Customers and the People Who Serve Them

In our never-ending quest to explore what makes customers and the people who serve
them tick, I recently came across a most interesting web site: CustomersSuck.com.
This site is an online forum for service providers who, shall we say, need to vent. On the
site’s landing page, its mission is posted:

“This site is dedicated to the men and women who have to put up with grief from
customers on a daily basis. If you are offended by the fact that the employee behind
the counter isn’t always willing to kiss your ass… find someone who cares! We’re off
the clock!”

[In all fairness, this site has dialed back on the hostility considerably in the years since
this article
was initially written, and this mission statement is no longer the lead-in.]

Given that my professional calling has largely been about serving customers and helping
businesses improve the customer experience, perusing this site was tantamount to entering
the lion’s den. Given my fearlessness and sense of adventure, I posted an article I recently
wrote, called “Your Friend, the Angry Customer,” and asked the customer-hating confederacy
for feedback. Interestingly enough, the article was viewed 1,100 times, and was commented
upon 36 times in three days. Feedback? Oh, I got plenty. Some very interesting stuff, the
bulk of which can be summarized by these three points:

  1. There are a LOT of angry people out there, on both sides of the business counter.
  2. There is not a whole lot of respect being shown on either side of the counter.
  3. Management and training of service personnel often leaves much to be desired.

Please allow me to explain in more detail.

Anger, Anger Everywhere

One should not be surprised to find, on a site called CustomersSuck.com, a great deal of
venom directed at pushy, ignorant, lying, manipulative, and downright mean customers.
I mean, if you go to a stream stocked with trout, you will no doubt find some trout. Let’s
just say that CustomersSuck.com is a well-stocked trout stream. There is the occasional
acknowledgement that most customers are decent folks, but that is not what this site is
about.

There are countless horror stories posted that describe rude, unhappy customers
who demand satisfaction regarding some real or imagined slight. These stories are mostly
presented by front-line employees of various businesses, mostly retail. One of the repeated
themes is that “I don’t get paid enough to take this abuse!” Frankly, I’m not sure there is a
level of compensation that makes taking abuse acceptable. Nonetheless, the idea that stands
out for me is that, however low the service provider’s salary may be, the fact remains that
he or she is being compensated to be part of this commercial relationship.

On the other side of the counter, the customer is paying to be part of this relationship.
Because of that fact, customers are more entitled to their anger when things don’t go as
planned. However, while they may be entitled to their anger, this is not a license to abuse
the service reps. Nor is it license to expect treble damages for their trouble. People, people,
can’t we all just get along?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me

Successful business relationships, like any other relationship, are based on mutual respect.
Without that mutual respect, chaos and anarchy often ensues. While there is a certain
amount of truth to the old axiom that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, in reality, things
that squeak too much simply get discarded. If a customer truly wants to have a problem
solved, the intelligent thing to do would be to approach the service provider in a manner
which would facilitate help and resolution.

Sure, the customer may be angry with the situation. He or she may even be angry with
the individual with whom they are speaking.

However, huff and puff as they may, customers need to understand that they do not have
authority over the representatives of the business with whom they have a beef. The primary
concern that the folks on CustomersSuck.com express is that many customers come in
prepared to tussle. They are angry about whatever issue is on their mind, and are prepared
to give a piece of that mind to the first (and second, and third) representative of the offending
business that they see. In cases like these, the service rep doesn’t have a chance to start
the interaction off on the right foot, because the customer has already decided that this
will be an adversarial relationship.

Emotions aside, how smart is this? It’s like punching a fireman in the face when he comes
to put out the fire in your house! What they can have is influence on the situation.With a little
self-control, articulation, patience, and the understanding that the service person is quite
possibly the key to resolving their problem, customers could go a long way in helping
themselves. Courtesy and respect usually inspire courtesy and respect in return. Customers,
even angry customers with legitimate gripes, make it easier for service people to do
everything in their power to assist them if they only view the person tending to them as an
ally, not a conspirator against them.

The Way You Do the Things You Do

Most of the combative scenarios posted on CustomersSuck.com could have been avoided
simply by better customer service management and training. Unfortunately, far too many
customer service managers reach their positions due to seniority, longevity, or industry
knowledge, and not due to their deep understanding of customer care, problem resolution,
and long-term business thinking. One of the primary gripes of the service population is that
they are trained to uphold certain company policies in regard to what can or cannot be
provided by the business. These policies are often set in place by members of senior
management who seldom, if ever, have to enforce them. The policies are often created
with the idea of keeping internal costs down, thus enabling maximum profits. Policies, in
and of themselves, are not necessarily bad things. But there are some qualifications.

First of all, customers should be advised of these policies at the onset of the business
relationship. Pulling a policy out of a hat as a means of refusing to resolve a customer’s
problem is a sure-fire way of exacerbating a bad situation. Next, if a policy must exist, it
should exist for everyone. It should not be in place for a service rep to try to enforce, but
for management to overrule when things get difficult. This makes the service rep look less
than competent, while in actuality, they were simply doing their job as they were instructed.

Also, a policy should make sense in order to be a policy, and the reasoning behind the policy
should be logical and clearly stated for all to understand (customers, service reps, and
management). Contrary to what many businesses seem to think, serving customers well
is not an easy task. It is curious that many businesses use entry-level people at low
salaries to be the front-line of interaction with their customer base. Customers are the
reason for the company’s existence. Without them, there is no business. Doesn’t it then
make sense to have your most patient, articulate, and people-friendly employees dealing
with your customers? I’m talking about people who understand that a customer’s anger
may have nothing to do with them, and who have the ability to improve that customer’s
mood simply by addressing a problem in a prompt, efficient, courteous manner. Talk
about a good will ambassador for a business!

Good service training can make that happen. But good service training must come from
people who understand the reality of the often-difficult dynamics between customers and
service providers. Service trainers must understand that the customer is not always right,
but there are ways of enlightening them, and providing acceptable alternatives, without
making the customer feel stupid or angrier.

Smart hiring also helps. Industry knowledge, typing speed, speaking ability, and technical
acumen are all great skills, but they are not the basis for hiring a top-notch service team.
To build such a team, hiring managers need to identify people who have both the innate
desire to help others, and the capacity to do so. Simply having such people interacting
with your customers goes a long way to soothing the savage beast. While there seems to
be no shortage of malcontented customers who feel that businesses owe them the world,
and no shortage of beleaguered service people who do not want to hear about it, frankly,
the world of commerce could do well without either group.

Customers have a right to expect value for their dollar, and to be assuaged when they do
not get it. They do not have the right to abuse or threaten representatives of that business.

On the other hand, service reps need to understand that customers are not always at their
best when something goes wrong with the product or service that they’ve purchased, and to
be tolerant and strive to rectify the situation as quickly and courteously as possible. That is,
after all, what they are being paid for.

I know, it sounds so simple, in theory. In reality, patience and courtesy on both sides of the
counter or the telephone go a long way in creating a quality service experience.

— Charles Dennis
© Knowledgence Associates, 2005 / All Rights Reserved

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