We all love to complain about customer service. Most of us have some sort of nightmare story at the ready anytime the conversation turns to the topic of customer service. And collectively, we have classes of companies we just love to hate: airlines and cable providers.
I know you can tell any number of stories about how some company (Comcast, anyone?) got it wrong (check out Mr. A**hole Brown has a really good one post). I’m willing to bet you even have a few choice suggestions on how to get it right.
But your suggestions will likely only fix the issue in your case (or your type of case). The company that is failing at customer service has a much deeper problem.
The issue is simple: lack of empathy. But the solution, which is also so simple—create empathy in your customer service staff for customer service success—is, in fact, very hard to make happen.
Why Is It Hard To Achieve Customer Service Success?
Allow me to start with an idea that will sound familiar from my earlier posts: When someone buys a product or service from you, they are doing so because they expect that product or service to do a specific job for them. Sticking with my favorite scapegoat, when someone buys cable television service from Comcast, they are expecting Comcast to deliver entertainment on which they can rely at all hours.
Here’s where it gets complicated (frankly, it’s not really all that complicated for Comcast, but it is for most companies). The definition of “entertainment” varies widely among the millions of people who are Comcast customers. Personally, I want my cable company to bring me intelligent, unbiased, detailed news coverage any time of day (largely the responsibility of the news outlets and not even within the control of a cable provider). Or you might want access to a huge library of foreign films. Someone else might want endless reruns of TV shows from the 1970s.
Sounds pretty simple for a cable provider, right? So where do they go so wrong?
Customer service doesn’t happen until something goes wrong. Service is out. Channels with my entertainment disappear, or worse, move to a higher tier of premium cost. Or the CableCARD stops working with the latest update of my DVR.
Then I have to call (chat, e-mail, whatever). Someone explains the process of why it’s broken. Then they explain the process the company has set up to fix it. It’s going to take time. It’s going to cost me money. It’s going to require that I sit at home and wait for someone to show up.
There’s a lot of process. There’s a way to handle the situation. But there’s no empathy. There’s no one who is capable of understanding why I am actually disappointed and figuring out the best (maybe even the right) way to make sure I get what I need.
Empathy is not a process. It’s not a set of rules. It’s not a policy. It is a human ability. And it requires the one thing the giant customer service organization fears most: individual freedom to act.
I have a lot of respect for Frank Eliason. If you don’t know who he is, he is the guy who started @ComcastCares, Comcast’s Twitter based customer service. It’s generally believed that he singlehandedly taught the corporate world what social customer service means.
Frank recently wrote an article exhorting Comcast to improve its customer service. He included five suggestions on what they could do to improve. The last of these was, “Live up to being the Philadelphian that you already are. We will support you, but you need to support us too. Treat us in the same manner you would want to be treated.”
I don’t disagree with his first four suggestions. But they are all process improvement ideas. They don’t do anything at all to get your customer service staff to understand your customers’ problems and help bring solutions that address the actual issues right there and then.
The fifth suggestion (quoted above) gets closer to the mark. It doesn’t say it the way I would, but it suggests that each and every customer service representative needs to be a decent upstanding human to create successful customer service. That sounds a bit like empathy to me.
Getting it Right?
It is nearly impossible to train empathy into an organization. It’s a uniquely individual skill. People can have empathy, while organizations can’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t let your customer service people use the empathy they already have.
Companies such as Nordstrom and Zappos became customer service success standouts for one reason: every single employee can do (nearly) anything to solve a customer’s problem. On the margin, this led to stories (unconfirmed) of things such as a customer returning a set of tires to Nordstrom (which has never sold tires), but these stories are a very small group of exceptions to the rule.
The policy of “do whatever it takes to make it right” doesn’t just let the front line employee use their skill and empathy; it challenges them to do so. Even better, it challenges them to create a story in that customer’s mind about how amazing the customer service provided by that employee was. And it creates a culture that makes employees want to be better at serving customers with empathy because their peers are also doing it.
These companies don’t train an organization to deliver empathy. They created a culture of customer service success that valued it, paid attention to it in hiring, and challenged their people to do it—and do it better. This requires trust (often anathema to many large hierarchical corporations) as well as a different approach to dealing with your own people and your customers.
Can You Change?
The obvious question is can a company such as Comcast really change? Could it ever figure out how to change from a policy- and practice-driven organization to one that lets their people make their own judgments about what is the best practice in every individual situation?
It would be hard. And it would take time. Maybe for Comcast, their newly hired chief customer officer will be a start.
What about your organization? Are you telling your people how to solve your customers’ problems? Or are you hiring amazing people and letting them figure it out? If you are the former, can you change? Do you think your organization can help your people develop empathy?
Customer service success is so simple that it’s hard.
Tell us in the comments how you think your organization might do it.