Consumer advocate: What is customer service?

I live in a fairly small town in Norway. It’s a place a lot of people visit, so it’s well served with hotels, both large and smaller. There is a certain amount of competition in the market, so they all try to offer the best possible experience. Except one, a small and apparently family run establishment. Ideally located in the centre of town, it’s been there a long time and by all accounts, they know what they’re doing. Except looking at Tripadvisor it’s obvious that they got their idea for “right” from a really bad episode of Fawlty Towers. Reading how they treat their customers is quite astonishing, and when taken to task by the local paper, they blame their customers. Which made me wonder a bit more about what customer service is really about.

How often do you give customer service a full smiley?

How often do you give customer service a full smiley?

Another example that I’m reminded of on a daily basis is Dr Martens. Why on a daily basis? Because my two articles about my experience with poor quality Dr Martens shoes (here and here) are consistently among my most read articles. This means that every day, every week, every month there are disappointed owners of Dr Martens footwear all over the world Googling variations of “dr martens soles split broken” and arriving at my blog to read about my experience with Dr Martens customer service. And going by comments posted and emails received, Dr Martens are still telling disgruntled customers to get lost. Compared to the number of shoes they sell (apparently around 5 million a year), it’s probably a small number that read my articles, but over time those two articles have a total of 20.865 (as of right now). That’s a long line of former customers.

And former customers talk. They negate goodwill, they neutralize ad campaigns and they divert sales. After all, while you might like the Dr Martens style, but would you buy a pair if your friend told you they only lasted 6 months and the brand refused to stand behind their product? I know I wouldn’t. And especially when I know that before the family-owned Dr Martens sold out to an investment company, the shoes cost roughly the same, had been made in the UK for decades and were reckoned to last half a lifetime. Makes me think of the cartoon where Wiley Coyote runs off a cliff and keeps running, before realising that making rubbish shoes and disrespecting your customers is not a sustainable business model.

Customer service evolution now means you can be told to get lost by software, saving a human the embarrassment.

Customer service evolution now means you can be told to get lost by software, saving a human the embarrassment.

If you’re the type of person that actually has expectations of products you buy, which granted many aren’t in these times of cheap, disposable products, you’ll no doubt have come across many a customer service that only pays lip-service to the concept behind its name. A customer service that really only has one mission, to find a way to deny you your rights as a consumer. “Have you got the original receipt from 30 months ago?”, “Our technical manager says you must have used an angle grinder in your frying pan, hence no warranty claim”, “You used our shoes outside? Sorry, they may look like all-weather footwear, but that’s just style, they’re really intended as slippers.”, even “You are lying.”. Or the age-old let’s ignore him till he goes away.

In these Internet times though there are so many ways for consumers to connect, share experiences and review suppliers, that I’m astonished at how companies think they can get away with it. It could be a numbers game, I guess, if you sell 5 million shoes and 10.000 customers complain, the spreadsheet will say that’s only a small percentage, no problem, big bonuses all around and ain’t life grand. For a small hotel, the situation might be entirely different, especially as poor feedback on a site like Trip Advisor accumulates over time. If everyone who stayed with you over the past 5 years thinks you are a really really bad hotel, then that is the impression that sticks. And you don’t even have to be truly awful, it’s enough to be the worst in town.

"Can we help you?" Old fashioned customer service (Photo borrowed from http://garydickenson.com/2010/10/customer-service-died-with-my-grandad/)

“Can we help you?” Old fashioned customer service (Photo borrowed from http://garydickenson.com/2010/10/customer-service-died-with-my-grandad/)

We might well wonder if customer service was better in bygone times. I think a lot of the problem today is that it’s so easy to hide behind technology. If you couldn’t actually meet someone before, you could at least phone them. These days companies seem loathe to divulge a phone number, preferring you fill in a web-form. Or open a chat window. I can see the point of this, as it’s both very efficient in that a single operative can offend and reject many people simultaneously. Or they can just outsource the job to software, so you’re not even being told to get lost by a sentient being, but your complaint is being parsed by lines of code running somewhere in the cloud. If you wonder how little a company can care, the answer is: Not enough to even hire a person to listen to you. I know, I sometimes have a grim view on things, but you’ll remember these lines.

Sometimes though, you encounter a customer service that restores some of your faith in our ailing humanity. You have a product or service you’re disappointed with and you get in touch. Probably without much spring in your step or much hope in your heart, after all, we’re conditioned to know there will be a fight. And certainly close to the red zone on the unpleasantness scale. And then you’re met with a welcoming and friendly response? Someone who listens and seems to genuinely care? You might initially be suspicious, fearing this is yet another ploy from their toolbox for avoiding responsibility, but you soon realise that there is no scam. “No problem, sir, just post them back to us, we’ll refund the postage and send you a new pair.”. Or the even more astonishing “No problem, miss, just recycle the broken product and we’ll have a new one shipped immediately”.

It’s kind of hard to imagine, as it occurs so rarely, but in some cases it does. And it’s a game changer. You’ll be so surprised you’ll probably mention it to friends, might even blurt it out on social media, and you’ll certainly be prepared to take your business there another time. Which must surely be a much better idea than just pissing everyone off?

 

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8 Comments

  • Elin 12/02/2018 at 09:56

    Thank you for this well-timed article. Currently struggling with Le Creuset’s so-called «lifetime warranty».
    -Sorry, Miss. I am afraid that this damage is only caused by submerging the product into molten lava. Our lifetime warranty does not cover lava…

    Reply
  • Steve 12/02/2018 at 10:28

    Dear Nick

    I know you are not much for grooming, but my personal favourite company for customer service is Stirling Soaps. They make shaving soaps and all the related hardware and software. The owners seem to be genuinely lovely people and will often go a long way out of their way to ensure they do the right thing for their customers. And it works. I get my shaving gear shipped from them (America) to me (Australia). The shipping costs are almost heart-attack inducing, but I don’t care. I will pay whatever it takes because not only is the customer service the best I have ever experienced, the products are fantastic.

    Reply
    • nick 12/02/2018 at 11:35

      Dear Steve, it’s wonderful to hear of places that actually do understand the concept of good customer service. And a customer service experience so good that you are willing to pay over the odds to use them. There is surely a lesson in that to everyone trying to tweak their spreadsheet to show that customer service is a waste of money.

      Reply
  • Ian 12/02/2018 at 11:11

    A friend was once booked into a hotel whose Tripadvisor review was ‘it looks horrible from the outside and you don’t want to go in, but once inside you wish you were on the outside again’ – he said that was true.

    But instant reviews allow everyone to be a super critic – a local restaurant often gets bad reviews on TripAdvisor – where the food and service is great and the place is packed – and one of our favourites – who do you believe?

    We also have to give good feedback too – I sent a comment to Tesco about good service and you get a call from them ‘about your complaint…’ err did you read my email – good feedback shocks them!

    Reply
    • nick 12/02/2018 at 11:30

      Indeed, a valid point, we shouldn’t become a culture of whining and griping, it is eminently human to also give praise where it is deserved. I stand corrected on this point! It is really difficult to actually give praise though, be it somewhere that has given good service or even to praise ourselves. Restaurants though seem to get it all the time, even when undeserved (how many times has a waiter snuck up on you to enquire if all is good and you’re so startled you splutter “Yes!” even though you’re chewing through a piece of gristle the size of your fist?), mainly due to there being a culture of praising the chefs work (no doubt to avoid being given food poisoning the next time you visit).

      Reply
  • Lizzie 12/02/2018 at 11:35

    I must go and find your posts about DMs. I’ve had a pair of incredibly comfortable ones for about 3 years, and while of course you’d expect them to wear considerably in this time, I have never before had a pair of leather shoes or boots where the leather, on the creases, completely disintegrated, leaving only the cloth underneath. I’ve always found, too, that no matter how well I polished them, the polish would disappear from the toes as soon as they got wet. I’ve just mended them with Stormsure glue, determined to keep them going for longer.

    Reply
    • nick 12/02/2018 at 11:38

      Hi Lizzie, they are linked towards the top, or just use the search field for martens! The new Docs made in low-cost countries (China, Bangladesh, Vietnam etc) mostly tend to have soles that split, but I’m not in the slightest surprised to hear the leather also disintegrates. In fact, my pair was crumbling where the leather creased, whereas my wife’s well-used old pair still look almost new in comparison.

      Reply
    • Peter 17/05/2018 at 11:02

      Go to there facebook and voice your opinion, post pictures, other people are doing the same right now! https://www.facebook.com/drmartens/

      Reply

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