Sunday, January 02, 2005

Customer Service Is Communication

"You cannot not communicate" is one of the mantras of professional communicators. Even the attempt to avoid communicating communicates something. That's why we say customer service (or lack thereof) is communication.

Take a couple of experiences I've had in the last couple of days.

For context: Our 19-month-old chronically ill baby is back in the hospital. She developed a urinary tract infection and a lung infection while her grandmother and great aunt were visiting from Florida, which puts extra logistical pressure on us.

Some friends gave us some gift cards to a grocery store to help us out during this time. We usually use another grocery store, even though it costs a bit more, because we get better service there. But a gift card is a gift card, and food is food. So Friday I went grocery shopping to the store whose gift cards I had. The store shall remain nameless.

Well, OK, since you asked, the store was Bi-Lo in Maryville, Tennessee.

It's a nice, clean store with everything properly arranged and all the displays in place. I found everything I needed and proceeded to a checkout manned by a tall, clean-cut young man.

He looked great, in fact, except that he appeared never to have smiled in his life. No greeting. Eyes focused on the cash register. He just pulled my cart up and started running items across the scanner, asking the requisite "Do you have a Bi-Lo card?" in the same tone you might use talking to a flat tire.

"I do," I said, "but I don't have it with me." I keep those things in my Dayrunner, which I had left at the hospital.

Still not looking at me, he said, "What's your phone number?"

I gave it to him, and he punched it into the computer. "Dudn't work," he said.

That was it.

After a pause, I said, "Aaaall righty then."

He finished ringing up the purchase, I paid with the gift card, and we left the store.

I am grateful for the gift cards, and since we have one more we will shop there again, which means the store will get one more chance. But unless the experience drastically changes, I will never shop in there again.

As Jeffrey Gitomer says in
Customer Satisfaction is Worthless, Customer Loyalty is Priceless: How to Make Customers Love you, Keep Them Coming Back, and Tell Everyone They Know, I'm not ticked off at the cashier. I'm ticked off at whoever trained the cashier. His body language certainly communicated a lack of caring about me or anyone else around him. We can (and probably will) spend another whole article on what could possibly have led an entire generation to such communication problems. (That's not just old fogey talk. I'm old enough to have seen at least a couple of earlier generations come through those entry level jobs and college classes, and I've never seen this before.) But today we're focusing elsewhere.

The whole experience communicates something to me from the company itself. It tells me they emphasize on having things right, but they don't spend the time and money they need to on people. It tells me they are willing to keep people around who treat the customers badly--probably part of a vicious cycle that goes something like this:

  • Our personnel costs are too high because we have to replace them too often.
  • We can only pay minimum wage because our personnel costs are too high.
  • We attract lower-quality employees because we only pay minimum wage.
  • We have to replace them too often because we attract lower-quality employees.

It tells me that they, like most companies, spend most of their marketing dollars to get new customers or take customers from other companies, while spending very little money and effort to keep the customers they already have.

All those ads and bonus cards and gift cards, etc., are designed to get me into the store. It does no good unless my experience makes me want to come back.

They are so good at forecasting market trends and tracking purchases (that's why they give you the bonus cards to begin with). How can they be so stupid when it comes to dealing with people? I'll bet they cut what little training they offer as soon as the economy tightens--which communicates that they view business as a mechanical process rather than one built on relationships. (This is an assumption, based on what I've seen among lots of companies. Although it's an assumption, it's still the message I get.)

Here's another example.

Because we're on the run all the time, we eat a lot of fast food. We like a lot of fast food better than McDonald's, but we eat at McDonald's more often because they are likely to get the order right and to have people at the drive-through who act like they care. (Your mileage may vary; this is what happens in our area.) We have gotten on a first-name basis with two or three of the folks at McDonald's. On those relatively rare occasions when the order hasn't been right, they have cheerfully and quickly fixed it.

Two days ago, I went through Burger King's drive-through and ordered a sausage, egg, and cheese Croissan'wich®. The ticket stapled to the bag said sausage, egg, and cheese Croissan'wich®. I paid for a sausage, egg, and cheese Croissan'wich®. Because I was headed to the hospital, I glanced in the bag and hit the road.

A half-mile away I opened the wrapper, and I had a cold ham and cheese Croissan'wich®. No egg. Wrong meat. No heat. I ate it anyway, because I was hungry, and because I didn't have time to go back. But next time, chances are I'll go to McDonald's.

If it was the first time, I'd try that Burger King again. But it seems to happen about half the time--there's something wrong with it. Plus, it's a new face every time I go through the drive-through, and this particular face barely took the time to interrupt her conversation with another employee to mechanically wish me a nice day. So when I'm pressed for time, I'll just skip them.

Fast food managers say they can't afford to pay too much, and they can't afford training, because turnover is too high. But how many dollars do they lose to stuff like this?

Two years ago while my wife was pregnant with Hannah she had car trouble on Pellissippi Parkway (a major road in Knoxville, Tennessee) and pulled off at the Burger King on Lovell Road. We've stopped there dozens of times because of its convenience. She asked to use the phone, and the shift manager told her policy prevented him from letting her. He didn't offer to call for her, didn't offer her his cell phone, didn't try any other way to help her solve the problem. Just spouted policy--this from the shift manager of a restaurant where we had done hundreds of dollars in business.

My pregnant wife crossed the road to an automotive repair place where we have never done business, and they let her use the phone. If we lived anywhere in the area, we'd be getting our cars fixed there now, and we have recommended the place to several other people. I'm sure we've sent thousands of dollars in business their way. (Note: if any of our friends had told us the repair service had been bad, we'd have stopped recommending. But they were always pleased with the service to their cars as well as the way they were treated.)

We have not set foot in that particular Burger King in two years. How many dollars did that cost Burger King--especially when you consider how many other people I've told about it?

The loss of revenue is not the shift manager's fault. It's the fault of whoever trained him, and the fault of whoever set the assumptions behind the training, i.e., "policy matters more than principle or people."

You better believe it, folks: customer service communicates. And by the way, calling a company division "Customer Service" doesn't make it service, any more than it does when the IRS includes "service" in its name. Customer service is an attitude, exemplified by management and propagated through real training. Even if you provide training, it won't reach the customers unless the managers actually encourage it beyond lip service, and empower principle over policy. Failure to do so communicates far more to me than any fancy ads.

This isn't just griping about poor service. We all have hundreds of bad service stories. Rather, I'm making a point: service communicates, good or bad. Before spending thousands of dollars promoting your business to new customers, think about the message you're sending to your existing customers. This applies just as much to those off us who work for someone else as it does to business owners. We still have customers.

Take a look at Jeffrey Gitomer's book. It's worth the time, the investment, and the discomfort it will bring you.

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