped. The hold music was a song and the chorus was, “I hear you waiting for me. I hear you calling me.”

  3. The Irony is that if the rest of the company is doing their job, customer service should take care of itself. Are your employees empowered to address customer concerns? CSR’s are rarely invested in the satisfaction of clients, except in the ratings of their superiors. How many minutes are on the phone, did the client press 5 after the call…
    I think that given the availability of products, service becomes the deciding factor.

    • Great points. Great customer service starts with having a good, reliable product offering, that is easily correctable when something fails. This will give CSRs an easier task to fix something. I would hate to be a CSR for a company with a crappy product.

  4. Great post! Not only do we need more Brendas in the world, we need more customers like you. If people were more patient and understanding and really believed that they catch more flies with honey, CSRs might be more willing to go the extra mile.

    Most of my horror stories involve my cable/internet/telephone company. What a chore it would be to switch all those services. They’ve got me right where they want me!

  5. I used to work for a call center handling calls from four different companies. I’ve never been called so many names in all my life! Just yesterday I switched cell phone companies due to crappy customer service. I’m always relieved to get a human being on the phone, especially a native English speaker.

  6. ha! life in latin america will test the patience of Job most every day! brenda would be upgraded to goddess status! one learns to take a book to offset time spent while waiting in long lines or while clerks fill out redundant paperwork!

  7. The other thing is for the CSR’s/Admin Assistants etc to maintain their cool as well as the customer. I work for a very busy Human Services Agency. The switchboard lights up like a christmas tree especially on Friday from noontime on. If I’m on the switchboard I take it one call at a time. Good afternoon ___________(my agency name) please hold…. etc. I try to keep a smile on my face because it shows in my voice. We had all hell break loose one afternoon with an emergency, and I was commended by several of the supervisors for keeping everything together and focused – with a smile. “unflappable’ was used. Made my day to be recognized for just being courteous. You are absolutely correct that customer service and courtesy are becoming lost arts. Rudness is becoming the usual standard, unfortunately. Thanks for sharing this. D.

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