Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Customer Service Mis-steps: Recovery Matters

Organizations that provide spectacular customer service always keep their line people informed of new developments or offers that will improve a process, and of glitches in the system that may have an adverse effect on customers. Similarly, great customer service means being flexible to the needs of customers and making sure that your internal information is accurate before issuing instructions or denials to customers.

Two recent incidents illustrated for me that line employees are the lifeblood of organizations, and when service representatives aren’t up to date on new policies and system problems, or when they act in a capricious manner, it affects the reputation of the organization.

At the outset, let me state unequivocally that as a Verizon cell phone customer for more than ten years, I’ve been very satisfied with customer service, phone upgrades every two years, and the availability of nationwide phone service when traveling. For convenience, my monthly Verizon bill is automatically charged to my checking account. Just like clockwork, on the 15th of each month I can expect a charge to hit my account.

Recently, as I was reconciling my checking account I noticed that the Verizon automatic charge hadn’t been processed although it was the 20th of the month. When I called customer service, I was notified that a new accounting system had been installed and that the monthly installment would be processed shortly. The representative assured me that my call didn’t trigger the charge, and that my monthly payment had already been programmed to go through that evening.

On April 25 the monthly payment was finally processed to my account. As is my custom, I reviewed the bill for the next month and to my surprise, I noticed that the upcoming charge was for an additional $5. Discussing this with a Verizon representative was truly an experience.

”Mr. Kalmar, the $5 is a late fee on your account, because you failed to pay your bill in a timely fashion.” I almost went into a catatonic fit, but I remembered that when dealing with service representatives it’s best to keep your cool.

I calmly informed the young lady that I have no control over my monthly payment and that it, in fact, is processed automatically by Verizon. She still insisted that the fee was appropriate, because, no matter the circumstances, the payment was late. While she wasn’t thoroughly convinced of my explanation, I finally wore her down with my—at least in my mind—cogent and repeated explanation of how an automatic payment process works and why I should not be assessed a late fee for something out of my control. I must admit to brandishing the phrase, ”Can you hear me now?” a couple of times, but it was done in good taste.

During this entire conversation, it was obvious that she hadn’t been informed of any accounting glitch in the Verizon system nor was she conversant in the benefits of automatic payments and why the burden of timely payments falls on the company and not the customer.

The next day, I called Verizon and spoke to a supervisor who grasped the circumstances of the late payment, confirmed the $5 late fee had been reversed, and in an offer of magnanimous customer service gave me an extra 100 minutes for the next three months.

There were many lessons to be learned from this episode:

  • First of all, I know you are saying ”But Bill, it was $5, get a life!” Unfortunately my 30 years in banking provided me with a warped sense of fair play and the conviction that balancing accounts on a regular basis is important. For that, I don't apologize.
  • When companies are making changes in their billing practices or instituting major upgrades to accounting systems, employees should be kept in the loop. Information should be circulated regarding the changes, so that employees are aware of impending problems without having to be informed first by customers.
  • Customer service representatives should be empowered to resolve issues on the spot without management intervention. In this case, the first representative I talked to should have had the authority to reverse the $5 charge and to provide some type of compensation.
  • Verizon has since sent me an apology and reversed the $5 again. Let's see if their accounting system catches that faux pax. If not, I’ll gladly return it. After all, I’m receiving an extra 300 minutes. Just the thought of explaining my returning the $5 to a Verizon representative makes me shudder.

Having been in banking for a number of years and, more recently, a Baldrige examiner, I’m rather meticulous and, unfortunately, also anal-retentive. In that regard, I keep detailed, accurate records and always carry my planner with me. This next customer service experience reinforces the need for keeping meticulous documentation.

This is a situation that still reverberates in my head as a prime example of a service rep needing a course in diplomacy and congeniality. Not too long ago, I had an appointment for a root canal, a procedure that’s always part of some comedian’s routine because the process is painful and expensive. Be that as it may, I had scheduled a 1:00 p.m. appointment for this procedure. A meeting earlier that day finished ahead of schedule, so I proceeded to the dentist’s office, hoping to be waited on before my assigned appointment.

When I bounded into the waiting room at 12:15 p.m., resplendent in my suit and tie, I noticed that the other patients were dressed casually. Comedian George Gobel once remarked: "Have you ever felt that the whole world was a black tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?" That day I was those brown shoes and I think that contributed to the dilemma I’m about to describe.

As I approached the service counter, I characteristically announced my name and stated that I was early for my 1:00 p.m. appointment. From the back of the office came this response: ”You’re late for your 11:30 a.m. appointment, but we will try to work you in." Of course this took me aback and I quickly pulled out my planner stating to the service rep that my record showed a 1:00 p.m. appointment. "Well, your planner is wrong,” came a loud voice from the back of the reception area. Now all those waiting for their appointment looked up from their papers and magazines and gazed at me as if to say: ”Pretty boy in the suit is late and now wants to get in before us.”

From my planner I extracted a card given to me at my previous appointment in the writing of the same loquacious service rep. The card clearly was inscribed for a 1:00 p.m. appointment. Showing her the card in her own handwriting was a moment that I will always cherish. She paled and quietly acknowledged in an almost whisper that I was correct and I would be next.

I’m not a vindictive person (well, not all the time), but this was a classic moment that had to be captured for posterity. I calmly asked her to come into the waiting room and explain to the mob that was ready to lynch me that I was, in fact, not late. To her credit, she did so and we all had a good laugh, at least until I was strapped into the chair for my root canal.

Here’s how this encounter could have been handled:

  • Service reps, particularly in medical offices, should be sensitive to circumstances that might result in confrontations with patients. Just as in service industries where the customer is presumed to be always right, that same maxim should exist in the medical field.
  • This may be a stretch, but if in her mind my appointment was at 11:30 a.m., perhaps I should have been called when I failed to appear. On the other hand, good customer service dictates that medical offices call patients the day before an appointment to confirm. Had this been done, this unpleasant situation could have been avoided.

In the case of the Verizon episode, I was placated with extra cell phone minutes. In the case of the root canal, I wish they had placated me with extra Novocain, but my waiting room rant may have precluded that from happening.

About the author
William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 company and the Michigan Quality Council, one of the top state quality award programs in the United States. He has been a member of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award board of overseers and responsible for the management of a volunteer structure of more than 1,000 people in a statewide program patterned after the Baldrige program.

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