The phone call went viral and became a public-relations nightmare: A Comcast customer trying to cancel his service recorded a long telephone conversation in which a company telephone rep rudely and repeatedly tried to get him to change his mind.
The company quickly called it unacceptable and embarrassing, but the exchange had already become part of bad customer service lore.
Everyone can share a horror story about customer service and, we hope, some happy stories, too. So we asked readers to share some of their stories on Facebook, then selected some typical scenarios.
Then we asked a few experts in the field to give us their take on each scenario — what’s going right, what’s going horribly awry.
They are: Hank Brigman, speaker on customer management experience, Atlantic Beach-based author of “Touchpoint Power!”; Don Capener, dean of the Davis School of Business at Jacksonville University; Janice Donaldson, director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of North Florida; and Tory Strange, founder of the Surf Station surf shop in St. Augustine.
THE FIRST SCENARIO
It involves an unfortunate encounter with a department store employee. “Bought a microwave July 12. Came without the grease filter. When I called a lady named [deleted] was very rude and I still don’t have my filter. She was incredibly obnoxious during the purchase process. I am not going back.
The experts: Ouch.
“You know, we buy from people,” Brigman said. “And how a person treats us, we then transfer to the whole organization.”
But keep in mind: Customer service is a tough job. You can hear complaints and demands all day. Customers can be angry before they even reach you, and rude once they do. You’re not likely to be getting rich.
Perhaps this person on the phone was just having a really bad day.
That’s where a corporate culture — instilling the company’s values — come in. Supervision. too. “The question is: Who’s watching that person?” Donaldson said.
It’s not all about punishing bad employees, though, she noted: It’s also about praising and rewarding good work in an often-thankless field.
“If [employees] are happy being there, happy coming to work, they’ll be good with customers,” Strange said.
A reader reports some good news. “Zappos.com. You call and [gasp] an actual live person who speaks clear English answers the phone without the need to go through dozens of prompts. They are courteous, knowledgeable, friendly and really a pleasure to deal with.”
The experts: “They decided to invest in service as opposed to marketing,” Brigman said. “They wanted word of mouth to be their marketing, to just be amazing at service, and let other people tell other people.
That’s not easy, or cheap, though — or else everybody would be doing it.
And taking that path is a risk, said Capener, who still encourages that risk. “Unless your customers can differentiate you from the competition, it’s not going to provide you with any competitive advantage.”
Strange said it’s simply paying attention to what people want — and don’t want. “They don’t want to be stuck in a phone maze.” Which leads to …
“Comcast … A minimum of seven to 10 prompts will not get you to a live phone rep, it will only get you IN LINE … When you are finally connected, you are asked to repeat everything you just typed in seven to 10 times prior to being put into their awful queue …” The writer went on to highlight other problems distressingly familiar with anyone who’s gone through this process, then concluded: “It’s a horrible, vicious cycle that is nearly impossible to get out of.
The experts: It’s not just Comcast, they say — and in fact, a few readers, though outnumbered by those complaining, wrote in with some positive experiences with the company.
But any big company that feels it has a virtual monopoly (and there are many) can go the route of setting up a tangled computerized phone maze, rather than paying thousands of employees.
They see it as a practical bottom-line decision, said Donaldson, and they’re willing to risk alienating customers.
Strange said a large part of his business is Internet sales around the world. He has real people answer his phones and has an Internet live-chat feature on his website. That takes hiring employees, and he admits to an occasional doubt.
“Sometimes I think it costs us more to provide that service, and we’re not as profitable on the bottom line.” Still, his shop marks 30 years in business next month.
This news organization knows its record isn’t spotless, and several readers pointed that out. Including this one: “I’ve been waiting for a call back from the Florida Times-Union Customer Service Dept. for two weeks now after leaving my number with their automated system re: a charge of $18.50 to our account back in April. We’ve been their customer for 24 years.
Ah, but there’s a happy ending. Two-and-a-half hours later, the reader got back on Facebook to report: “I called again this afternoon and asked for a supervisor. The lady called me an hour later and we had discovered the charge within 10 minutes. She was kind, funny, & understanding!!!”
The experts: She shouldn’t have had to wait so long, that’s clear. But taking complaints seriously can often win back disgruntled customers. It can even make them more loyal and enthusiastic.
“It’s an often-forgotten marketing strategy,” Capener noted dryly.
Brigman, meanwhile, said complaints aren’t a pesky annoyance: “Complaints are an opportunity. Complaints are a gift. The complaints you don’t get, you don’t have a chance to rectify; that person’s out there angry, telling other people, perhaps posting a video to YouTube. The first thing you should when somebody complains is say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
“When my husband was in a near fatal motorcycle accident in 2012 I called DirecTV for help in lowering our bill since he would not be working for quite some time. Not only did they work out a new package, they also knocked off $100 for the next bill making it practically nothing. They did this out of kindness to my family. I will forever be grateful to them for their graciousness.”
The experts: “Wow. That’s great. That’s phenomenal,” Strange said. “That $100, as she tells her friends and all, that’s $100 well spent.”
Companies can’t do that all the time, the experts say: They need to make money, after all, not give it away. But empowering employees to make decisions like that can be good for customer, employee and company.
“They didn’t have to do this,” Donaldson said. “But that lady is a friend for life.”
FINAL EXPERT THOUGHTS
Brigman: “It comes down to the golden rule: Do unto others. If somebody called your house, would you want them to go through 17 prompts to get to you?”
Capener: “Today, people are a few clicks away from doing damage to you and your company by complaining on social media. It’s a very dangerous and slippery slope to be cavalier about your customer service.”
Donaldson: “It always comes down to, once you attract that customer, how are you going to retain that customer? It costs six times more to attract a new customer than to keep an existing customer.”
Strange: He remembers a breakfast place that insisted on giving him bacon in its breakfast special, even though he asked not to have it. “Then I went to another place, and whatever you wanted, the answer was yes. I’ve tried to mold my shop after that.”
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082