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Customer Service and Empowerment

by Dianne Miethner, Senior Consultant, DMSRetail

The Retail Management Workshop

I have recently been subjected to three of the most unbelievably bad customer service experiences of my life. In all three situations, large well known companies were involved. One is a prominent, on-line travel provider; one is a monopoly in the telephone service industry and the other is a huge conglomerate.

I will not bore you with all of the details because I am sure you have been through similar experiences. Almost everyone has. It’s unbelievable, but true.

Being a Retail Management Consultant, I know my way around customer service issues and around company hierarchies so I managed to get my situations resolved, to my satisfaction, albeit many hours of my time were involved and my stress level was at a point where any Doctor would have administered medication on the spot.

The reason I am writing this story is because it is truly unfathomable, to me, that during these difficult economic times when consumers are holding their pocketbooks tighter than they have in many years, we have large companies who still do not get it!!

And I know why. The people who are answering the phones – usually at a call centre in a country other than where the company and the customer are located – have not received proper training. Frankly, I don’t care where they are located as long as they can solve problems, but they can’t.

Don’t get me wrong, every single one of the individuals that I spoke with was polite, somewhat knowledgeable and very aware of their company policies – that is why I heard exactly the same words from so many of them. Unfortunately, that is where it ended.

They were not properly trained. They did not know what to do for a customer who had an issue – you know the dreaded “issue” that is totally outside of the scope of anything they have ever been taught to cope with. So they drone on, repeating the same ineffectual thing that they have said several times already. The things they say in the hopes that you will completely understand that there is nothing they can do and you just need to go away and stop bothering them with your “issue”.

Well, unfortunately for them, I was not one of those who would go away. No, I pushed and pushed to talk to people at higher and higher levels within the organization. All of this was done without being impolite. Perhaps I will send them a bill for my time, though.

The stunning fact is, when you go high enough up you will have your “issue” resolved. In all three cases, my “issue” was resolved. In addition, I received apologies and gift certificates and a great deal of attention. Yes, it does happen so why weren’t other employees, at lower levels, empowered to resolve my issues? It would have made me very satisfied, it would have saved the company time and money, and it would have shown that they are ready to do business in the years ahead. At this point I must tell you that my issues were not that complicated. In each case, there was an error on the part of the company. It was all documented clearly.

The thing is, I know that upper management would not want a customer with “issues” such as mine to go away. They would absolutely want to satisfy me because I am a very, very good customer with huge lifetime value to those companies.

So, what went wrong? The employees that I had to deal with, initially, were not properly trained and they were not empowered to help a customer unless the “issue” fit into one of the cookie cutter problem descriptions. Really, when a customer has a cookie cutter problem, they are usually quite content with an appropriate cookie cutter response and they go away happy.

Where is the training for human beings to deal with the other things that can, and will, go wrong? Why must customers work so hard to get satisfaction? Why must they lose their valuable time, waste energy and experience high stress levels just to get their issue resolved?

Why is it, that when businesses are closing all over and those that are still in business are experiencing sharp declines in revenue and profit from prior years, that they are not able to understand that their people are not doing the job – the job of retaining the precious customers they have; the ones that are spending money even now?

It’s very interesting to me that in a time where it is so important for employees to try to do everything right for their customer, training those employees is considered a luxury; an expense that they deem unnecessary. Of course, I realize that this sounds self serving but, truly, when you think about it, does it make sense?

Should companies really cut back on training their people in order to save a few dollars or should they realize that they need to increase specialized training in order to make it in this new world?

North American consumers – and probably consumers in most parts of the world – will not likely go back to their spending habits of the past. It has been predicted that this new economy has made a lot of consumers think long and hard about the waste and the consumerism and they are definitely re-thinking their lifestyles. They are thinking about what they really want and need. They don’t want debt and they are trying to unclutter their lives by buying less. Gone are the days of wanting and ‘needing’ everything they see.

So, if your company is not ready to adjust and train and get ready for the work ahead – the hard work of retaining the customers who are willing to spend their hard earned dollars on whatever it is you have to offer – then it’s pretty much game over. This is a very serious issue and requires very serious attention from upper management. Think about it.


You can contact Dianne Miethner at dmiethner@dmsretail.com with your comments.

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