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Customer service? Really?

We need a term to describe the experience of contacting a manufacturer with regard to a product that doesn’t work (especially something electronic) or a service that has not been correctly performed (like reliable cable television). “Oxymoron” comes to mind, but it is the wrong word for the abuse that we consumers suffer when we use our phones to contact “customer service.”

An oxymoron is usually two words, one of which contradicts the other; for example, “guest host” on Saturday Night Live or “educational television.” Often, one word is the opposite of the other, as in “civil war” or “original copy.” So, the mere act of contacting agents of the manufacturer is, in fact, an oxymoron: “sweet agony.”

My real problem is trying to characterize the frustration that we experience because we’re seldom satisfied with the process. Getting “customer satisfaction” from “customer assistance” is sadly lacking. In fact, it’s usually downright irritating. And, of course, one doesn’t actually get to address an agent or an agent-machine until one listens to 20 minutes of extremely annoying “music,” which could be a one-word oxymoron, given the noise that comes through the receiver. Truthfully, I’d prefer “deafening silence,” as is also the case when I’m inserted into an MRI tube, an ideal place to sleep.

Weirdly normal

Our phone call generally connects to an electronic voice that instructs us to press a series of buttons for various services. And that is followed by the message that there will be a “short wait.” Fifteen minutes later, when we finally get to speak with real people, most often we’re left “clearly confused” by agents whose English is so heavily accented that they are hardly understandable. According to friends with whom I’ve discussed this problem, the situation is “weirdly normal.”

I think that the basic problem is that certain businesses have become so big that individual customers are “ceremoniously ignored.” We’re nothing but a small series of ones and zeros in a database of hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people whose money the corporation will gladly accept. If this were not the case, airlines would not routinely overbook flights and there would be no electronic voices on the telephone.

There was a time when the customer was always right, but that was wrong. Upon my graduation from high school, I became a retail clerk for a supermarket chain in the S.F. Bay Area, and I can assure the reader that I encountered many customers who were “incorrectly informed” or just dead wrong. But, we employees were trained to treat them as if they had the wisdom of Solomon. Consequently, I always volunteered for the graveyard shift, when I could stock shelves and not have to deal with people.*

Providing service

Salesforce has a website called Success Center that provides some information about customer service that needs to be reviewed by most of our giant corporations. First, the site claims that it costs six to seven times more money to acquire customers than it does to retain existing ones. Furthermore, the U.S. Small Business Administration reports that 68 percent of customers leave because they’re unsatisfied with the treatment that they’ve received. And, finally, a recent poll found that 82 percent of CEOs believe that customers’ expectations are now “somewhat” or “much” higher than they were three years ago.

The same source informs us that, in the past, “people chose which companies they did business with based on price or brand, but today the overall experience is the driver.” A Gartner for Marketing Leaders survey in 2016 found that 89 percent of companies “expect to compete mostly on the basis of customer experience, versus 36 percent four years ago.” This, it is speculated, reveals “a punctuated shift in emphasis and spending as marketers recognize that customer experience is fast becoming the new battlefield.”

Customer service skills

SurveyMonkey has suggested a number of ways to strengthen customer service. The website emphasizes six interaction skills that are essential in pleasing customers.

  • Empathy, patience, and consistency: Service staff must understand that customers who contact them have a wide range of emotions and needs. Some will be irate, others simply have questions, and a few might just like to chat.

  • Adaptability: Staff must be able to handle surprises. Being able to sense a customer’s mood and a change in that mood is essential. This involves developing listening skills, and that is an ongoing learning process. It’s also an oxymoron: “Expect the unexpected.”

  • Clear communication: Personnel must be able to convey exact information. The suggestion is to use “authentically positive language,” and to stay cheerful no matter how the situation develops. Furthermore, employees should never end a conversation without confirming that the customer is satisfied.

  • Work ethic: Customer-service workers must see a problem through to its resolution. “At the same time,” according to the website, they “must have good time-management skills and not spend too much time handling one customer while others are waiting.”

  • Knowledge: Customers rely on employees for their familiarity with the product or service. Staff members are reminded to keep informed “enough to respond to most inquiries and know where to turn if the questions become too detailed or technical….”

  • Thick skin: This is an iteration of the adage that I’ve already cited, “The customer is always right.” The website delivers the following message to customer-service workers: “The ability to swallow one’s pride and accept blame or negative feedback is crucial.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could depend upon getting help from customer service instead of getting lost in a maze of bureaucratic morass where any signs of “corporate conscience” are “conspicuously absent?”


* When I taught college, I was always amused by students who told me that they wanted to major in sociology because they like to work with people. I refrained from informing them that, as a sociologist, I was not at all interested in working with people. Sociologists study people, much as entomologists study bugs or proctologists study…. Well, you see where that was going.

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Today’s column was inspired by a phone call to the manufacturer of a printer/copier.

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