He had spiky, gelled hair, wore a suit under his anorak, and had a clipboard. He was disturbing my evening meal. He was all youthful smiles and gangly awkwardness. At times like this, I wished I had a video camera scanning the front porch so I could decide whether or not to respond to the insistent bell-ringing. Too late, I was snared by his insufferable enthusiasm and my politeness conditioning. I knew I just had to stand there and take it like a mouse that just realized that the cheese comes with conditions.
Despite the manipulation—it was clearly company policy to catch people off-guard at home—and despite a well-honed sixth sense that warned of impending disappointment, I surprised myself by turning my back on my satisfactory, uncomplicated supplier and signing up for savings on my electricity bill. A month or two afterwards, I sent the new supplier an email. The gist of it went something like this:
I signed up because I liked the idea. Wanted to pay on line. Couldn’t register on the website. Kept going round in circles with customer support. Gave up. Got an estimated reading. Phoned and gave someone the correct reading. They said it would be adjusted. Asked to be billed by mail. Got a message months later to say postal bills would be coming to me. Haven’t received one yet. Got another notification to send in my meter reading. Tried, honest. It says you need to have an eleven digit number ready that is on your bills. Haven’t received a bill yet. Fuck this! Tried to call customer support. Waited five minutes while some dingbat kept telling me all the wonderful things that can happen if I switch. I already had. Wondered why. Wish I’d stayed with previous supplier. Less carbon emissions generated by frustration. Hello… hello… anybody there?
There followed, in slow succession, a string of standard emails telling me to do what I’d already tried to do, refusing to give me a bank account number I could transfer payments to, refusing to return me to my previous supplier and eventually whipping money from my bank account ‘to save me the bother’.
Throughout this charade, I was treated with the utmost professionalism and politeness by people following a well-written rule book. However, it was insulting, cumbersome, frustrating, costly and left me feeling bruised, battered and resentful.
This was professional customer service, and it happens all the time. It shouldn’t be like this, so why do so many companies make a complete hash of communicating with their customers?
It generally comes down to two words: authenticity and creativity. Unfortunately, in the manic drive to build big customer-bases competitively, many companies don’t seem to be able to recruit people who they can trust to be creative and authentic on their behalf. So, they invent rules and procedures for them to follow, give them impossible targets to reach, and send them out with inadequate decision-making powers.
These days, if I am approached by a young professional in a sharp suit, my guards are up. If we start to communicate, I am searching for the cracks in the machine-like company facade, looking for the human inside. I’m hoping to by-pass the hype and dogma to see if there is something—anything—that will help me warm to this company and that will help me trust them. That’s what I feel I have to do, to see if I can find out if they really give a damn about anything other than the sale, to see if they are likely to care about me. If I am fed company-speak, the person I am talking to sadly becomes a conduit for company character, rather than a person in their own right. Unless, that is, I find some chinks in the armour, and we start talking human to human. Then I start to feel better about the company as well.
In customer service, there’s a big difference between pleasing and performing. I even wonder, sometimes, if customer service is anything to do with customers and service, rather than playing the numbers game in sales and keeping a clean image for PR. So often the process of interacting with a customer service department is so anal it resembles a badly flushing toilet. It makes all the right noises and seems to perform all the right actions, but…
I was recently a greatly relieved when a company that I was struggling to deal with stopped trying to perform and admitted that they couldn’t help me. I was much happier to know that, than to be strung along with undeliverable promises. It saved us all a lot of wasted time and frustration and, to me, that was great customer service. I actually felt much more positive about the company, and am now happy to recommend them knowing what they can and can’t do, and that they are straight about it.
I like to think that customer relations and communication are about sorting out problems and making people feel good, rather than creating a brick wall of defensiveness driven by fear of losing business, getting sued or earning a bad reputation. It needs to be flipped around again, back to the positive. And of course, there are loads of examples of companies doing it well. If you want to see an example a good one, get naked—or Nakd to be precise. They add wonderful humour on their product packaging that certainly made me laugh and makes them come over as refreshingly human. On the underside of a pack of their raw food bars it welcomes you with “Hello gorgeous. Fancy meeting you here. You are aware, of course, that you have this box upside down. We salute your curiosity…”. And the bars themselves follow the theme with such helpful advice as “Best before your friend eats it”, and other delights.
So, let’s hear some of your examples. Not the bad ones—just the good. Maybe there’ll be a few companies that will read this, and start to realize that being human is a good way to work with other humans—their customers!