One might think that a small company like Angie’s List (~$100 million/year) would outperform e-commerce giant Amazon.com (~100 Billion/year) on customer service. Sadly, no.
After moving to San Diego, I was a happy Angie’s List customer, using the service to find local service providers for moving, cleaning, and more. All went well until I booked a house cleaning service advertised as “deep cleaning” when the actual service was anything but. When I contacted Angie’s List to complain — multiple times — the customer service rep (CSR) basically read me their terms and conditions which said no refunds after 30 days.
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t schedule the service provider inside that 30-day window. My only option was to book something else within another short time window, which I didn’t want to do. So, they kept my money.
Yes, that’s right. Angie’s List kept my money and provided nothing of value whatsoever. That “free” money cost them a lot. I’m now a “never Angie’s List” customer, and have relayed my story to hundreds of people in person or speeches. And now I’m writing about it on CustomerThink, a site that serves 100K visitors per month.
So for a short-term “win” that forced me to comply with nonsensical rules, Angie’s List lost my business forever, and this post will be added to growing pile (82K and counting) of Angie’s List Sucks posts easily found on Google. Stupid beyond belief.
Contrast that with Amazon, where I recently had a problem with a delivery. I contacted them and they promptly refunded my money. The rep (yes, I spoke with a real live person) was helpful, friendly, and clearly wanted to resolve the issue to my complete satisfaction.
Agent Training/Development Ranked Biggest Investment
I recently completed a study of customer service practices (disclosure: sponsored by Oracle) to determine the relative impact of 14 different practices on success. My online
survey (n=209) also asked service managers/execs to select their first-, second-, and third-largest customer service investments for the coming year.
Investment priorities generally correlated with the more critical customer service practices, including new customer service solutions, channels and other capabilities. However, one investment stood out as a bit of a surprise — “agent training/development” was ranked No. 1.
That raised a question for me — training in what, exactly? Here is what I learned after putting that question to a number of customer service experts.
Listen with Empathy
Nearly everyone mentioned how critical it was to truly listen what a customer is saying, and understand how they feel. As Jeff Toister points out, this skill shouldn’t be taken too literally and limited to just phone calls.
Listening skills including listening to and interpreting verbal messages, but I also include written messages (email, social media, text, etc.) in this category too. Employees are faced with countless distractions at work that make it difficult for them to understand what their customers really want and how their customers are feeling. One of the best things a customer service professional can do is try to understand the underlying emotion a customer is expressing when they’re sharing their issue.
My Angie’s List rep showed no evidence of actually listening, or caring about my situation — only in repeating their terms and condition. Fail #1.
Why treat CSRs like robots and only allow them to do exactly what’s in a script? People have brains, put them to use! According to Steve Curtin, taking ownership is key:
… a process, policy or service model rarely contains the sentiment that a customer’s problem is your problem. When employees lack this mindset, their solutions to customers’ dilemmas are limited to what’s on the screen or page before them – and this may not completely solve the customer’s problem. But when employees take ownership by adopting the mentality that a customer’s problem is their problem, this enhances their ability to consistently resolve problems to the satisfaction, if not delight, of customers.
In my case with Angie’s List, the “problem” was a 30-day refund window which didn’t allow for fulfillment delays. But the CSR was clearly not interested in solving that problem, wasn’t empowered to give a refund, and refused to escalate the situation to management. Fail #2.
Defuse Anger, Build Human-to-Human Relationships
If everything went perfectly, you wouldn’t need customer service. But even in highly automated, quality-obsessed companies like Amazon, occasionally something goes wrong. At these moments of truth, Richard Shapiro advocates creating a human connection:
If a rep says, “I hear you are concerned, but I can help you,” it automatically provides a human connection, the first building block to building a relationship. In person, the rep can authentically compliment the customer about something he or she may be wearing or even make a comment about the weather. If the rep is on the phone with the customer, make mention of a noise in the background like a dog barking or baby crying. This shows the customer that the rep is actually a person, too.
I was unhappy when I contacted both Amazon and Angie’s List to deal with issues. Amazon handled it well, while the Angie’s List rep just poured fuel on the fire. Fail #3.
Turn Calls into Revenue
After my Amazon experience which required a refund, I was back online a few days later ordering more. Really outstanding CSRs can turn a customer call into new revenue, says Chip Bell:
Customers are smarter, Internet savvy and more demanding than ever. They expect CSRs to be smart and resourceful, not human robots with programmed scripts. Up selling takes specialized skills, not rote order taking procedures.
After my Angie’s List experience, I immediately stopped ordering and have tried my best to discourage friends and neighbors, too. Fail #4.
Blend High-Tech and High-Touch
With rare exceptions, most businesses will continue to offer customer service by phone, even as adoption of digital channels increases. In fact, a recent NewVoiceMedia study found that “68 percent of respondents claim they would prefer to interact with a live agent rather than automated self-help (FAQs/guided support, dial directories, chatbots, etc.) when dealing with customer service.” People are the key to delight customers, says Shep Hyken:
Obviously a good self-service portal on the company’s website is important, but there are many channels that customers interact on that are responded to by the CSRs of a company. A comment on a social channel, like Twitter or Facebook, will take a well-trained CSR to respond in way that is correct and personal. Until these online and social channels are take care of by computers and robots, in such a way that the customer is delighted with the interaction, it will be the people that will make the difference.
Angie’s List had good automated tools for finding contractors and booking orders. But when human judgement was required, they failed miserably. That’s Fail #5, which is enough for this article.
Empower, Reward, Improve
There are other skills that need development, including decision making and time management, says Bill Moore of Customer Relationship Management Institute (CRMI). He also counsels managers to empower their reps and recognize them for improving customer satisfaction:
Be sure to compliment the training with internal procedures that provide the service representatives with the authority to resolve conflicts up to a certain dollar amount without approval. The Ritz Carlton and Nordstrom’s are two examples of where employees are authorized a certain level of remuneration to immediately resolve a customer issue.
And … ensure measurable improvements of customer satisfaction are tied to an ongoing employee recognition and reward program.
And finally, Ron Kaufman writes that a passion for “perpetual service improvement” is the key to growth:
Excellence in service is not taking a prescribed set of actions. Rather, service excellence is taking the next right action to create new value, better value, or more than expected value for someone else; an internal colleague or an external customer. Service excellence is the commitment – not merely to predictable standards – but to continuously stepping up.
Bottom line: People still matter. My sincere thanks to the customer service experts who helped me better understand the skills customer service reps need to avoid defections (Angie’s List) and build genuinely loyal relationships (Amazon).