Customer relations processes mishandle customer relations

While trying to solve a recent problem with a retailer, I remembered that phone call from my father’s cardiologist. The aggrieved voice on the phone scolded me because Dad had missed that day’s appointment. Once she paused, I took a deep breath and gently explained that he failed to show up for the appointment because he had died from heart problems nearly three months earlier.

That same day, I received a letter from a consumer food products company. I had emailed their customer relations department with a suggestion about one of their products. After raving about how much I enjoyed the product, I noted one minor issue I hoped they would consider. Their letter blandly expressed their dismay that I was so unhappy with their product. Obviously, I received Standard Response A-2.

The cardiologist’s office had an elaborate computer system to track appointments and issue patient reminders, but it appears that nobody ever considered that when a patient dies, they might not need those reminders. The woman who managed patient care records apparently didn’t have any way to communicate that information with the woman who managed appointment reminders, despite the fact they literally sat at adjoining desks. Ah, but who would expect a cardiology practice to present an image of organization and competence?

The food company missed an opportunity to build upon my fondness for their product. Some bored customer relations employee skimmed over my message, assumed it was just another complaint, and pressed the button to generate A-2. Since it’s clear that the company doesn’t give a rat’s patoot what a loyal customer thinks, I’ve stopped telling people about their great product. I’ll continue to buy it, but my evangelizing days are done.

How companies handle the many daily interactions with their customers says a great deal about the attitudes of their management teams. Many regard the calls, emails, and letters as an annoying cost of doing business, so they establish systems to crank out generic responses.

People don’t want to deal with systems. They want to deal with people. And while those ten complaint letters your company received this week may all be tied to the same product or service, each customer has a unique relationship with your company, and each of those complaints presents you with a unique opportunity to either strengthen or further erode that relationship.

I wasn’t surprised by the call from the cardiologist. The doctors in the practice were highly skilled, but it was clear that they didn’t care what happened at the front desk, and the staff demonstrated that lack of concern by consistently delivering some of the worst customer service I’ve ever seen. The practice’s patients were primarily senior citizens with serious heart conditions. Put that image in your head, and then imagine the staff repeatedly yelling patient names when it was their turn to be seen and visibly expressing displeasure with the pace of those sickly patients as they shuffled to the exam rooms. The women who answered phone calls loudly argued with callers, and made loud, disparaging comments about them after they hung up.

I didn’t complain, because there was no point. Instead, I told everyone I know about the practice’s poor service. I also shared that information with the staff at Dad’s other doctors and the care facilities where he stayed. Who knows how many referrals were redirected to their competitors?

If you really value your customers, you need to provide personal service. Machines and systems can’t do that honestly or effectively. Yes, personal service takes money, but if you view it as an investment in building business instead of as a necessary evil, you’ll probably chalk up a healthy ROI. Compare the examples I described with what happened when I dropped a note to the Trader Joe’s grocery chain’s management about how impressed I was with their employees and stores. A week later, I received a phone call from one of the company’s headquarters staff thanking me for taking the time to share my thoughts. And that’s why you’ll find me driving 40 minutes and passing dozens of their competitors’ stores on the way to shop with them.

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