John Guaspari

E-mail Author

Customer Connections: "Scenario-Gaming" as a Customer Service Strategy

In this space last month, I wrote about a problem I recently had in installing a new piece of software on my desktop PC. This month, to show that I'm an equal opportunity complainer, I'd like to tell you about a computer hardware problem and how it was resolved.

The saga began when my son walked into my home office. "Dad," he said, "I think my computer's dead. When I turned it on, nothing happened." I checked all of the basic stuff: Yes, the system was switched on. Yes, all of the connections seemed solid and in place. Yes, the computer was plugged in. (Yes, at both ends.)

"I think," I said, summoning up all of my meager diagnostic skills, "that there's probably a problem with the power supply."

Fast forward to the next morning, when I took the system to the local mega-computer retail store, an authorized service representative for the nationally recognized brand of PC.

"Sounds like a power supply problem," said the service technician. "Is this system still under warranty?"

"Nah. Couldn't be," I said. "It's about three-and-a-half years old. So what's it gonna cost me?" He keyed in a few figures at his counter-top terminal.

"Parts, labor and tax ... all totaled, it should come to about $225," he said.

I groaned. "OK," I said, reluctantly. "Do it."

(You may be asking yourself, "Why would anyone sink $225 into a three-and-a-half year old computer when, for about $800, you can get a system that has four times the speed, eight times the mass storage, four times the RAM, and is still under warranty?" Good question. My answer, I guess, is that $800 is still a lot more than $225, and 99 percent of the time my kids use their computer for word processing and Net surfing, applications for which their current system seems to work just fine, thank you very much.)

Two days later, I paid for and picked up the now-repaired system. After getting home, I reconnected the PC; it worked. I went to file the receipt in my "PC STUFF" folder, in which--lo and behold--I discovered the original sales receipt, which clearly showed that I had purchased the 48-month extended warranty with the system. I immediately called the store.

Me: "I just had $225 of work done on a system, and when I went to file the receipt, I discovered that the system was still under warranty. How do I go about getting a refund for the work?"

Service Tech: "When you brought the system in to be worked on, were you asked whether or not it was still under warranty?"

Me: "Yes, I was asked that, and I did say 'No.' But I have the receipt, which clearly shows that the system is, in fact, still under warranty."

Service Tech: "I understand that, sir. But since the work was done under the assumption that it was not under warranty, I can't give you a refund."

Me: "That sounds like a bunch of nonsense to me. And understand that I would have used a much stronger word than 'nonsense' except for the fact that I might want to write about this experience for Quality Digest some day, and I know they won't print the particular word--actually, it's a compound word--I have in mind."

Service Tech: "There's nothing I can do about it, sir. You'd have to talk to our general manager."

After two days, I managed to reach the general manager on the phone. He gave me the same "explanation" that the service tech had given me. (For the record, he was very pleasant and congenial over the phone, as had been the service tech. Both had clearly passed their course in "smile training.")

 "Look," I said, "I concede that I gave a well-intentioned but incorrect answer to the original question. I wish I hadn't. It would have made things easier for all concerned. But I did, and the way I see it, the resolution still just comes down to a bit of paper pushing on your end of things."

He continued, politely, to cling to his "there's nothing I can do about it at this point" defense. So I took out the heavy artillery.

"What we're talking about here is $225. Do you want me to never come back into your store again over that amount of money?"

"No, sir, I wouldn't want that."

"Do you want me to call your corporate headquarters and apprise them of our little contretemps?"

"No, sir."

"How about I give a call to the manufacturer of the system--You know, the company that authorizes you to repair its products?"

"No, sir, I'd rather you not do that either."

"OK, then where do we go from here?"

"Well, sir, if you'll just fax me a copy of your receipt that shows you purchased the extended warranty, I'll see that you're issued a credit on your card."

"Pax vobiscum," I said.

The real issue here, of course, is that this situation should never have gotten beyond the original phone call to the service tech. It should never have gotten to the general manager, and once it did, it should never have escalated to the point where I had to make threats in order to get something resembling satisfaction.

But it did. Moreover, situations like this occur all the time. Is it because general managers like to pick fights with customers? No. It's because business is complicated, and in order to maintain some degree of control, we have to have clear processes and policies and procedures. The question, then, becomes: How do we ensure that those processes and policies and procedures don't escalate to this point?

One approach is called "scenario gaming." To begin, have people try to brainstorm all possible customer satisfaction scenarios. In reality, of course, you won't--you can't--predict all of them, but you'll do better than you might have thought you could. People will be quite good at this, because their experience as customers will have them well prepared for it.

Then, ask two questions for each scenario: "How would we handle this currently?" and "How should we handle such a situation were our objective to leave customers wanting to tell everyone they know to give us their business?" To the extent that these two answers differ, you have a problem. (You'll be surprised at how easy it is to "break" the systems and policies you have in place. Don't you think the computer store would have been better off had they anticipated the "What if a customer doesn't realize his system is under warranty when he brings it in but discovers that it is after the repair has been done?" question? I do.)

Yes, this is a form of test and inspection, and of course the ultimate quality goal is to eliminate the need for such steps. But we're a long way from that goal, especially in the service domain. Scenario-gaming can be a good way to begin to get a toe-hold on the problem.


About the author

John Guaspari is president of Guaspari & Salz Inc., a Concord, Massachusetts-based management consulting firm. The books he has written include I Know It When I See It and The Customer Connection.

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