“Your Service Sucks!”

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Some of us are still reeling from the political season of hyperbole. For months we listened to the scream of the media and learned, according to some pundit, that every candidate was a saint, insane or Satan. Most people dulled the drone of the drivel by changing channels or ignoring the junk. Now, we are already hearing speculation about 2016. It is like winter holiday decorations going on display in a retail store—they seem to go up earlier every year.

The season of political grandstanding and high pitched rhetoric always reminds us of a key customer service challenge: What do you do with customer complaint magnification? How do you smartly ferret out actionable certainty from customers’ extreme emotional camouflage? It is a bit like maintaining our vehicles properly versus yielding to the temptation to just attend to the “squeaky wheel.”

We were conducting a customer focus group for a large utility. On the other side of the one-way glass sat the president of the utility–eager to learn suggestions for service improvement. Toward the end of the allotted interview time, one customer launched into a long tirade chastising the utility on the terrible manner they had handled communication during a major outage. Her over-the-top wrath began to warp the mood of other attendees. As the focus group was ending, the president asked if he could address the focus group, particularly the livid messenger. The focus group leader consented.

The utility president was cordial and authentic in his remarks to the focus group. He warmly thanked them for their helpful candor. With zero defensiveness, he asked the irate customer for more specifics on her situation. It was obvious he was ready to wage war on the company’s service imperfections and/or leader failures. “Oh, that was fifteen years ago,” the customer said. “You’re utility is dramatically better today. I just thought you wanted examples of poor service.” The president left learning two valuable lessons: service memories can be very long; and, customer histrionics are often pleas requiring much deeper understanding.

But, the opposite of customer sentiments can be true. Again, we were directing a series of customer focus group sessions for a bank client. At one session, a customer registered frustration over the bank’s decision to significantly lower their consumer lending interest rate while leaving her rate extremely high. It was obvious she was tempering her anger in the public forum.

When the session ended a senior bank executive who had observed the session on the other side of a one-way glass asked to speak to the customer as the group was leaving. When the noticeably interested executive began to probe for more details from the customer, she broke into sobs. He quickly learned her financial situation was far graver on her family than she had revealed in the focus group. Another lesson in always assuming customer communications are like an iceberg—much of the truth lies under the surface. And, only the customer, under the attentiveness and interest of a great communicator, can lower the “water level” of their iceberg to reveal the truth.

What are the characteristics of organizations that are great customer communicators? They include in their customer intelligence gathering process those people who can make or influence substantive changes based on what is learned. They create the type of sincere rapport with customers that will cause them to want to be candid. They convince customers that their input will honestly matter, not be just heard and filed away. They outline ways customers will be able to determine how the truth they provide will be employed.

They show no defensiveness when customers provide feedback that is painful, inaccurate or even unfair. They listen to learn, not to defend, teach or make a point. And, they never make promises to customers they cannot or do not keep. Remember: great listening is a contact sport, not a spectator sport. It takes involvement to get customer intelligence; it takes pursuing the complete picture to gain insight. The next time you hear a customer rant about how your service sucks, go to school on what that really means and pursue insight into how it can inform service improvement.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group (chipbell.com) and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.

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