When Sorry Does’t Cut It

I got up at 3:45 this morning to take a Southwest 6am flight to San Diego. The flight was delayed for 20 minutes, which turned into an hour and then a 5 hour delay… scheduled, we have yet to get back on the plane after being directed to get off. As an airline, Southwest went from being easy to being really challenged in just a few years…. but that is another post.

The motivation for my missive this morning is the phrase “I’m sorry”. It has been uttered countless times today and each time I hear it I want to scream “save your hollow words, it doesn’t help and I am not responsible for making you feel good about your screwup”.

Customer service agents have been trained to be empathetic and acknowledge customer frustration, and this is the problem… it is training, not real empathy. I hear “I’m sorry” so often that the phrase has been devalued to a slogan! I would prefer these companies just say “yeah we screwed up and it sucks”. I get that people want to be acknowledged but there is something subversive about the phrase in that it is not about correcting a wrong but rather containing a wrong and not giving the customer anywhere to go with it.

Saying “I’m sorry” in a customer service context is really saying “we acknowledge your complaint and our responsibility for that phase of your issue is concluded”. There is no cost for a company to say “I’m sorry” therefore there is no value to the gesture.

More on this topic (What's this?)
Price Relative Scan
What type of airline would Obama Air be?
Today's Buy Candidates
If Barack Obama ran an airline...
Read more on HSBC HLDG, Wheelock & CO, Airlines at Wikinvest

Customer Service: Getting the Basics Right

Yesterday I needed to stop at the grocery store to pick up a couple of pantry basics, and because my errand path had me away from the store I usually go to for such items I ended up in a Safeway… utterly befuddled and confused. The item I needed was not in the aisle that it would logically be stocked in.

After 5 or so minutes of scanning the aisle in the event I simply missed it, I waited… and waited… and waited in the hopes that an employee would saunter past and offer some help. No dice. So from the aisle I googled the store phone number and called, hoping to get to someone who could send someone over to offer help. After navigating the phone tree I ended up in the general customer service queue, and much to my amusement I could hear the in-store announcement system paging someone to “pick up on 201”. After another 4 or so minutes I was dumped into a voicemail box. Now I was frustrated, not only do they not have someone physically present that can help me but they don’t have anyone on the phone either… I called again, this time short circuiting the phone tree and after another couple of minutes I did get someone, who was subjected to my frustration (not that she cared anyway) and then someone hurried over to aisle 6 to help me.

And then my new in-store helper did something that went beyond the absurd… he started looking through the shelves that I had been staring at for a good 15 minutes. Finally, I said to him “hey buddy, I’m not an idiot, I have pretty much memorized what is on this shelf and what I’m looking for isn’t here”. He ran off and came back, directing me to aisle 3. Success.

I left that store thinking:

1) I hate Safeway, they suck.

2) Did that guy think I was a moron?

3) I will be hard pressed to go to that store again.

Customer experience matters and in Women’s Wear Daily (WWD is a trade publication for retail, they cover a fascinating range of subjects and increasingly are a goto source for me on how social technologies and trends are impacting the retail environment) there is an in-depth article on why customer experience matters more than ever in the face of competition from online retailers. (The WWD is subscription required, here’s an abstraction of the article.)

Customer service is just one element of customer experience, the bigger topic covers everything from what happens when you are in the parking lot to what you do when you are back at home ruminating about how you had to call the store’s switchboard to get someone to help. Bottom line, this shit matters because nothing beats the convenience of shopping online and I will usually get a better price as well… so retailers need to compete on something other than price and promotion.

No segment is insulated, I bought a car sight unseen and had it shipped across the country, the bathtub, hardware, fixtures, and tile for our new bathroom all came from online sources, when Amazon Fresh arrives I will shift grocery spend to them, and I haven’t stepped foot in a Best Buy in years.

Lastly, over the weekend there was an article about Virgin America (still growing but still losing money) and what was interesting was the comment thread. The overwhelming majority of comments highlighted the great customer service the company delivers… the total customer experience that focuses on getting more money – repeat business – from the customers they already have in addition to acquiring new customers.   This is a great close to my post, retailers need to focus on:

1) Total customer experience: From parking lot to what happens when someone asks you what you think about x, y, or z months later.

2) Use technology to deliver in store help in addition to in person help.

3) Physical aesthetics matter.

4) Empower employees to be decisive and actionable, values matter more than controls.


Customer Service Hell: Web Conferencing

I have gone through some really bad customer experiences with online and offline services but few have rivaled that of my recent trials and tribulations with web conferencing service providers.

This all started when I suffered from dropped Gotomeeting web conferences and encountering people who requested I use a different service provider. When the web conference service you are using becomes the focus of attention it is never a good thing so I looked at alternative offerings.

I signed up for Infinite Conference, which had a really slick website and a feature list that was attractive. My trouble started when I attempted to login to “my account” to, you know, manage my account. My email/password combo was not accepted so I clicked on recover password and after a dozen or so repeated attempts to get past their captcha system I sent them an email to their customer service link. I dislike captchas in general but when they serve to frustrate legitimate users who want to get something done, they are a major problem.

That was last night, this morning there was an email in my inbox explaining that because I was on a trial I didn’t have access to the “my account” feature area.

  1. It’s not clear that there is a limitation in the trial experience… this is a UX problem.
  2. The “my account” link should take me to my account whether or not I have all the features or not. It’s still the place I would logically go to manage “my account”.
  3. The password recovery flow should clearly state the error message rather than continuously cycling the captcha, which suggests the captcha wasn’t being accepted.

All of the above are representative of a poorly designed system flow and confusing messaging on their application and website and here’s the WTF moment… I noticed that the email I received from Infinite Conference (an unfortunate product name by the way) included a thread that was clearly a result of internal communication and in reading through it the agent referred to me as a “rude customer”.

Rude? Really? I reviewed the original email I sent and this customer service agent probably has too thin skin for the role, here’s what I wrote:

Here’s the deal, I can’t login because my password isn’t being recognized and when I try to recover my password the captcha system you are using is dialed up to near impossible. You need to fix this… captchas are lame to begin with but when they primarily serve to frustrate people who are legitimate users you have to ask yourself is the scheme worth it. I can’t use my account and I haven’t even got through the trial period.

This is a fail that is all too common in “old world” customer service organizations that are measured by case benchmarks rather than their contribution to brand and product metrics. I provided very specific feedback about the product; actionable product issues that are solved by UX tweaks and everything I offered will be discarded because the customer service agent thought I was rude. And when the next customer has the same problem it will be groundhog day all over again.

So then I tried Intercall and that product experience was so bad that I wanted to immediately cancel but had to call customer support where the helpful customer service agent told me I needed to send an email to a different team in order to cancel. Why not just put that information on the customer service site and save the hassle of going through an IVR system only to find out I needed to back online? But this is a story for another post… why the hell are web conferencing services so bad?

Community Manager Appreciation Day

The call to action among leading companies in recent years has been that customer service is the new marketing. This is true but it has always been true, companies as diverse as Southwest Airlines, Avis, Lexus and Johnson & Johnson have been at the forefront of the trend to use great customer service as a competitive differentiator and a way to attract that best employees that the market has to offer.

If an appreciation of customer service is not a new thing, then what is? Clearly it is the ability to technology to efficiently connect companies with consumers and with social networks the number of channels that companies have to maintain in order to connect with customers has been blown up to a daunting number.

The role of Community Manager has quickly evolved from a new age social ambassador, a supporting player, to being conductor of the orchestra. Today more than ever before companies are relying on individual customer engagement to cement brand loyalty and leverage word of mouth marketing, The Community Manager has the daunting but essential responsibility of keeping the various resources of the organization in sync and playing to the same sheet music, ensuring that customer needs are met, concerns are addressed, and their product and service ideas and suggestions are brought into the process in order to shorten product lifecycles and better map to needs. If customer service is the new marketing then the Community Manager is the new CMO.

I support Jeremiah Owyang’s quest to make the 4th Monday of every January a time to honor the dedication and hard work of community managers. Today is Community Manager Appreciation Day and at Get Satisfaction there is no group of professionals more important to our success so we put together a survey of community manager insights for you to enjoy, and hopefully learn from as well.

Google’s Customer Support (ROFL)

My Gmail account has been inaccessible most of the day, something vague about my account being under maintenance. I emailed the provided email address tonight to see what was the status and when I’d get my account back. Here’s their response, I’ve highlighted the part that had me picking my jaw up off the floor… seriously, they can’t possibly believe that putting a “beta” label on a service for 3 years gets them off the hook for actually providing something that could be called support?


Your Gmail account is currently under maintenance, and our engineers are
working to allow access to your account as quickly as possible.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, and we thank you for
your patience during our limited test of Gmail.


The Google Team