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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

The Demise of Customer Service

Sometimes rules have to be broken

Published: Monday, January 9, 2006 - 23:00

You see and hear them everyday--signs and commercials heralding “Customer service is No.1,” “We treat you like family,” or “The customer is always right.” The other day I came across a particularly revealing motto: “We’re better than we used to be!” Whatever the slogan or motto is, people expect extraordinary customer service. If you’re like me, you also want to experience customer service beyond your expectations.

Some organizations have realized that to have an advantage over the competition, extraordinary customer service must become the norm. This means having an articulate, well-trained staff who is congenial and empowered to make customer service decisions without having to confer with management all the time. Unfortunately, some organizations have such stringent guidelines that there’s no flexibility for employees to respond independently to consumer complaints or problems. These rigid, impenetrable processes are the reason why customers react aggressively and never become loyal customers.

I recently experienced a situation in customer service that’s almost beyond belief. I call it the demise of customer service.

Our daughter Cathy was given pajamas as a present once when she was sick. Unfortunately she preferred a smaller size and asked me to exchange them at the nationwide department store where they were purchased. Armed with the gift bag and the pajamas, I approached the customer service department and described my situation. The clerk graciously pointed me to the pajama counter, and I got a smaller size.

To my surprise, astonishment, incredulity, bewilderment and frustration, the customer service clerk informed me that I owed $6. The pajamas had been purchased on sale for $14 but because I didn’t have a gift receipt and the pajamas were now at the regular price of $20, I was responsible for paying the difference. My calm but firm protestations to the clerk went unheeded as I was informed that “This is the procedure and we don’t deviate from that procedure ever.”

Let’s examine this absurd rule for a moment: if you try to exchange something for the same item but in an different size, you’re responsible for paying the difference if it’s no longer on sale. I tried to explain to the clerk that the pajamas could be sold again for full price and that the store was extracting an additional $6 from me, but I still got a similar response of some procedural mumbo jumbo.

The store manager and assistant manager entered the picture and now I was dealing with a three-headed monster incoherently babbling about processes, procedures and rules. If a procedure is never broken or altered, there’s no need for management. Management’s role is to review processes that are detrimental to customers and to sales, and then intervene and make changes.

This incident illustrates the need for customer service personnel and management staff to exercise a bit of common sense when dealing with customers, even if this means slightly deviating from their rigid processes. The goal of customer service should be to wow customers and not make them feel like they’re on a game show (“If you fail to adhere to the rules, you lose.”)

Following are some ways companies can avoid customer service confusion and dissatisfaction:

  • Empower employees to handle customer disputes on their own without management intervention. This involves proper training and a mindset that acknowledges the importance of converting regular customers into loyal customers. The Ritz Carlton hotel chain, for example, allows each employee up to $2,000 dollars per day to resolve issues with customers. With thousands of employees around the world, the outstanding liability is large, but the hotel’s management understands the importance of resolving customer issues promptly.
  • Conduct daily meetings with employees and discuss recent customer issues, inviting input from the staff on how each problem should have been handled. Then establish guidelines for resolving customer issues, but let employees know that the guidelines aren’t rigid and discretion can—and should—always be used. Nordstrom’s employee handbook states the following: “Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Use your good judgment in all situations.” What can be more important than empowerment, flexibility and ensuring customers’ expectations are met or exceeded?
  • Determine your customers’ satisfaction with the company’s purchasing and return policies by conducting surveys. If adverse patterns emerge, management should take immediate action to rectify the situations that contribute to customer dissatisfaction. Upset customers make their opinions known with their feet—they leave and never return.
  • Benchmark your customer service against your competition by shopping your competition, if appropriate. Tom Peters said it succinctly: “If the other guy’s getting better and you’re not getting better faster than the other guy’s getting better, you’re getting worse. Innovate or die.”
  • Finally, use your common sense—treat your customers the way you wish to be treated.


About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semi-retired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.