A Customer Service Bill of Rights

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Source: Pixabay.com

This past week, the U.S. celebrated Independence Day, commemorating both the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the U.S. as a separate nation. Over a decade later, the Constitution would follow, setting the laws of the land, followed later by its first ten amendments: the Bill of Rights.

This idea of establishing a formal set of rights continues to this day. Over a year ago, in light of the struggles in the airline industry, an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights was proposed. Arising out of regular stories of delayed flights and stranded travelers, it seemed necessary as many airlines were unwilling or unable to get a handle on the distress they were causing their passengers.

Unfortunately, the airline industry is not alone–they just happen to have had enough highly-visible incidents to make it into the news. The truth is many companies struggle with providing quality customer service. Rather than involve Congress, I would propose companies adopt their own Customer Service Bill of Rights. I have some ideas for what this could look like. Though short and not complex (with a brief preamble and only five “articles”), it is very aspirational and would be challenging for most companies to ratify and deliver. All the same, I offer it here for consideration.

Preamble

Customers don’t expect to have problems with the products and services they purchase or subscribe to. The unfortunate fact is that issues will occur with said products and services. Accepting that fact does not mean ignoring those problems or making it difficult for your customers to find solutions. Instead, when customer assistance is necessary, that experience should require as little effort as possible on the part of the customer, ensure a fast response and resolution, and efforts should be made to prevent issues from occurring in the future.

Article I: Set and exceed expectations

Every company’s customer service is a bit different. Though Amazon might set a certain level of expectation, the fact is most companies will struggle to attain this level of customer service. While they should seek to continuously improve, they can limit customer frustration by setting expectations.

One business day to respond to email messages on average? Five minute average wait time in the telephone queue? Two customers ahead in the chat queue? Let the customer know what to anticipate. Even when service is overloaded and response times are bleak, setting the expectation upfront can reduce (though not eliminate) customer frustration.

Then do everything possible to exceed those expectations. Even when the contact volume is high, when a set expectation is exceeded most customers will appreciate it.

Article II: Offer self-service

Customers want you to value their time. They are also demanding the means to solve their own problems anytime, anywhere rather than email or call a service center during business hours and wait for an answer.

The answer is to provide self-service. It takes many forms, including:

  • Searchable knowledge bases
  • Online communities
  • Automated solutions
  • Online case management

Each has its own requirements and not all are appropriate for every customer and their customer types. Continuously evaluate what types of self-service make sense as needs change and better options become available.

Article III: Privacy protections and control

Personal data protection and privacy is a hot topic, in light of numerous data breaches and social media data misuse. Now more than ever, customers need more control over their personal information. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) moved to address this for Europen Union citizens. The GDPR conveyed several key rights that can be summarized as follows:

  • Must have explicit consent to use a citizen’s personal data in any manner
  • Must allow citizens insight into how their data is used and granular consent controls.
  • Must be able to send the data to the user or other organizations if they request.
  • Must be able to update/correct incorrect information.
  • Must be able to delete all personal data if requested.
  • Must promptly notify citizens if a data breach occurs.

These rights are probably just the beginning and are a move in the right direction to better protect individuals’ information and privacy. Though the GDPR only covers EU citizens, other countries are also evaluating similar legislation. Many companies around the world have voluntarily chosen to extend those rights to their non-EU customers, as well; this is the customer-centric approach to take.

Article IV: Connected customer service

Responding to the same issue over-and-over is a bit like Sisyphus. Unfortunately, many companies choose to work this way: never address the core problem to not only eliminate that volume of calls, emails, and chats, but also to further improve the customer experience.

Rather than roll the boulder the up the hill each day, customer service should be driving permanent solutions to problems. This is only possible when customer service is connected to other parts of the company like finance (for billing problems) and manufacturing or development (for product issues). Working collaboratively, customer service should hold these other teams accountable to eliminate these problems and improve the overall customer experience.

Article V: Proactive and preventative service

A company that is aware of an existing or potential problem should preemptively notify its customers. It might be to alert them they might encounter it, that a solution is under development, or how to fix the problem. A simple email that informs customers of an issue and how to avoid it is a powerful action that shows concern while also eliminating unnecessary contacts into the service center.

Proactive service isn’t difficult, but it does require planning. Customer service should use analytics to monitor service activity for patterns. Connected devices and services can be monitored using the Internet of Things to identify potential problems or get early notice of failures.

In the same manner, some products and services require periodic maintenance. Make this clear to the customer and set the expectation for how often this should be performed either by the customer themselves or a skilled technician. Schedule these events so they can plan for that brief interruption rather than face unplanned downtime.

The right to great service

Addressing unexpected problems is not how a customer wants to spend their time. With customer experience now the competitive battleground for companies, getting service right is critical. The circumstances the airline industry has found itself in serve as a powerful lesson.

A formal Customer Service Bill of Rights creates a strong statement of commitment to customers. It also sets the bar high and will challenge most companies. The results are worth it, though: a set of rules to consistently serve customers well and continuously improve the customer experience.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Great point of view. I am managing a Telecommunication contact center in an emerging market. Instead of setting customer expectations and exceeding it, i have found that if we just meet those expectations and shift the remainder of effort to improving our product creates more loyal customers. Exceeding customer expectations in non-emotional products has not done much for us.

    again thanks for sharing your point of view.

  2. Thanks for commenting. I wholeheartedly agree that improving the product itself (and that experience) should be what companies focus on. Customer service is there for the problems–the exceptions–and where it makes sense to do so, those exceptions need to be addressed back in the product/experience. That’s Article IV, above: fix the problems that are affecting a great outcome for the customer. Ideally, no one ever needs to contact customer service because things just work.

  3. Hi Paul: thanks for tackling this. JetBlue and Starbucks came up first in the search for ‘customer bill of rights.’ No surprise. Starbucks had its prominent service debacle this year, and the company responded in kind with prominent mitigation. JetBlue’s founder, David Neeleman, was fired in 2007 following a major customer service meltdown. Other companies might benefit from drafting their own Bill of Rights.

    These days, much of my work is in corporate governance, risk and compliance (GRC) – longhand for saying ‘I help companies adhere to sound ethics.’ But my experience in marketing and sales reminds me that even in an ostensibly customer-centric world, customers don’t always behave well, and any “bill of rights” must include customer responsibilities. Sure, vendors should set expectations for customers, but some customer rights are relinquished when they flagrantly misuse a product. Customers should expect expedient service, but not when they take grievous advantage of vendors. And what rights accrue to customers who don’t pay for their goods and services in a timely way, or don’t pay at all? This stuff happens with regularity – one reason I advocate a good set of contracts to accompany every sale.

    My main point of difference is with “Proactive and preventive service.” Proactive service, as you described it, can indeed be difficult. Based on my years in IT hardware sales, I believe this section could never be implemented. At least, not without placing the vendor at great financial risk. What about end-of-life hardware that the vendor no longer supports? What about taking on the onus for advising customers about preventive maintenance, absent paid service revenue? If the vendor decided to shoulder the responsibility (a foolish move, in my mind), which party would incur legal liability in the case of equipment failure? Would customers be entitled to compensation for operational failures that occurred beyond the warranty period? In the companies where I’ve worked, these issues alone would be non-starters for vendors in any ‘bill of rights.’ Probably one reason there’s a market for third-party maintenance providers.

    Here’s an instance where accountants could add great advisory value. No doubt they’d push back on setting up an Allowance for Equipment Failure Liability Costs in the General Ledger.

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