HR Group, founded in Edmonton Alberta in 1993, is a partnership of highly experienced management consultants who specialize in organizational effectiveness and human resource management, and promote participative, lean, and cost-effective management practices. All partners are Certified Human Resource Practitioners with extensive senior level experience in both the private and public sectors.

Customer Service, Eh?

Reprinted from “Productive Workplaces” (Fall, 2003), the HR Group newsletter.

“Sorry, but all our operators are busy at this time. Please hold and your call will be answered in the order in which it was received. Thank you for your patience; we value your business.”

Ten minutes later, sometimes longer with monopolies, especially in the transportation or communication sectors, and after the same repeated message every 30 seconds or so between being subjected to the worst possible music:

“Thank you for calling Customer Service (or whatever department you were trying to reach). For service in English press 1. Welcome to our automated service system. Listen carefully to the following options: for account inquiries press 1, for technical service press 2, for new account inquiries press 3, etc. etc. etc.” But none of the categories fit your concerns and so you press 0 hoping to finally reach a human being: “Sorry, 0 is not a valid code.” You bet it’s not valid – there are no humans available to help you.

One communications company had their automated phone system set up so that it was impossible to get in touch with any human being unless you had the appropriate access or extension code. There was no receptionist or operator. This necessitated a trip to the company’s offices in Edmonton. I went right to the head of one line at reception that said “closed” but had someone working there and asked them for the name and address of the president. Luckily the clerk understood the expression on my face and gave me the information requested without question. I wrote a letter to the president and two days later received the first of several phone calls from people falling all over themselves trying to reassure me that the company really cared about providing me with good service. I must admit that they now provide access to an actual human being – what a novel idea.

I have also had to write a 2-page letter to the president of a telecommunications company asking why I was shunted between 6 departments, reaching only voice mail each time, while trying to settle a service problem for our business. Not once was I able to get a human being who could assist me. Again I was inundated with phone calls from people trying to reassure me that they really cared about us as a valued client.

What is wrong with these organizations? If they value our business, and I assume that those who are not monopolies do, then why do they not see that they are driving the customer away?

What about going through the cashier with 25 small identical items? You tell the cashier that there are 25 and she proceeds to count all of them. What about finding out at the cashier that the item you wish to purchase does not have a bar code on it? You tell the cashier what the price is, but she pages the supervisor. You and the entire line-up behind you wait for the supervisor to finally arrive, go to where the item is located to get the price, and then return to the cashier with the information.

Why do these organizations have such policies that prevent any initiative on the part of their front line staff to exercise their discretion to provide good customer service?

There are too many organizations that do not measure or test their own customer service both internal and external. They glibly say that the “customer comes first” and then install an automated phone system that is not in the least user friendly. They exhort their front line staff to provide excellent customer service and then prevent them from doing so because they provide them with little responsibility to exercise any common sense and initiative.

Executives and managers in both the private and public sectors should be required to personally test their own customer service. They should be required, as part of ongoing quality control, to phone, for example, their own organizations and departments with a variety of inquiries to see what kind of service they receive. “Ghost” shoppers and anonymous users can also be utilized to regularly test your services in person and by phone.

Oh, but you’re avoiding the issue of cost you say. Not at all. There are many notable examples of major corporations and public service departments that have instituted comprehensive call centres manned by human beings capable of providing one stop shopping or at least empowered to connect you to the appropriate human being, not voice mail. Studies have repeatedly shown that the investment is more than recouped in additional sales and loyal customers. It is so refreshing to see a company such as Capital City Savings advertising the fact that a human being will answer your calls – hopefully the practice will be catching.

Studies have also repeatedly shown that employee satisfaction leads to customer satisfaction. Provide them with the responsibility to exercise their own initiative and the customer will benefit.

Get out there and measure your own customer service. Perhaps if you had to endure what some of your customers have to, then maybe you might be more inclined to pay more attention to your customer service.