Customer Service – Whose Problem is it?

It's not my problem that it snowed.

As business owners we are always looking for ways to tweak our businesses.  I look at other businesses to see how I might emulate good things they do.  I am also still surprised when a business does something so un-customer friendly that I stand there thinking, “Seriously? Did they really say that?”

Here is the story of poor customer service that left me bewildered.  I tell it so that we may all learn from it.

Since coming to New York, I have used the same auto service dealer.  Nice enough and fairly efficient.  During my first year here I changed my phone number about 4 times. (Long story, but I it took me several phone numbers to settle in.)  Consequently, every time I took my car in it seemed that I had to give them a different phone number.  This is important because they use your phone number to find your file on their system.  Needless to say, just making an appointment was a bit taxing as the first question was always, “What is your phone number?”   Then I would have to guess which phone number I had given them last.  I was patient with this because I figured it was my fault due to all the phone number madness.

The last time I made an appointment to bring in the car for service I asked the gal to ensure that we had the phone number straightened out and she assured me that all was well.  The day before the appointment I received an automated reminder call, on a phone number I no longer use.  Aughhhhh, how could this be?

Upon arrival at the auto dealer, I was greeted very nicely and the gal was very helpful. When I asked her if she could find out why the phone number situation was still mixed up, she assured me that she would check it out for me.  Great!  She seemed so helpful and had one of those very cheerful dispositions.

When my car was ready and she was asking me for my money, I again asked her about the phone number.  She showed me the phone numbers on my record and said there was no problem.  I told her that there was a problem and that somewhere in the system an old phone number was ‘stuck’ and clearly there was a problem in their system.  I wanted to assure her that I wasn’t blaming her, but surely if things are happening that drive a customer crazy they would want to know about it.

OK, pay attention now, because here it comes…

She told me that they pay a separate company to make the reminder calls.  She wanted to know if I had called that company back to straighten it out.  (Really, as I am writing this I am still not believing she asked me that.)  After I lifted my jaw off of the ground, I very kindly told her that it was not my problem to fix, but theirs and how much I would appreciate it if she would pass on the issue to someone who could look into it.

BTW, this is where the cheery, smiley face turned into a look that could kill.

What is the lesson here?

Any problem that your business has which interferes with a happy customer experience is your responsibility to address.  The customer is free to go elsewhere.  They do not get paid to straighten out your problems.

In addition, be grateful when customers point out some of the problems you have which you are not aware of.  It is better when they tell you about them than to get annoyed and just bring their business elsewhere.

All businesses have problems now and then.  Most customers are forgiving of this when they know that you are interested in correcting them and ensuring a great customer experience.  Forget about getting defensive and focus on finding a way to fix the problem.

Are You Prepared?

I am sitting here looking out the window at the first rain that is preceding hurricane Earl.  I have watched the people of Long Island prepare for the coming winds and rains for the past day or so.  Even in the midst of a pending storm, I am thinking about business.  I am wondering how prepared your business is when something happens outside of the daily normal events.  Things happen that we have no control over.  This could be a severe storm, road construction in front of your place of business, phone service outages, a sudden illness or disablement of any of the owners or employees, or equipment breakdown.  You know the kind of thing I mean.  I am sure that you have your own list of things that may have already occurred in your business life.

No matter what type of business you have, it is always wise to take the time to evaluate your preparedness.  One of the critical parts of your plan is to address the impact on your customers.

Think like a customer.

  • What is it they expect from your business?
  • What is the impact on them if you are not able to open your doors or perform your service?
  • How long can they sustain being without your service or product?
  • How upset will they be if they show up for service and your doors are locked?
  • Can they go elsewhere for service?

How can you keep customers happy and have them return to your business once you have recovered from your outage?  The goal is to let your customers know that they are important to you.  People are usually understanding and realize that sometimes unexpected things happen.  What they don’t appreciate is when you ignore that they have been impacted.

Consider three different time frames in which to address the customer:

Contact the customer before they show up at your door. This is usually possible in a small office or business with regular clientele.  For instance, the staff shows up at a doctor’s office only to discover that the doctor is ill that day.  Calling each patient that is scheduled for that day before they leave the house goes a long way.  The patient may not be happy about the cancellation, but they do understand that people get sick.  You may have been able to offer them the opportunity to see another doctor that day, and they will appreciate knowing that it is their choice.  Most people are glad that your have given them the respect of a heads up.  How can you best notify your customers in the event of a problem?  Do you have a plan?

Handle the situation at the expected time of service. Sometimes you just can not get to the customer before they show up at your door.  Yikes!  Now you have to deal with a range of emotions from someone who is caught by surprise.  I have seen disappointment, anger, elation (well, that was at a dentist’s office), and confusion.  No matter what the response, know that it is a valid one for the customer.  Do you have your staff trained in how to deal with customers at this point?  This is not always easy but worth taking the time to work with your staff on how you want them to respond.

Making amends after the fact. Whether or not you were able to talk with your customers before or during the outage, it is always good to show appreciation to them for their patience during your difficult time.  People want to know you care about them and that you understand they have been inconvenienced because of you.  It really doesn’t matter if it was your fault or not, they were still impacted.  There are many ways to show them that you are willing to go the extra mile for them.  Open extra hours the next week. Give a half price special for three days to get them coming back in the door. Give them their next visit for free.  Customize it for your business and for the particular situation.  It is not so much what you do, but that you show the customer you care about them.

Coming in to work to find the phone system is out is not the time to make up your plan.  I urge you all to schedule time to build your plan for potential outages.  It is good for business, good for your customers, good for your stress level, and allows you to continue to make a difference in the world.

If you have a story about dealing with an outage that you think might help others, please pass it on to me in the comments section.  Looking forward to hearing from you.