By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
Growing up, I heard a radio commercial with the tag line, “Service sold it.” Even as a young child I was able to grasp the concept that providing quality service was a great way to close more sales and gain new business.
Over the years, I have heard this mantra repeated, again and again, either verbatim or conceptually, by various local, national, and international companies – answering services included. Yet I now give this grandiose platitude only passing consideration. This phrase has a hollow ring; it seems a disingenuous assurance, holding an empty promise. What was once good business turned into good ad copy and now gets lost in the clutter of promotions that we no longer believe. In fact, the louder this claim is trumpeted, the less credence I give it and the more I assume that their quality is lousy, that their ad campaign’s only goal is to convince us of the contrary. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, “He who can, does. He who cannot, talks about it.” It seems that no one provides quality service any more.
Recently, I placed a series of calls to my computer vendor. They offer a quality package at a good price, provide fast shipment, and facilitate ordering. Yet the quality of their service is rotten. Two prior interactions with their “customer service” staff resulted in one failure and one partial success. My latest episode, requiring a dozen or so phone calls over the span of weeks, ultimately resulted in a satisfactory outcome. But it required great patience and persistence, long hold times, being transferred to the wrong departments and back again, and talking with “English” speaking reps who could not effectively communicate in a language I comprehended. One humorous example was a representative who said, “Excuse please the silence while I hold you.” To accomplish my objective, I had to escalate my call, invoke their “100% Satisfaction Guarantee,” and insist that they accept the return of my entire order – not just the computer in question. As you might suspect, I deem it a waste of money to buy their extended customer support plan.
Next I attempted to resolve an ongoing problem with my caller ID. The feature that sold me on the product was the promise that, working in conjunction with call waiting, it would display the number of a second caller while I continued talking to the first. Unfortunately, it never worked. I called repair and reported the problem. I was given the time and date by which it would be repaired. It was not. I reported it again. No change. I pulled out the multi-page manual and found a small-print footnote, which said that the feature I desired needed to be installed separately. Thinking I was on to something, I called and ordered it. Again, the promised due date came and went. I called again, only to be informed that the desired feature was not available in my area. Four “service” people decided to take the easy way out, pushing me through their system or hoping I would give up, rather than simply check to see if the feature was available.
On to cable TV. With the escalating costs of cable, it eventually became less costly to switch to satellite. Now I can get 100 channels and still not have anything to watch! The installation and support of the satellite system was excellent (more on that later), but the simple act of canceling my cable service took months. With each passing month a new bill would arrive, announcing an escalating monthly balance. A call would be placed to the cable company; an assurance would be given that our service was indeed cancelled and that they had no idea why we kept being billed. This went on for over six months. I seriously doubt that any company can be that incompetent, so my cynical nature speculates that they were intentionally doing this to pad their receivables.
When I installed DSL Internet service, the big challenge came in disconnecting my unneeded dialup Internet line. Because of a previous service debacle, my Internet line had become the billed number and my listed number became secondary. The representative, fortunately one knowledgeable and thorough, apologized that the only solution was to cancel the entire bill and the reinstall my main line. This would only be a billing function and my phone service would not be interrupted. However, there would be side effects. First, I would need to call their DSL division to make sure my DSL wasn’t cancelled and to update my billing arrangement. (Apparently, this was common, because the DSL representative immediately understood the problem and knew just what to do.) Then I would need to call my long distance carrier to make sure that when my service was “reinstalled” I would be put on my same rate plan and not their higher default plan. A third call needed to be made for my white page listing. Surprisingly, each call had its desired effect. But imagine the turmoil that would have ensued had the first representative not fully informed me of all the ramifications and exactly what needed to be done. Exceptional customer service, however, would never have put me in the position to make those calls in the first place and even good customer service would have done so for me. Quality service didn’t sell it, being the only game in town did.
We all know someone who left one company because of poor quality and then subsequently left their competitor for the same reason. Eventually, all available alternatives had been tried and subsequently rejected. They were then faced with the necessity of returning to a previously unsatisfactory company. Their new goal was simply to pick the provider that was the least bad.
Does anyone provide quality service anymore? Fortunately, yes. In previous columns, I mentioned my mechanic and optometrist, both stellar success stories. In concert with this, it is noteworthy to mention that the authorized agent for my satellite television is a local company. Is being local then, the key for my satisfaction? Not entirely. My local credit union, bank, and doctor have all caused me repeated consternation. Besides, there are also good service examples that are not local. To produce this magazine, the sales, graphic design, and proof editing are all handled by extremely competent individuals who are not local, yet provide an exceptional level of service and quality work. The common thread here is that they are all small organizations. So then, is company size the key? No, there are many other small organizations that have demonstrated the ability to disappoint.
Although being local and being small are two elements that decidedly allow the potential for providing quality service, they are not requirements; the real key is the personal touch. With each unfavorable example I gave, I dealt with a department, not an individual – not really. The representative had no accountability to me and no stake in the outcome. With subsequent calls, I would talk to a different person. To them I was not a customer; I had no real value. I was just another phone call – a problem – one to get rid of in the shortest time possible, so they could go on to the next call, and eventually punch out for the day.
However, with each positive example I cited, it was a specific person who made the difference. This was someone who genuinely cared and had a real interest in the outcome, someone who was willing to make me his or her priority and do what was required.
Every telephone answering service I know claims to offer quality service, but is this a reality or a hoped for fantasy? Is a one-on-one personal relationship provided to clients? Whether you are on the receiving end or the provider, can you honestly say, believe, and prove that your telephone answering service provides quality service? If not, what changes need to be made?
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.
[From the February/March 2006 issue of AnswerStat magazine]