Customer Service Is Not Dead! How the Big Corporations Are Creating an Opportunity for the Rest of Us
Customer service is not dead! We take such service seriously, because our business thrives with it and dies without it.
The following story is not for the faint of heart. It is a tale of unintended consequences and of a surprising opportunity for those of us not caught in the net of those consequences.
You may be familiar with the idea of a software subroutine. It’s a set of instructions that can be called as needed that performs some action and sometimes returns some values for future use. An example would be a square root function which accepts a numeral and returns the square root of that numeral. Company policies are a corporation’s subroutines. Consulting a policy returns an understanding of whether or not an intended action is compatible with that policy.
Every publicly-traded corporation has a customer service department that is catatonic — on critical life support. That claim may seem a bit harsh or even overly extreme, but hear me out. There are facts to back up this claim. Those facts weave a cautionary tale for all businesses. And those facts provide us with a rich opportunity.
The big corporations listed on the stock exchange can’t help what they do. Their character flaw is built into their DNA — their articles of incorporation — like some core software module that affects everything.
You can’t expect a scorpion not to sting or a snake not to bite, any more than you can expect a publicly-traded corporation to put customer service first on their list of priorities. They have neither the flexibility nor the luxury of giving good customer service. They have a fiduciary duty to put customer service far down on their list of priorities.
At Punch, our customers and their needs always come first. We value this advantage and do everything we can to protect our honored trust.
Customer Service Horror Stories
While still in college, one writer-developer worked at Bank of America in their customer service department, in debit card claims. He saw first hand the corporate focus on quantity to the demise of quality. Every customer service rep was expected to close a certain number of claims each week. But was that the right metric? Some claims were easy and could be completed in minutes if not seconds. But occasionally a claim would have thorny details that required a deeper investigation. And that took time, if done properly for the customer’s sake.
The college student, customer service rep had been told repeatedly that he needed to get his numbers up. Secretly, he wondered if he should merely deny every claim without looking at them. Then, he could be the champion of debit card claims. Or he could approve all claims, costing the bank more money. He rejected both approaches and continued to give each claim the amount of time required to understand and to judge each based on their merits. Not long afterward, he graduated with a computer science degree, summa cum laude, vowing never again to work in such an ethical sweatshop.
The most celebrated customer service reps completed even the thorniest of claims in seconds — always! But this strategy has a tendency to blow up, on occasion.
In 2004, one customer had purchased a pizza at a local restaurant, but received a shock when he got notice that his account had been overdrawn. Instead of $9.35 for the one pizza, he had been charged $935.00! When his claim was denied by an overeager customer service rep, the customer went to a local television station to complain about the horrible customer service at Bank of America. The president of the corporation was not pleased and demanded that the claim be approved and that the customer’s funds be restored. But did anything change in the customer service department? Not at all. To make such a change would have jeopardized the corporation’s sworn duty to increase shareholder profits. Such is the nature of the beast.
In 2009, Warren Nyerges, a retired police officer, and his wife, paid cash for a home in Naples, Florida. Early the following year, Bank of America started to foreclose on their property. The Nyerges fought the foreclosure, spending thousands in attorney fees. Not only were the Nyerges not customers of the bank, they could not get the bank’s customer service department to listen to reason — that there was no loan on which to foreclose.
Eventually, the bank dropped the foreclosure, but refused to pay the Nyerges’ attorney fees. The retired couple took the bank to court again and won a settlement against the corporation. When the bank still refused to pay, the Nyerges filed to foreclose on the bank. Their attorney showed up at a local Bank of America branch with sheriff’s deputies, foreclosure papers, and a moving truck, with intent to pick up cash, bank furniture and computers. About an hour later, the bank manager produced a check to cover the attorney fees and other expenses the Nyerges had incurred from the bank’s false foreclosure proceedings.
In 2013, six former employees of Bank of America signed sworn affidavits that the bank had conspired to deny qualified borrowers a chance to modify their existing loans to more favorable terms, per US law. Bank staffers had been paid bonuses for forcing homeowners into foreclosure. “We were told to lie to customers,” said Simone Gordon. She had worked for the bank’s loss mitigation department.
These are not isolated stories about Bank of America and their poor customer service. There are many other, similar horror stories about the bank.
This article isn’t about a Bank of America problem or even a financial industry problem. The lack of great customer service applies to all publicly-traded corporations, and may well apply to many privately-owned corporations, as well. The reason is simple and easy to understand, and it also gives the rest of us a powerful advantage.
What Great Customer Service Looks Like
In the 1985 science fiction adventure film, Back to the Future, the audience was surprised by the level of service at a 1950s automobile service station, when an army of uniformed station attendants attacked a car with pampering TLC — to pump gas, check oil, clean windows and to check tire air pressure. In our modern world, a car pulling in for gas gets none of these. The 1950s level of customer service would bewilder most people today.
When a customer runs into a unique problem not covered by a company’s FAQs, boilerplate answers are a waste of time. Customer service reps who actually take the time to read and understand the entire question or complaint have a far higher chance of supplying a valuable answer. Such was the case with one blogger’s web hosting company, Superb.net. He wrote in glowing terms how the customer service at Superb was unusually good in this age of quantity ahead of quality. “They actually understood my questions and answered them. Amazing!” he wrote in a blog several years ago. He also wrote that customer service with corporations like PayPal, Xoom and Bank of America were horrible at handling the non-standard question. In one scare story, he went through nearly a dozen customer service reps, repeating details several times and giving up in frustration, because none of the customer service reps took the time to read the entire backstory to understand the context of the question. “But Superb restored my faith in customer service,” he wrote.
What makes the difference between poor customer service and the great variety that seems to be so rare these days?
Attitude has a lot to do with it. The vision of senior management comes into play. But publicly-traded corporations are hobbled with one overpowering policy: shareholder profits come ahead of everything else. Every policy and major action is filtered by that one subroutine. In fact, it might not be unfair to state that every action within such a corporation is governed by that overriding policy.
That policy of “shareholder first” has given us health industry corporations that lobby against cures, because cures destroy profits. We get a focus on disease maintenance instead of health maintenance. We get corporate lobbyists who have desks in the offices of the congressmen they are supposed to influence.
“Shareholder first” also gave us the housing bubble a decade ago, followed by a near trillion dollar bailout and “too big to fail” nonsense. In Iceland, savvy government officials let their corrupt banks fail and jailed the bank execs who had been responsible. Iceland fiscal recovery was swift and energetic, far better than that in America. Refreshing sanity in Iceland. But the “shareholder first” policy that created those fiascos, has also led to poor customer service.
Elements of Great Customer Service
Communication is the key ingredient in customer service. It requires that someone actually listen to the customer. Bank of America’s customer service department merely speeds through a customer’s communication, finding keywords and responding to what the customer service rep thinks the communication is about. Sometimes they’re right. Boilerplate responses may actually help some customers on simple problems. But sometimes such a shortsighted approach blows up in the company’s face, as we’ve seen.
When you find a company that has solid gold customer service, thank them for that service. Tell them that’s why you’re staying with them, and tell them never to change that wonderful service.
The Big Opportunity in Customer Service
In a world where big corporations are killing customer service, those privately-owned companies that provide excellent customer service have a powerful advantage. Keeping that advantage may be easier than you think. It may even be scalable with things like FAQs and the beginnings of AI Help Systems.
Good customer service costs money to deliver. There’s no way around that. But not every customer concern requires lots of extra work. Those concerns that do require an additional measure of effort would be far more costly to ignore.
Publicly-traded corporations are trapped in a legal hammerlock that forces them to put shareholder profits ahead of all else. And that yields a surprising opportunity for the privately-owned company. So, cherish the opportunity and make the most of it by pampering your customers in ways the big corporations will never be able to match.