Customer relations “machines” mangle customer relations

Not long ago, I received a call from my father’s cardiologist’s office. The annoyed voice on the other end pointed out that Dad had missed that day’s appointment. I gently explained that he couldn’t make the appointment because he had died from heart problems nearly three months earlier.


The same day, I received a mailed response from a consumer food products company. I had emailed their customer relations department with a simple suggestion about one of their products. My email raved about how good the product was and how much my family enjoyed it. But there was one minor issue I thought they might want to consider. The response told me that they were sorry that I was so unhappy with their product. Obviously, I received Standard Response A-2 (or maybe it was A-3).


The cardiologist’s office had installed 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. In simpler terms, the woman who manages patient care records apparently doesn’t have any way to communicate with the woman at the adjacent desk, who manages appointment reminders.


After all, why would it be important for 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. In fact, I consider myself a raving fan — or at least, I was until the bored customer relations employee skimmed over my message, assumed it was just another complaint, and pressed the button to generate A-2. Now, 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. Sure, I’ll continue to buy it, but my evangelizing days are done.


Companies of all sorts interact with their customers every day, and how they view those interactions says a great deal. Many regard the calls, emails, and letters as an annoying cost of doing business, so they establish systems to provide generic responses. That’s cheaper and easier, but do those generic responses really fool anyone?


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 of them is unique. 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 really surprised by the call from the cardiologist. I oversaw Dad’s health care for the last few years, and the office staff consistently provided some of the worst customer service I’ve ever seen. The cardiologists were highly skilled, but it was clear that they didn’t care what happened at the front desk. Keep in mind that the practice’s patients were senior citizens with serious heart conditions. That didn’t stop the staff from repeatedly yelling their names when it was their turn to be seen, or expressing displeasure with their pace as they shuffled to the exam rooms. The women who answered phone calls loudly argued with patients, and made audible disparaging comments about the callers after they hung up. Everyone in the waiting room knew they’d receive similar treatment when it was their turn to call.


There was no point to complaining, so I merely 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 nursing homes. 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 are incapable of doing that honestly or effectively. It takes people who are willing to take the time and show genuine interest. Yes, it 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 cited with what happened when I dropped a note to the Trader Joe’s grocery chain about how impressed I was with their employees and stores, and encouraging them to open additional locations in our area. 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. Care to guess what percentage of my grocery dollars is spent in their stores?

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