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Good Customer Service: You Either Get It or You Don’t

It seems the chasm between good and bad customer service is growing wider every day.  There are many reasons why this is happening.  First, social media has empowered the consumer to not only voice her opinion, but also to create a rapid shift in positive or negative sentiment towards companies. Second, the combination of increasing global competition and a stagnant economy is forcing companies to reduce expenses, and often they decide to cut costs by targeting front-line employees who have direct impact on the quality of service delivery.  Over the past year, I, like many of my colleagues, have personally experienced the extremes more often than not.

On the good side of service delivery, I can find no better example than American Express.  I recently discovered that over the past 18 months AmEx had not been accruing rewards points on my credit card.  I called customer service and was told they’d research it and get back to me in 24 hours.  Later that day, I retrieved my voicemail to hear a message the service team saying: “Hi Mr. Johnson, this is Janet with American Express and we have looked into your account history.  It appears we inadvertently did not accrue points for you since early 2010.  We have deposited the 23,010 points into your account, and I’ve added another 2,500 for the inconvenience this may have caused you.”  Well, I’ve been loyal to Amex for more than 20 years and the stellar way this was handled (i.e. exceeding expectations in response time and action) only increased my satisfaction level.

Another shining example of good customer service comes from USAA.  Tired of sifting through competing credit card offers online, a colleague called and bluntly asked a CSR, “Which USAA-branded credit card offers the best cash back option, and can you tell me what the right card is for me based on my spending habits?”  Minutes later, the CSR not only told him the cash rewards Platinum Visa was best for accumulating cash rewards, but was also able to tell him how much he spent last year on each of his USAA cards.  Then, she noted how much he would have earned, had he used the cash reward card (and tastefully noted the low interest rate).  He’s used that credit card for the vast majority of purchases ever since.

On the bad side of service delivery is American Airlines.  I booked award travel in January and decided to redeem extra reward miles so my family of five could travel first class (which would be a first for my three kids) on a cross-country trip.  A few weeks ago, I received an email alerting me to a time change for the flight, so I checked the itinerary online and discovered, much to my chagrin, that all the tickets had been changed to coach seats.  I’ve flown over 1,000,000 miles on American and have lifetime Gold status, so when I call the service desk to get an explanation, I’m thinking this is an easy fix.  Not so. They simply say first class is not available anymore.  I say “fine, then deposit 125,000 miles back into my AAdvantage account, since I used 50,000 per ticket, not 25,000, when making the reservation in January.”  “We can’t do that, Mr. Johnson, because the plan-ahead seats for coach are no longer available, so you have to use “anytime” miles, and it’s now 50,000 for coach.  “But you changed the flight time, causing me to lose not only the first-class seats, but the mileage difference.  It’s not a change I made. Why should I be penalized?  Of course plan-ahead seats are taken, it’s only two months until the flight, but I booked 10 months ago,” I respond.  “Sorry, there is nothing we can do,” is all they said.  I could go on, but clearly American is no longer concerned about keeping me a satisfied customer.

Another bad experience came when dealing with a home warranty from First American Home Warranty, which came attached with an existing home purchase.  Since it was not new construction, my colleague, like many other homeowners, wanted the policy to cover unforeseen and expensive repairs of a variety of household appliances, plumbing, etc.  Oddly, the company knew the contract was about to expire one year from the home purchase date, yet it waited until one month after it had expired to solicit my renewal.  An entry-level customer service rep called repeatedly, using borderline scare tactics and poorly scripted messages to pitch me.  Since it knew the contract expiration date from the start, the company could have made proactive contact one or two months prior to the end date, versus sending vanilla form letters saying only, “Your contract is about to expire.” And the renewal would have been routine.  Taking this reactive tact compelled my associate to refuse renewal, and tell this story about a bad service experience.

An informal survey of several colleagues drew quick responses of good customer service and bad; however the bad ones are more salient and tend to linger in our memories.  My advice for companies looking to retain and grow their customer franchise is to work on fixing the processes, systems and training (or lack thereof) that leads to bad customer service, so more of their customers experience good customer service, and then recommend that business to their friends, and so on.

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