Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Why businesses kill customer service

“There you go again, givin’ a f— when it’s not your turn.”

The “Bunk,” a Baltimore detective from the TV series “The Wire,” to anyone who answers the homicide unit phone when they’re not “up.”

Recent columns in my local newspaper by a business columnist lament the decline of customer service and attribute it to the younger generation of workers, who, he says, lack a lot of the skills needed to deliver good customer service.

Of course, that’s coming from someone whose columns often are full of spelling and grammar mistakes such was “the tenants” of something instead of “the tenets” of something, and calling Warren Buffett by another name, Warren “Buffet.”

Still, the columnist makes an interesting point. The reality is, though, that many old-line businesses have an attitude about customer service that is prehistoric, to say the least.

To me, everyone in a business is a customer service representative, even if that’s not their job title. When a person calls a business, that person doesn’t care if you’re the president of the company or the cleaning person. He or she wants his question answered or his issue resolved.

So on a recent evening when someone called to deliver the results of a boxing match, it might not have been my specific job that night to deal with sports but I took the call and took down the results. Later, I gave the results to the person whose job it was that night to handle them and they were in the paper the next day. Customer satisfied, mission accomplished.

In some businesses, though, it’s not so simple. Companies become stratified and maybe certain workers are told not to try to help customers. These are the companies where customers become frustrated and take their business elsewhere because they get the runaround. It is true that, for example, I cannot fix a delivery problem with the newspaper I work for and I don’t have the time to help people connect to the Internet, but I can be pleasant and friendly while I try to direct the call in the limited time I have to the person who can help. A little decency and friendliness can go a long way, I have learned in my 54 years.

I once read in a book about car sales that the author learned from a funeral director that the average person knows about 120 people, so if you make a good impression on one person you are making a good impression on 120 people if he or she tells everyone they know about what happened to them. This can work the other way, though. Upset one person, and 120 people might know about it and remember it when they’re looking for a good or service.

I have often written about the Postal Service’s approach to customer service, which is basically to create barriers and prevent employees from helping customers. For decades, the attitude was to basically tell customers to f— off if they didn’t like the way they were treated and blame it on the customers if they called the wrong number for service.

Today, for example, if you have a problem with your mail delivery you have to call an “800” number and talk to someone in another part of the country or file a form online. Your local postmaster or a postal manager or employee is not permitted to talk to you at all. The fear is that if the local person does something good for you, everyone else will expect the same favor. By bringing the level of interaction down to zero, the Postal Service hopes to limit expectations of good service. It’s easier and cheaper, by that logic, to provide bad service than to raise people’s hopes.

Back when I was a mailhandler at the post office in the late 1980s, I made the mistake of thinking that I should be responsible for more than what I was assigned to do. One day, I was in the bulk mail acceptance unit and the phone rang, so I answered it. The person had a question about something that I knew nothing about, so I asked a person I knew what to do about it.

“Give me the phone,” he said, and I gave it to him.

He took the phone and hung it up.

“We’re closed,” he told me, “and anyway it’s not our job to answer their questions. They need to call the right number next time.”

I persisted. “But they don’t know that.”

“Too bad,” the worker said. “We don’t have time for their problems here.”

I was warned not to answer the phone again and to not try to help customers. It wasn’t my place to question anything, and anyway, as one manager told me, “If they want good service, they should use UPS or Fedex.”

One thing I have noticed is that the decline in good service in places like the Postal Service usually begins with a change in authority. For example, a neighborhood post office run by an old-line postmaster with decades of experience often is a pleasant place, postal customers report, and the postmaster is known in the community as someone who can be relied on to be friendly and open.

The windows clerks are longtime employees and community members, and the letter carriers are also longtimers who know their routes forwards and backwards.

Often, such postmasters and staffers are living on borrowed time and know it, and eventually they are retired out. Then, things change.

The postmaster usually is the first to go. Then a minimally qualified replacement comes in, often eager to rid the office of the longtime staffers. They have enough time to retire and leave as the disciplinary actions pile up. Soon, customers are directed to call the “800” number for problems that used to be solved locally.

The cooperative workplace becomes a frantic mess as mail arrives late every morning and carriers are pushed harder and harder. As the old-line workers leave, much cheaper new hires are brought in, given very little training and are fired or quit when they can’t keep up.

Soon, customers notice that their “regular” letter carrier is gone and the new ones can’t deliver mail to the right addresses with any consistency and can’t learn the routes because they are constantly being switched around. Plus, their schedule leaves them with no regular hours or days off, so they’re exhausted and in a rush to get back before overtime kicks in.

Complaints about service to the “800” number increase – and are ignored – until a congressman is contacted. He or she can do little, and members of the management bureaucracy will usually tell the media that the post office has to cut costs and that things will improve soon. Soon never happens, and service gets worse, so customers keep complaining and postal managers develop the attitude that customers are just natural gripers and begin to ignore them even more.

By this time, there has been a complete turnover of staff in the post office and no one really knows how to do much of the work. There is no time for training (in the Postal Service, training time is considered wasted time; you are supposed to learn on the job and if you don’t know instinctively how to do a job, it’s because you’re stupid, and no wonder you’re working at the post office. It means you’re too dumb to get a job anywhere else) so workers are allowed to do work wrong and send mail anywhere.

The postmaster, by the way, now is buried in paperwork and reports so even if he or she wants to be helpful to customers, they can’t with all these high-level eyes on them. Eventually, the Postal Service decides to close the office or merge it with another post office miles away.

What’s really odd is that the Postal Service tries to persuade customers that it’s listening when in fact it’s ignoring customers because they’re asking for a level of service that they’ll never get again. For example, if told by customers that they want things to go back the way they were, customers are given a lot of doubletalk about how committed the Postal Service is to holding rates down and delivering good service. In the meantime, the hidden message is that the old service is not coming back, so you might as well accept the new reality.

You see this everywhere now. To managers, providing good service seems to be an added cost, so just train customers to expect bad service and require workers to give bad service while blaming said service on said workers’ “lack of commitment to good service.”

In fact, some companies can even use bad service to make themselves look good.

Before Adelphia Cable collapsed, it ran in a cycle where it would respond to the flood of complaints by periodically sending out letters claiming the company was recommitting itself to customer service because there was a new manager in charge of something with the word “customer” or “service” in it.

Since Adelphia had a monopoly in the area, it really had no incentive to improve anything and eventually the new effort would run down, then there would be a new “recommitment” six months later.

At one point, Adelphia opened an office in Stuart (near where my newspaper employer was at the time) as part of this alleged recommitment to improve service. About a year later, the company closed the office, fired the staff and redirected all customer complaints to the Miami office, telling customers it was again recommitting itself to customer service and “we can serve the Stewart (sic) area better from Miami.”

The companies that are doing well are those in which customer service is a commitment from the top down to make customers satisfied and glad they are doing business with the company. Too bad so many old-line companies have forgotten that.

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September 1, 2015 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , ,

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