Anyone remember Mona Shaw?  I wrote about her in March, 2008 after Comcast stepped on her last nerve and she smashed every computer, phone and keyboard within swinging distance at their local office.

She was upset, and understandably so.  It’s worth re-reading the story if you have the time.

Many of the customer service horror stories we hear are characterized by just this kind of anger and accusations of incompetence.  But what if a customer service rep is fantastic, and it’s the brand that falters?

Such was my experience when I called Verizon Wireless to find out why my voicemail wasn’t working.

I sat on hold for two or three minutes, listening to hold messages about new products and services (The iPhone is coming! The iPhone is coming!), before a rep came on the line.  She was a good listener and really got into it.  She tried to reactivate my phone three or four times.  She seemed very competent, so I let her keep trying.  This went on for fifteen minutes.

When she could not solve the problem on her own, she put me on hold while she hunted for someone at the technical help desk.  This time, I was on hold for nearly ten minutes, sitting in total silence.

She then put me on the line with a tech specialist, and stayed with me on the call.  Here’s how that call went:

Tech help desk dude: “Hello, Miss Fierman.  Where are you right now?”

Me: “In New York City.”

Tech help desk dude: “We have a citywide voicemail outage in New York right now.”


Wait – WHAT?  I’ve been on the phone for 30 minutes, a customer service rep tied herself in pretzels and Verizon knew about the problem all along? But no worries, said Dude:  it’s been submitted with a “critical” ticket.

Here’s what should be submitted as critical, Ms./Mr. Service Provider: your customers’ time and sanity.   Within a couple hours, voicemail was working once again.

This experience reminded me of a key principle of customer service that seems so hard for many companies to navigate:  We (consumers) don’t need you (product/service provider) to be perfect 100% of the time.  That’s not going to happen.  We’re not perfect and we know you’re not, either.  HOWEVER:  please demonstrate that you can think like a customer by respecting both my time and emotional intelligence.

That’s where Verizon Wireless really fell down on this one, when only one or two small gestures could have made all the difference:

1.  Leverage technology.

a. Use your website. Companies like VW have consumers reasonably well trained to go to their personal home pages on the provider’s site.  While a company may not want to broadcast its failures to the universe, why not give me access to a “Known Issues” list once I’ve logged in?  I’d be one click away from learning that something was happening and when I might expect relief.   No phone call needed.

Assuming that the problem was corrected in an acceptable time frame, this would have been a good customer service experience.

N.B: it’s not always the initial problem that really irritates customers, it’s how a company handles it.

b. Use your VRU.  I occupied the first few minutes of the call listening to hold messages and staring into space.  Had one of these recorded messages mentioned an outage, or if I’d been able to find this information via the phone tree, I would have been satisfied and hung up.  Time Warner Cable offers this feature in New York City, and it’s quite useful.

Ditto the good customer service experience.

c. Use my email address. Why did I give you my email address and opt in for messages if you don’t use it to send me information that is actually important?  A company like VW could use notifications like any airlines and banks do.  And like the airlines and banks, such alerts could be promoted as a customer benefit.

2.  Leverage your team (even if you have to rethink your definition of “team”).

The blowback from this kind of episode reaches far beyond an unnecessary thirty minute call.  A talented customer service didn’t have the information she needed and poured herself into an unsolvable problem.  Then she was embarrassed and apologized when she heard what the tech said (even though I assured her that the situation was not her fault).  This should never happen: there are many ways that a company like VW can communicate with its call centers in real time.  A rep reads a screen, and it’s over.

And how about the tech guy?  He’s taking what I would consider non-technical calls, his queue is endless and he can’t help customers the way he would like.

What do these circumstances do to employee morale?

Will these two employees stay, but harden their attitudes (and complain to fellow employees)?

Will they ultimately talk about their work experiences on the Web?  Could that keep good prospects away?

If you multiply my experience by a thousand or two, will either of them quit, thereby producing more churn, more expense (which VW will pass on via its pricing) and more customer interactions with less-experienced staff?

And so the wheel turns…

Gestures that may seem small can produce mighty ripple effects from one end of a business ecosystem to the other.  As consumer behaviors and habits change, as technology changes, as internal systems change… a company must constantly put itself in the path walked by the customer (and its own staff) in order to discover and address opportunities to make things better.  And the real day-to-day magic isn’t in the big system rewrites or product announcements – it can be in the small adjustments. 

Observe the small things, and the ripple effect might just flow in the opposite direction.

A version of this post was originally published HERE on the Marketing Executives Networking Group’s blog, MENGBlend


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