The Golden Rule of Customer Service

We all know the time-honored Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them
do unto you.”

It’s a catchy little slogan, easy to remember, and uses an antiquated word like “unto” to
give it sort of a biblical air of authority. And, at first blush, it seems like a pretty good
philosophy, figuring that if certain treatment is good enough for me, then it must be
good enough for others.

But if you scratch at the surface of this statement a little bit, you see that it is really a
self-centered philosophy, and therefore, perhaps not the best motto for businesses that
want to provide top-notch service to their customers.

As most savvy businesspeople know, one size does not fit all. Customers come in all
shapes, sizes, colors, ethnic origins, and levels of intelligence, patience, and
technological competency. But they are all customers, or at the very least, prospective
customers, and as such, deserve to be treated not the way you, yourself, want to be
treated, but the way they want to be treated. And for the variety of customers you have,
that may well mean communicating in a variety of different ways.

It is a very common and costly mistake for decision-makers in businesses to decide,
unilaterally, that customer inquiries, complaints, and other communication shall be
handled in a certain manner. Typically, these decisions are made based on internal
concerns, such as staffing issues, or making use of available technology.

I once worked for a web-based business whose telephone number was hidden on one
obscure page on a multi-faceted web site. And, if you were savvy enough to find the
phone number, here was the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow: the toll-free number
posted was only for “Press Inquiries;” the Customer Support phone number was a local
number. That basically tells customers, “OK wise guy, although we’ve made it pretty
clear that we want you to contact us via email, so that we can take our time in responding
to your question, you insist upon calling us on the telephone – so you can
pay for the call!” A not-so-subtle thumbing of the nose at customers.

[Editor’s note: this was a more significant point back in the days of long-distance
telephone charges.

When I discussed this matter with my superiors, they all said pretty much the same
thing: “We’re not staffed sufficiently to handle phone calls.” I asked how we knew this,
since we had not ever encouraged customers to call. I was told to do the math. Take
the number of emails that our support reps answered per day, and translate that into
telephone calls. An email system, tied into a CRM system, can take ready-made
answers to common problems, and be plugged into a message with a point and a
click. Furthermore, polite greetings and closings to each email can be written once, in a
template, and easily utilized with a point and a click. No muss, no fuss. But with
telephone calls, you actually have to verbalize a greeting to people, and listen to them
talk, and then think up an answer while they are waiting on the other end of the
line. Furthermore, sometimes they are angry or confused, and that can be downright
unpleasant. I was told that we can provide a better level of service to our customers if
we funnel their communication to email. And after all, we were a web-based business,
so having our customers use a web-based application such as email was not an
unreasonable request.

Maybe yes, maybe no. In this particular business, the web site was used for research
purposes. The web site was typically available 24 hours per day, seven days per
week. The customer support team, however, was staffed Monday through Friday, from
7 AM to 7 PM, Eastern Time. That leaves twelve hours each weekday, and 48 hours
over the weekend, where no responses were provided to customers. Granted, we set
their expectations – all customer inquiries were promptly answered with an automated
reply, which thanked the customer for contacting us, and stated our goal of responding
to their inquiry within 1 business day. So you can’t say we were trying to put
something over on anyone. However, if you are researching something, and are under
a deadline, and are working hours that do not fall under “normal business hours” for
an East Coast business, you are out of luck if you need immediate assistance. So you
can’t say we were treating the customer the way they wanted to be treated, either.

There is a cost to doing business. If you want your customer’s hard-earned money in
return for your product or service, you need to figure out ways to communicate with
them in their comfort zone. Doing so encourages them to tell you things you need to
know about your business, like what you are doing wrong and what you are doing
right. Not doing so essentially points them to the door and says, “If you don’t like it,
see ya later.” While certainly, no right-thinking business would articulate such a thing,
actions do have a tendency to speak louder than words. Think about that when setting
up your customer service processes.

One of my favorite online businesses is But even they don’t abide by this
golden rule of customer service. They pride themselves on an easy-to-navigate web
site, an intuitive ordering system and an automated order tracking system, all of which
generally makes for a pleasant online shopping experience. Their stated goal is to not
have to provide actual human-based service, because their systems are so good. Their
belief is that their customers are web-savvy and prefer the self-service features.
Frankly, in my experience, this has been the case. But, alas, my experience is not
everyone’s experience, and because of that, many people have become irked with

There is a feeling that perhaps Amazon is more willing to invest their resources in
selling products than providing solutions to customer problems. This is not a good
reputation to have, regardless of your business or the customers you serve. The best
businesses take the time to find out how their customers want to communicate, and
provide the wherewithal for each of those methods.

So, before deciding how you want your customers to communicate, ask them
how they want to communicate. Don’t fret; chances are, they are not going to want to
use smoke signals, Morse code, or semaphore. Email and telephone are still the tools of
the day, and maybe fax. It doesn’t take a huge amount of resources to competently
attend those stations, but doing so means you are doing unto your customers as they
wish to be done unto. And that is the first step to gaining customer loyalty. Do unto

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

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