Management Matters: Reexamining Customer Service

Tough times require new ideas. Today, all businesses, large and small, are having a difficult time. New ways of doing business are required to survive, let alone thrive. Clearly the key to success is keeping customers. Why? Because without them you have no business.

Actually, this customer retention challenge couldn't come along at a better time. We have become woefully lax in taking care of our customers. We have taken them for granted, and a correction has been long overdue. These most important partners have come to be seen as a nuisance, a necessary evil, interlopers who are preventing you from getting on with more important things (I actually heard a computer geek complain that technology would work just fine if there were no people involved). You get the idea. Here are some more examples of "customer disservice" I've run into recently:

The really hard sell. A salesman in an upscale appliance store actually cursed under his breath when I asked him for the price of a certain fixture. Evidently he would have had to go look it up, and he was on his way to lunch. He huffed off and never came back.

Measure once, cut never. A painting contractor came to my house to take measurements so he could make a proposal. After spending 45 minutes with his tape measure, going from room to room, he said that he'd get back to me in a few days with the cost. I never heard from him again.

Web of lies. A customer service rep for a major telephone company became frustrated with me because I could not understand anything he said. After asking him several times to repeat what he was saying, he told me I could get all the information I needed from their website. Did I want the URL? When I said yes, he asked me to wait while he looked it up. Two minutes later, the line went dead.

The list could go on and on. Personally, I don't blame any of these perpetrators. The responsibility for poor customer service rests squarely with managers. When they provide little or no training to their people, when no accurate feedback from live customers is offered, and when front-line failures incur no penalties, it's a wonder that things aren't even worse. Quick fixes, like providing canned scripts for service personnel, don't cut it either. Imagine my surprise when I called the operator at a hotel recently and her opening gambit was, "Mr. Dr. Thomas, how may I service you?"

Can anything be done to reverse this situation? Here are four unconventional, even controversial, suggestions:

Give everyone who interfaces with customers a personality test. It doesn't have to be a full-blown psychological assessment. Just find out whether or not they like people. If not, stick them in a back room someplace where they can interface with a computer all day long.

Choose staff to engage with customers based on the level of their experience and the quality of customer feedback. Start them off with pre-contact simulations. If they show a natural liking for customers (and their personality test confirms this), graduate them to limited phone interaction and a lot of mentoring. If all continues to go well, elevate them to face-to-face contact and provide continuous customer feedback to them about their performance.

Reward salespeople not for how much they sell but for the positive feedback you get about them from customers. Use this customer feedback as the only source of rewards for your people. The only thing that matters is whether or not your customers are happy with your people. Their orders will take care of themselves.

If we're willing to give rewards for doing a good job, we ought to give some punishment for doing jobs poorly. This could take the form of an assessment. For each instance of negative feedback they receive from customers, they are dinged financially. Should the pattern continue, they might even have to pay back some of their salary. Hopefully things will turn around, and they'll start down a more positive path of good behavior, positive customer feedback, and financial rewards.

It has been said that people buy people, not products. I think this is true. To date, all our focus has been on designing better products, meeting quarterly profit projections, and improving stock prices. Real business value, however, resides in the eyes of the beholder, who in this case happens to be our customer. If we don't improve our relations with customers during this tough time, they will soon be gone, and our business will migrate to someone else.

Dr. Tom McDonald, a Ph.D. in psychology, speaks on "People Skills" needed for "Business Results." Reach him in San Diego at (858) 523-0883, [email protected], or visit

Originally published July 01, 2008

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