If you don’t believe it, don’t say it

Once again a new piece of technology didn’t prove to install quite as easily as the website and the instructions promised, and once again, I found myself repeatedly hearing about the importance of my call as I waited for that elusive next available agent.

When the real human voice finally did appear and I explained my challenge, I held my breath and braced for the obligatory expression of sympathy. Only it wasn’t going to be real compassion, but a bored employee reading from a script. They didn’t disappoint me. “I am so sorry you are having this unforeseen difficulty and I want to help you resolve it,” the lifeless voice said. “I also have to inform you that this call may be monitored for training purposes.”

Shades of the bored flight attendant who addresses you moments after wheels-down: “We know you have a choice when you fly and we appreciate it that you have chosen us.” If her delivery of that message is supposed to provide evidence of that, it’s about as encouraging as a weather-related diversion to Boise.

“Granted, years of working in advertising have made me inherently skeptical, and perhaps just a tad more cynical than I should be.”

Granted, years of working in advertising have made me inherently skeptical, and perhaps just a tad more cynical than I should be. But I really believe that someone within that technology provider and that airline really did want to hug me. (“If we say this to callers, it will really make them feel a lot better!,” I can envision her saying, right after she offers her strategy for solving open warfare between departments: “Let’s all have a karaoke outing!”)

No matter how hard that individual is trying to make the company develop a genuine concern for customers – and no matter how well-crafted the CEO’s speech to employees about just how important customer satisfaction is to the company’s success – the employees aren’t buying it. And sadly, it shows.

There are companies that do a phenomenal job of convincing me that I really am an important customer. Mike’s Express Carwash is a prime example. Nearly every company whose employees deal with customers could learn something from a visit to Mike’s. Their people are unfailingly polite, upbeat, and seem to be genuinely interested in making sure my always-filthy car takes on new beauty. Even their attempted up-sells never feel like a pitch. (He really does want my tires to shine!)

The folks at specialty grocer Trader Joe’s stand out, too. Ask any employee about any given product, and you’ll be amazed at her knowledge and candor. She may even tell you how she prepared it, or that she doesn’t like it. Tell the guy at the checkout that they’re out of one of your favorites, and he’ll become genuinely sad that the store disappointed you – and ask the manager when it’s going to be back on the shelves.

What makes the difference? I think it’s the fact that these companies genuinely believe that ecstatic customers – raving fans, as author Ken Blanchard calls them – are the key to their success. They don’t just hang a mission statement to that effect on their wall. The local manager doesn’t just recite it at the staff meeting. Everyone throughout the company lives it.

As for the companies that simply fake it, I think most of them underestimate their customers’ intelligence. They believe that a snappy line or expression of sympathy can cloak employee disinterest or lackluster service. Guess what? It doesn’t. And not only does it not fool customers – it frustrates them beyond belief.

If your company really doesn’t believe in customer service and genuine communication with your customers, don’t fake it. If your employees are unable to deliver a line convincingly – whether that’s because they don’t share your vision or you’ve simply hired the wrong people – don’t waste their time and mine, because it just won’t work.

If you still decide that a scripted message has the power to overcome the flaws, watch the way it’s worded. Too often, those messages look great on paper, but become very confusing and convoluted when spoken aloud. That’s especially true when a committee develops them. Give it to different people to read aloud, and watch where they stumble or sound wooden. Then edit it, and give it to more people to read.

It still won’t be believable, but at least it will sound better.