Customer Service

After dozens of encounters with customer service reps representing every industry from healthcare to banks to utility companies to auto dealers, I have come to the alarming conclusion that with few exceptions, customer service exists only in the past tense. The typical customer service rep today can only work within the boundaries of their little company handbook. They are not empowered to think outside the box; nor do they have the authority to resolve a customer’s issues without management approval. Consequently, many customers with legitimate issues are left out in the cold.

Whatever happened to the philosophy that the customer is always right? Now I realize that many consumers are unreasonable and their expectations are off-the-charts ridiculous. However, I truly believe that this does not represent the average consumer. Most people merely want quality products and good service after the sale. Period.

Back a few years ago when I worked as a General Manager in the retail automotive business, I learned some curious things about customer service. Sitting across from dozens of customers and listening to their complaints proved to be an enlightening experience. I discovered that if a customer presented me with a problem, and I didn’t immediately comply with their request (assuming, of course, that it was reasonable), and I forced them into a debate, from the customer’s point-of-view—even if ultimately they got what they wanted—they walked away from the dealership feeling that I did nothing to help him or her. If a customer had to argue with me to get what they felt was a fair consideration, even if I ultimately agreed to fix their problem, from the customer’s perspective, I got a poor report card because the customer had to fight for something they believed was rightfully theirs in the first place.

So, my philosophy as a General Manager was simple. It followed two fundamental principles. First, when a customer presented me with an issue—whether a service problem, sales issue, or something regarding what the customer paid for a particular service or product—unless the request was outrageous or totally bogus, I smiled, apologized for the inconvenience, and graciously complied with their request. Whether the request was for a refund, discount, or service-related consideration, I did not engage in any debates or arguments, nor did I force the customer to “prove” that his or her claim was legitimate. I helped them immediately, without making the customer convince me that they were entitled to this accommodation. When a business agrees to resolve an issue right up front, with no argument and no nonsense, the customer wins and the business gets a good report card. And a good report card translates to repeat customers and referrals.

Here’s an interesting footnote. Although I made a sincere effort to help every customer who presented me with a problem, I was still responsible for the bottom line and could not just write a blank check to everyone who wandered into the dealership with their hand wide open. No matter how much a business strives to provide superior customer service, sometimes you have to say “no” or limit your consideration. But here’s a curious fact. After sitting across from a customer and listening to their story, the first words out of my mouth were always, “What can I do to correct the situation to your satisfaction?” This may or may not surprise you, but 9 times out of 10, the customer’s request was generally much less than I anticipated. So the customer walked away from the experience totally satisfied, and my investment was less than I anticipated. It’s called a win-win situation.

Second, as a General Manager working for several busy car dealerships, and having as many as 55 subordinates, at times, the dealership was bedlam. When a business is rocking and rolling, sometimes customer problems fall through the cracks. Recognizing this predicament, I adopted a policy I called, “You Own the Problem.” Basically, if a customer approached any employee, from sales manager to salesperson to the lot jockey washing cars, expressing a concern, that employee “owned” the problem and took the necessary steps, contacted the right manager, did whatever they could until the problem was resolved. They followed it to the ends of the Earth! I empowered each employee to resolve minor issues without management approval, and if they made a bad decision, we’d talk about it, but I never reprimanded or punished them for helping a customer. When they made a good decision, I rewarded them with a cash bonus. This policy not only helped the customer solve a problem in a timely manner, but it also created a sense of pride and teamwork among the employees.

I’m not saying that these principles can be applied to any business. What I am saying is that no matter what, the old cliché that the “customer is always right,” needs to be the focal point of any business that desires to be successful in a ferociously-competitive marketplace.

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