Roy Chitwood Article    

Poor customer service is making headlines these days.

We have all read about the shock waves from the recent Sprint/Nextel "firing" of their customers who complained too much via a now infamous severance letter. Recent surveys have highlighted the worst customer service offenders, and the public outcry over the Chicago landmark Marshall Field's conversion to Macy's has been well publicized. A lot of attention is being paid to the fact that customer satisfaction seems to have fallen to the bottom of the list of priorities for many companies today.

Are those companies paying attention to all the press? In a marketplace as competitive as ours, it's a wonder so many companies choose to treat their customer like the enemy. Can dropping of a few hundred "high maintenance" customers compensate for an ineffective customer service procedure? Is it the customers who are in need of improvement -- or is it the companies? In a recent statement, a well known CEO of a Fortune 500 company said his job would be easy if it weren't for having to deal with customers.

What if every business "fired" customers they didn't want to deal with? Imagine if your mechanic dropped you because your car had too many problems. What if your local grocery store started locking the door when they saw you coming because you kept asking for items they didn't have or had to special order? It sounds absurd but this is, in essence, the approach that companies like Sprint/Nextel have taken. More and more, businesses are simply choosing not to put the time, money and effort into improving what isn't working. They want a quick fix and they want the difficult people and their problems to go away.

Unfortunately, when the customers go away, so do the profits. No company can expect to be profitable when customers have been treated as expendable and bad press is all the press they seem to be getting. No matter how much money is spent trying to help needy customers, it's insignificant compared to lost future business because of a poor customer service procedure. This is especially true for publicly held companies. While these firms have an important financial responsibility to their stockholders, they cannot escape the fact that without a strong customer base, their stock is not going to be worth much.

Without effective sales, marketing and customer-service procedures in place, new customers can't be cultivated and the existing ones will be alienated. When we see a breakdown of customer service effectiveness within a company, it's usually because they are committing one or several of what I call the "seven deadly sins of customer service." They are:

1. It is not company policy. The truth is, the customer doesn't care if it is company policy. The customer has a problem and it needs to be taken care of.

2. That is not my department. Again, the customer doesn't care if it's your department. When you receive a complaint, you need to own it. The customer wants the problem solved and for someone to take responsibility. Following through is the only way to ensure the customer's complete satisfaction.

3. Not listening to understand. Many times the customer feels the service rep is not listening. Even though the rep may be hearing the customer's words, he or she is failing to comprehend the customer's feelings. How the customer feels is far more important than the facts.

4. There's nothing I can do. There is always something that can be done, even if it's only to effectively communicate to the customer that there really is nothing you can do. When that is communicated properly, however, the customer will know that someone cares and that person tried to offer solutions.

5. That is not correct. The No. 1 rule in customer service is that the customer is always right. If you think the customer is wrong, refer again to the No. 1 rule.

6. Tell me again. Customers resent having to explain their problems several times, to several people, in a long, drawn-out effort to get satisfaction. Many times the frustration caused by this becomes more of a problem than the original problem itself.

7. Prove it. When you tell the customer to prove it, what you're saying is, "We don't trust you and we assume you're either incompetent or lying" and yet companies ask customers to trust them to take care of the problem. If the customer has to be trustworthy and competent, so does the company.

    Take the recent outcry in Chicago over the changeover of historic Marshall Field's to Macy's. Customers asked, among other things, for the name of the store to remain the same, to continue to carry some of the same brands and to, above all, retain the level of customer service which has placed Marshall Field's at No. 2 in customer service among department stores nationally. Macy's parent company's response? An accommodation that included keeping the Marshall Field's signature mints and bringing in a few celebrities for the Macy's grand opening.

    Not surprisingly, according to The Wall Street Journal, polls of Midwest shoppers indicate that, based on the name change alone, nearly 20 percent of the existing Marshall Field's customers don't plan to shop at the new store. If they can't trust that their requests will be met or that the company will be honest with them, why would customers be motivated to shop there?

    Companies who continue to make the top 10 "worst" customer-service lists and who alienate customers have a limited shelf life. Just like the top 10 worst list, there is also a top 10 "best" customer-service list. Those companies are eager to help and serve customers their competitors have relinquished, because they understand that a happy customer is a repeat customer. They also know that word-of-mouth produces better advertising than any ad campaign ever could - and it's far cheaper than trying to resurrect a positive public image once the damage has been done.    

    Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.