Has the Customer Service Pendulum Swung Too Far?

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Remember when great customer service wasn’t necessarily a given? When if you bought something that didn’t fit right you couldn’t assume it was returnable? And if you needed something the next day, you’d better go get it yourself?

Lily Tomlin’s iconic telephone operator, Ernestine, exemplified at least a strain of “customer service” in the bad old days, needling her customers with delightful nonchalance (summed up in some of her fake phone company ads with the tagline “We don’t care. We don’t have to”).

Of course this sort of attitude has not completely disappeared. I still run into the occasional rude business owner or curt customer service staffer. But overall, expectations have changed. These days—no doubt at least partly in response to Yelp and the whole universe of social media—most businesses bend over backwards for customers, or at least try to give the appearance of doing so.

I certainly appreciate this change. Years ago I became a loyal customer of American Express in part because of their (quite justified) reputation for excellent customer service. More recently, when Trader Joe’s came to town, it quickly became my family’s primary grocery store. It’s convenient, and we like its products, but we also go because we like its atmosphere. Everyone is so friendly! Staff (or crew members, as they’re called), will drop everything to help you find something. They chat personably—some have gotten to know me well enough to ask after my children—and store policy is to take returns, even of opened items, no questions asked, no receipt required. It’s gotten so I dread trips to my other local supermarket, where old-fashioned supermarket rules prevail—no one is ever around when you need help, check-out staff are often sullen, returns are a big deal.

Imagine my horror, then, when stories like this began to leak out.

I don’t know how broadly this story represents TJ’s management policies, or how many of the cheerful crew members I run into are only feigning happiness. It should be noted that the chain gets very high marks from some employees—high enough to get it onto the Glassdoor Best Places to Work Employee Choice awards,  which are based purely on anonymous employee feedback.  Just like I don’t know how accurate are the persistent rumors that Disneyworld is a less than magical place to work. .

But stories like these sure put a darker spin on the whole “customer experience” thing. They also add a cynical footnote to the “happy employees mean happy customers” theory of management. (A theory I, myself, often espouse.  ) After all, why have happy employees, when you can just force them to act happy and save everyone a lot of trouble? It makes me wonder: has the customer service pendulum swung too far?

And what about those call centers?

While stories about famously customer-friendly companies like Trader Joe’s and Disney are the ones that make news, I wonder how many other employees out there are laboring under pressure to create a phony customer experience. I thought about this recently when I was having some trouble with my printer. In my initial technical support call, it was determined that the problem could not easily be fixed but that, since the printer was under warranty, I was entitled to a free replacement.

That call turned out to be the first of way too many, as the company screwed up delivery arrangements, gave me mis-information about what parts of the old machine I had to return, called to correct that mis-information with more mis-information, and in between promised explanatory emails that never materialized. In short, it was a mini-nightmare. But the messed-up process was not the most annoying part.

No, the most annoying part was the insistently cheerful customer service patter that accompanied the entire experience.

Because no one would give me a direct number, with each phone call I had to start by traversing the robot voice recognition obstacle course. When I finally reached a human being, nothing I could say would stop them from reciting their script, re-gathering the same name and call-back information, repeating my question or complaint, and assuring me they would be able to help me with that. Then, they would inform me that in order to get the answer to my question, or escalate my call, they’d first have to put me on hold. This was, of course, accomplished via more verbal diarrhea from their mind-numbing script:

Customer Service Rep (CSR): “Is it ok if I put you on hold briefly so I can look into how to resolve your question?”

Me: “Yes”

CSR: “Great, I’m going to put you on hold for a brief time and will get back to you right away.”

Me: “Ok yes, that’s fine”

Awful loop of soft “jazz” plays about a million times, then:

CSR: “I’m sorry for the inconvenience. Thank you for your patience. I’m still looking into your question. Can you wait a little longer?”

Awful jazz loop continues.

CSR: “I’m sorry for the inconvenience. Thank you for your patience. I’m still looking into your question. Can you wait a little longer?”

Me: That’s fine, and please, you don’t have to keep coming on to tell me I’m still on hold.

This back and forth would continue until the question/problem du jour had been resolved, and then would begin the hang-up dance:

CSR: Thank you for your patience. Have I resolved the issue to your satisfaction?

Me: Yes, thank you very much.

CSR: Do you have any other questions or is there anything else I can do for you today?

Me: Nope, that’s it.

CSR: Thank you very much. You might get a call from our customer satisfaction team. If you have a minute, please take a moment to give us your valuable feedback on this call…

I get it.

The company wants me treated politely, and kept in the loop about what’s going on. But what’s missing is the awareness that 1) true customer service is not screwing up so much in the first place and 2) most customers probably just want to get through call like this as quickly as possible and get back to their lives. Instead of forcing those poor call center employees to recite a perky script, how about letting me skip the robotic menu at the start of each call? Or training staff to respond naturally to the cues I give them—such as, can we just get to the point here?

A couple years ago, Walgreens decided to stop making employees say “Be well!” after every transaction. . It was apparently in response to complaints from both customers and staff, who rightly noted that it insulted customers’ intelligence and was sometimes downright inappropriate.

Last week, I stopped by a Duane Reade (owned by Walgreens) to pick up a prescription. The wait was a little longer than usual and I gradually started noticing the conversation the pharmacist was having with the older man ahead of me. The customer’s wife had recently died, and he was explaining, in detail, the entire experience of her final illness. The pharmacist was just listening, nodding, and interjecting the occasional supportive comment. After a few minutes, another worker noticed the line, and opened a new register so she could serve me. The conversation between the older customer and the pharmacist continued, and I got my prescription.

This, I thought, is good customer service.

Trying for a corporate award? Slogging through an RFP? You can’t win if you can’t tell your story–and I can help. Why not let me give you a hand?

I blog about work-life, diversity, wellness and other aspects of great workplaces as often as I find the time (which means a couple times a month, if I’m lucky). Want to know when my next post comes out? Sign up here

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