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A Comparative Study in Customer Service

This month, I experienced the misfortune of having two laptop computers break down on me within a single week. One laptop was less than eight months old; the other had failed five times in less than two years. As you can imagine, I was extremely displeased. It’s always painful to see a loved one die.

I’m not hear to bitch about flaky computers, though. (Believe me, I’ve done plenty of that!) No, I’m here to talk about the very different experiences that I had with the customer service representatives that handled each case. These laptops came from different manufacturers, and the quality of service that I received seemed to reflect very different customer service policies on the parts of these companies. In a moment, you’ll see what I mean.

Case Study #1: What were they thinking?

So I called up one of the manufacturers to explain that my laptop refused to power up. I also pointed out that this very same computer had failed four times before—each time, manifesting the same problem.

Without preamble, the technical support rep said, “Tell me your e-mail address.”

I was puzzled by this question and taken aback by his bluntness. I asked, “Excuse me, but why do you need this information? That’s rather private.”

“I’m going to send you a troubleshooting guide,” he said.

“Wait a minute,” I interjected. “My computer is down, and you plan to fix this by sending me something via e-mail? Did it occur to you that I might not have any e-mail access? Besides, I know what the problem is, since it’s happened repeatedly in the past.”

Right off the bat, this fellow committed three clear mistakes. First, he failed to show proper respect in dealing with the customer. A properly trained rep would have asked for one’s e-mail address in more deferential terms. “Do you mind if I ask for your e-mail address?” would have been vastly more polite.

Second, he failed to immediately let the customer know why he was asking for an e-mail address. People are naturally reluctant to share such details, as a matter of privacy (and as a safeguard against spam!). That’s why it’s very important to immediately let the customer know why you’re asking for this information. “Do you mind if I ask for your e-mail address? I’d like to send you a troubleshooting guide,” would have been a perfect way to ask.

Most importantly though, this rep clearly wasn’t paying close attention to the customer’s problem. It should have occurred to the rep that the customer might not have e-mail access—after all, his computer was down! Once again, this problem could have been avoided by asking a simple question, namely, “Do you still have some means of e-mail access?”

I suspect that these problems occurred because the customer service rep had been minimally trained and was following a fixed script. I say that because my subsequent questions seemed to catch him off guard, and so he responded with the same (rather non-sensical) answer.

“Can you put me in touch with a manager?” I asked. Instead of answering, he replied, “Well, if you send your laptop to us, we will fix it for a fee.”

This scenario played itself over and over again. “This computer has failed me far too many times, and is obviously unreliable. Can you tell me which phone number I should call to provide customer feedback?” I said. His reply: “If you send it to us, we will fix it for a fee.” (I rolled my eyes skyward.)

“That’s not what I’m asking,” I said with deliberate tones. “Can you tell me how I can contact your company to provide feedback on this product?” “If you send it to us, we will fix it for…” By then I had lost it. “THAT’S NOT WHAT I’M ASKING!!!!” I yelled back in frustration.

Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. Indeed, I had similar experiences with this company’s technical support reps before. This leads me to believe that the problem lies in part with the corporate culture of that company.

Now, some would point out that technical support calls are often outsourced to external call centers—agencies that are not directly under the computer manufacturer’s control. That is a valid point; however, I think it’s safe to say that the manufacturer should have some input into the call center’s training and practices—after all, these people are representing them to the public at large. At the very least, they should be selecting a call center that does coach its representatives on how to deal politely and intelligently with Joe Q. Computeruser. Anything less would be foolish.

Case Study #2: Not great, but undeniably better

My experience with the second company wasn’t stellar; in fact, it was downright frustrating. Nevertheless, the technical support reps who handled my case exhibited a great deal of class, and they were clearly sensitive to my frustrations. Here’s what I mean.

The power adapter on my laptop had failed and its battery power was starting to run low. My computer was still under warranty, so the technical support rep assured me that they would ship me a new adapter soon.

I took that opportunity to express concern about the fact that this was the second time my laptop had failed in just eight months. (Its hard drive crashed just two months earlier.) Obviously, there was nothing that this rep could do about that, but I could sense the sympathy in his voice. At the end of my call, he asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you? I’d really like to help.”

Now that was a class act.

Sadly, things did turn for the worse. I was assured that the power adapter would be shipped on Friday, so when that day came around, I called to ask for a tracking number. After some confusion on their end, I got the following response from another rep:

Rep: “I’m sorry sir, but the part isn’t in stock.”

Me: “It’s not? Then why I was promised that it would ship today?”

Rep: “I’m sorry, sir. Our ordering system doesn’t tell us if our warehouse has parts in stock.”

Me: “It doesn’t? Almost all the vendors that I deal with have that capability.”

Rep: “Yes, and it would be really nice if our system did that too, but right now, it doesn’t. I’m sorry.”

Me: “Well, why was I promised that the part would be shipped today? Wouldn’t it have been better to tell me that you still need to verify if the part is in stock?”

Rep: “Yes, that would have been better, sir.” I could feel the regret in his voice.

Me: “And if it turns out that a part isn’t in stock, shouldn’t you tell the customer? As things stand, I might have to spend thousands of dollars on a new laptop tomorrow morning. I wasn’t notified of this problem when it occurred, and now it’s too late to make alternate arrangements.”

Rep: “I feel very bad about that, sir. I really do.” And so forth, and so on.

We discussed the matter further, but suffice to say that this fellow didn’t try to make excuses. He recognized the problem, and acknowledged that their system had failed. Like the other rep that I spoke to earlier, he was consummately respectful, and made his desire to help very clear.

So this is a situation where the technical support reps spoke to the customer respectfully, didn’t stick to some cookie-cutter script, and knew enough to express empathy in a crisis. Those attitudes can go a long way toward defusing a volatile situation. Despite my frustration at the company’s screw-up, I couldn’t help but appreciate their efforts.

(Sadly, the story did not end there. I spoke to someone from their customer service department a few days later, with the intent of providing constructive feedback. Unfortunately, while the aforementioned technical support reps had been empathetic and responsive, this customer service rep answered my every comment with “That’s not our policy!” or words to that effect. That’s a whole ‘nuther case study though, of which I’ll write about soon.)

In summary, these case studies show how the proper training of call center staff can make a huge difference in customer relations. A cookie-cutter, heavily scripted approach to troubleshooting can be disastrous—especially when the service reps are not trained in basic relations etiquette and customer empathy. In contrast, some basic people skills can go a long way toward defusing an ugly situation.

About the Author

V. Berba Velasco Jr., Ph.D. is a senior elec/software engr at CTL (Europe, China). He regards engineering as a holistic discipline, and frequently says that there’s a huge interpersonal aspect to engineering which is seldom taught in schools. This article provides an example of what he means.

V. Berba Velasco Jr., Ph.D.