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5 Fails by Angie’s List — Why “Soft Skills” are Key to Customer Service Success 

Bob Thompson | Jun 29, 2016 1,604 views 10 Comments

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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.

Source: CustomerThink Online Survey Nov. 2015 (n=209)

Source: CustomerThink Online Survey Nov. 2015 (n=209)

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.

Solve Problems

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).

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10 Responses to 5 Fails by Angie’s List — Why “Soft Skills” are Key to Customer Service Success

  1. Shep Hyken June 29, 2016 at 3:54 pm (74 comments) #

    Great article, Bob! Lots of takeaway from you and your group of experts. And, thank you for including me.

    Yes technical skills and product knowledge are important to train. And that goes for soft skills, like customer service and relationship building. A smart CSR who doesn’t deliver on the people skills side will potentially lose a customer.

  2. Andrew Rudin June 29, 2016 at 6:48 pm (861 comments) #

    Bob – I think this is an artifact of an all-too-common failing: cost reduction without considering CX outcomes. Many businesses unreptentantly undermine customer experiences under the guise of process optimization, or maximizing labor efficiency. These terms sound so much better than ‘we’re cutting back on service.’

    Hiring, developing, and coaching decision-savvy employees requires time, managerial skill, and financial investment. Not every company is willing to step up to the plate. Higher costs are involved compared to hiring agents with marginal communication skills and uncertain commitment. Despite the skills deficit, these employees can be placed in call centers quickly because they can be given a formulaic script and a compact list of inviolable rules. I guess short “time-to-value” appears highly desirable, even when the ‘value’ is minimal.

    What the Angie’s List accountants didn’t see on their dashboard of cost-cutting opportunities was the revenue-at-risk from disgruntled customers voicing negativity online. In my experience, when CX outcomes aren’t considered, actual revenue reduction can significantly exceed the cost savings.

  3. Cheryl Reed June 30, 2016 at 12:29 pm (1 comment) #

    Hi Bob. Cheryl Reed, director of external communication at Angie’s List, here. I came across your post and wanted to reach out to apologize.

    It appears our customer service rep adhered strictly to terms and conditions and didn’t elevate your issue to someone who could have given you better service. It may be no consolation to you now, but we have made some pretty dramatic improvements to our service offerings since your experience with us. We have empowered our customer service teams to be more flexible and we also offer price and service quality guarantees at premium membership levels.

    I think if you gave us another shot, you’d be happier with our service. Again, we’re very sorry you had a poor experience. If you’d be willing to test us out, I’d be happy to offer you a one-year Silver membership at no cost. Should you accept and use it, I’d be eager to hear how your experience goes.

    Cheryl

  4. Steve Curtin June 30, 2016 at 3:53 pm (13 comments) #

    Bob, there are difficult businesses out there (ever seen Deadliest Catch on Discovery Channel?), but Angie’s List isn’t one of them. Resolving these types of problems is quite simple. It doesn’t require a thick policy manual or the regional director’s signature. Ideally, companies deliver/over-deliver against the brand promise and meet/exceed customers’ expectations. It’s too bad when they fall short and a customer requests a refund but, when this happens (and it WILL happen), it’s time to provide refunds rather than excuses. Unless problems are systemic (in which case, the organization has much more to worry about than refunds), they’re exceptions. And exceptions create opportunities to provide exceptional customer service. Your history with Angie’s List aside, the right thing to do would be to issue the refund and help locate another service (the cost of which I would also cover…let’s face it, Angie’s List can afford to be generous). Next, I’d follow up with the disappointing cleaning service to ensure that it delivers against its service claims in order to remain listed with Angie’s List (and share the results of this follow up with you), and then follow up with you again after the date of the replacement cleaning service’s scheduled cleaning. During this conversation (preferably over the phone), I’d conduct a “pulse check” to make sure that everything was good between us (you and Angie’s List). Bob, as you know, it’s really not that complicated. When people truly care, these types of solutions are self-evident.

  5. Bob Thompson July 1, 2016 at 11:03 am (212 comments) #

    Cheryl, thanks for reaching out. That’s a positive step. I do appreciate your offer of a free membership to try Angie’s List once again.

    However, at this point we still have an outstanding issue, don’t we? Angie’s List took my payment for services that were never rendered to me, then kept the money.

    So I’ll make the same request to you that I made to that apparently unempowered customer service rep — refund my money.

    Feel free to contact me at 619-319-5183 or [email protected] to work out the details.

    Thanks,
    Bob

  6. Tema Frank July 13, 2016 at 9:01 pm (3 comments) #

    Good article, Bob. Credit to Cheryl for reaching out. Do let us know what happens!

  7. Bob Thompson July 14, 2016 at 3:56 pm (212 comments) #

    Good news: Angie’s List has refunded my money.

  8. Scott Allen July 18, 2016 at 7:21 am (1 comment) #

    Looks like Angie’s List is doing better at social listening than service listening!

    Tim Ferriss tells the story in The 4-Hour Work Week of how he dramatically improved customer service and freed up a bunch of his time as a manager. He gave his agents a simple guideline:

    “Keep the customer happy. If it is a problem that takes less than $100 to fix, use your judgment and fix it yourself.”

    That took him from 200+ customer service emails a day to fewer than 20 a week. AND dropped his return rate to below 3% (10-15% is the industry average).

    This one quote regarding the results speaks volumes:

    “It’s amazing how someone’s IQ seems to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate that you trust them.”

  9. Kathy Doering July 27, 2016 at 1:36 pm (2 comments) #

    I am happy to hear that Angie’s list is mining social media for reputation management! Kudos for that.

    This may very well be why the site, Homeadvisor, is doing so well. It is a different business model but ultimately does the same thing. Connects businesses with people who need their services. The companies pay – not the customers and customers are encouraged to review them so that keeps the companies on their toes.

    My point is that there is always a competitor out there ready to grab your discouraged customers.

  10. Madison Welch July 28, 2016 at 7:19 am (1 comment) #

    Very accurate article. Professional customer service is amalgam of may factors: loyalty, competence, patience, friendly attitude, etc. But what is most important is the willingness to serve the customer and not their personal interests.

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