Category Archives: Customer service

Opposite Ends of the Customer Service Spectrum

I had two diametrically opposed customer experiences in the span of 48 hours this week. On Sunday, I was lucky enough to be in Augusta, Ga., for the final round of the Masters. Simply walking the golf course was enough of a religious experience in itself, but I gotta say, those Hootie types who run Augusta National Golf Club sure know how to cater to their patrons. From the security guards at the front entrance to the bathroom attendants who deodorized every stall after each individual use, every employee was polite, upbeat, smiling. They ran their concessions, merchandise shop and security checks with assembly-line precision, and they managed the flow of the massive crowds around the course with a sense of humor and a gentle hand. Employees clearly have been trained to act appropriately but also to be human, to engage with the patrons and make them feel welcome. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Contrast the Masters experience with our flight home the next day. Start with the unsmiling US Airways agent at the check-in counter in Columbia, SC. Grumpy. Move to the gate, where an agent announced a couple of minutes before our scheduled boarding time that the flight was delayed by some mysterious system crash that prohibited the airline from “releasing” the crew. His colleague handled questions from anxious passengers in the textbook airline manner: by never looking up from her terminal. The hour-plus delay caused my brother and I to miss our connection in Philadelphia.

Here’s what should have happened once we arrived: The airline knew we were going to miss the flight (they do, after all, have the data). They should have had a customer-service agent waiting for us at our arrival gate in Philly, who could have apologized to us (by name) for the inconvenience. They could have said they took the liberty of booking us on the next available flight and handed us a couple of vouchers for a hotel (if we had to stay overnight) and a hot meal. This would have diffused any angst we were feeling and turned a negative experience into a relatively positive (or at least neutral) one.  

But as anyone who’s stepped inside an airline terminal knows, that’s not the way it works. Here’s what really happened: We landed in Philly with minutes to spare, huffed and puffed past 10 or so gates to catch a shuttle bus to the terminal where our next flight was leaving from, and ran from the bus to the departure gate. Six minutes late – no plane, no agents. So we lug our bags past another dozen gates to US Air customer service, where five or so agents sat slumped behind the counter, talking among themselves or staring aimlessly at their computer screens.

“I can book you to Boston tonight or to Manchester [our original destination] tomorrow morning,” the disinterested agent said, propping up his chin with his left hand and talking through his fingers. “What about a hotel voucher?” we asked. “The delay was due to field conditions – we don’t reimburse for weather delays,” he answered. Uh no, that’s not what happened. And on it went. We ended up flying to Boston, paying an extra $70 for a van up to Manchester, and complaining about US Scair the entire way. The next day, I sent an email asking for a reimbursement, and a US Air “customer relations” rep politely told me to go pound sand.

OK, it’s probably unfair to compare a private golf club rolling in dough with a struggling airline just trying to survive. But why can’t we expect companies, regardless of their financial situation, to require employees to use rudimentary social skills and basic common sense when dealing with customers? It’s really not that difficult.

Not Quite There Yet

I’ve been writing a lot lately about talent management and the importance of having a well-trained, motivated workforce to deliver the “brand promise” and maintain high levels of customer service, even (or especially) during a global recession. In a perfect world, consumers would receive consistently positive service and support across all channels – in a store, on the Web, from the call center, all staffed by helpful employees who are empowered to go off script and help consumers make  informed buying decisions or solve their problems quickly. 

If my current experience with Dell is any indication, we’ve got a long way to go. (Cue the violins.)

I’m shopping for a new desktop for my business. Dell is the only PC maker I’ve found offering free “downgrades” from Vista to Windows XP. I’ve got the model I want – a Vostro 420 Tower – and I’m clicking through their wizard to customize the system (bigger hard drive, etc.). I don’t need a monitor – but there’s only a pick list for different size displays, not for purchasing the system without one. Stuck. OK, let’s try the live chat feature. I fill out my name, type my question, submit – error message. Try again (sometimes technology doesn’t like the apostrophe in my name) – same message. I wait 10 minutes, try one  more time, with less text – same error.

So I clicked around, found an email for sales/pre-sales support, which seemed logical. Sent this email: 

I’ve been trying to customize a Vostro 420 tower, have a question about ordering the system without a monitor, tried to chat 3 times and got this msg:

SOAP-ENV:ServerUnable to Connect to Talisma Server at exceeds maximum size99999

Not efficient!


Rob O’Regan

I received a prompt reply, but not what I was expecting/hoping for: 

Dear Rob O’Regan:

Thank you for choosing Dell. You have reached the Small to Medium Business Online Order Resolution team.  

Whats the question?

Thank you for choosing Dell.


SMB Online Sales

Dell, Inc.

3 issues here – 1) using my full name (smacks of automation or outsourcing), 2) Nice tone! 3) anonymously signed. But hey, at least I got a response, and an offer to help (sort of). So I rephrase the original question: 

The question was whether I can configure the Vostro 420 without a monitor – I don’t get that option when I’m customizing.

Thank you. 

This response took a little longer, but was equally unhelpful: 

Dear Rob O’Regan:

Thank you for choosing Dell. You have reached the Small to Medium Business Online Order Resolution team.  

The system can be configured w/monitor but you will need to configure the lowest starting package.

Thank you for choosing Dell.


SMB Online Sales

Clearly I’m missing the whole satisfying customer experience thing here. Probably my fault.

3/14 update: After being chastised by my buddy David Churbuck, VP of global Web marketing at Lenovo (or whatever his title is now), I bought a Lenovo ThinkCentre A57 Tower – and so far, it runs like a dream. Thanks DC!

Citigroup’s new bailout plan: Me

Received my Citi credit card statement today. Tucked away on Page 3 was a notice that my interest rate had been changed from 8.99% 14.99% to 28.99%. Hey Citigroup, do I look like Henry Paulson?

12/18 update: Just received this in an email from Citi:

“We are pleased to inform you that we have raised the credit line of your Citi(R) Diamond Preferred(R) Rewards account to $xxxxxx. This increase was a result of our ongoing credit review program. We wanted to acknowledge the responsible way you have maintained your account.”

Shiny New Store, Same Crappy Service

I’ve never had a problem with the Verizon network, but customer service is another story entirely. They just can’t seem to get their in-store experience right, no matter how hard they try. Earlier this month, a shiny new Verizon store opened a few miles from my house in Londonderry, NH. Today I went in to get my battery checked/replaced, since my phone hasn’t been holding a charge for the past several weeks.

I checked in at the touchscreen kiosk near the entry like a good doobie, registering my information so my name would be entered in the service queue. The names of those who are waiting appear on a couple of flat-screens suspended from the ceilings – much like the merchandise pickup window at Sears. I was No. 1 for tech service – a good sign. Except for the fact that there was no sign of any tech support people – or even a tech support waiting area. Everyone on the floor was focused on sales.

Ten minutes into my wait, a manager-looking type finally made eye contact and said, “I’m sure someone will be with you shortly.” She was mistaken. I waited another 10 minutes before bailing. My name never moved from the queue, and I never saw any tech support geeks. All the displays on the floor were shiny and new, but the service still sucks.

We Care – for the Next Five Days

My Vonage phone crapped out on me again a week or so ago. Had a nice chat with Ezekiel the customer service rep, who troubleshot the problem and determined it was a faulty power adapter (for the second time in six months). He said they would send a replacement “in a few days.” Two days later I received an email asking me to fill out a survey about the experience: “Your feedback … would be extremely helpful in improving the process and providing valuable feedback.”

Well, I wasn’t going to complete a survey until I received the replacement part and made sure it worked. It arrived earlier this week, and the phone is functional again. Cleaning out my inbox today, I came across the survey and decided to click on the link to fill it out – and give Vonage high marks. “We’re sorry,” the web page read, “our records indicate your survey has expired.”

Another lesson in superficial customer care.

Random Stuff That Caught My Eye Last Week

Facebook flip-flops on social ad platform. A firestorm of protest over the social networking site’s Beacon opt-out ad system resulted in a major mea culpa from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and changes that will allow users to turn off the feature. Ah, the perils of pioneering new online advertising models.


Coke launches island in virtual world Just what the real world needs – another Second Life competitor. I’m thinking of launching my own virtual world, called You register, create an avatar and then … nothing.


Airlines, coming and going. I’m reading about JetBlue planning to add Internet access to their flights while I’m flying United, whose customer-facing employees are collectively joyless. Talk about going through the motions.


Newspaper filler. The New York Times had a story in its Travel section on Friday about people who name their vacation cottages. The Web won’t kill newspapers – bad content will.

When Actions Speak Louder than Words

Check email this morning, open one from HP with the semi-disturbing subject line, “HP wants to get to know you better.” Not sure I want that, but they’re offering 10% off on ink and multifunction printers if I update my email newsletter profile. I’m in the market for a new printer, so what the heck, it’s worth five minutes of my time. Click on the link, go to the landing page, and see this:

System Down

We’re sorry, but we are temporarily unavailable. Please try again soon.

This was less than two hours after I received the email. I now know more about them than they know about me.

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

After hearing the latest regarding consumer electronics chain Tweeter’s bankruptcy, I went to their site to see if they were having a fire sale. I was greeted by this:

Bad earnings. Store closings. Bankruptcy.

You’re thinking, Tweeter’s going the way of the hula-hoop, right?

Wrong. Dead Wrong.

Find out more>>.

OK, I’ll bite. The link takes you to an open letter to customers – basically a mea culpa page – explaining the root of the company’s struggles and its commitment to make things right:

We’re down, but don’t count us out.

Here’s the problem: Over the past several years we stopped doing the things that made us successful in the first place. For thirty-five years our stores were famous for cool products, people that you could talk to and service that made the competition look pale.

We strayed from what made us great.

How we’ll get back on course:

Best Products
We will only carry the newest, coolest, best products in each of the categories we sell.

Smarter People
Technology is changing fast. We’ve stepped up our training program to keep us ahead of the curve. When our salespeople, technicians and installers are smarter, everyone wins.

Outstanding Customer Service
We are renewing our focus on taking care of you, our customer, like never before. You are our number-one priority.

All this means nothing unless you are there to notice.

So give us a shot. The only way to get better is to both be better and have you there to tell. One without the other is futile.

So come and pick our brains and see if we have any. Whether you want a home theater that rivals the local cinema or one “command and control” system that’s easy to use and controls everything from your lights to your thermostat to your security camera, we’ll come up with something that’s sure to fire your imagination.

The rest is on us.

Impressive. A frank acknowledgement of past mistakes, an action plan to do things better, and a plea to give them another shot. As someone who drifted away from Tweeter over the past couple of years as their in-store customer service declined, I understand where they’re coming from. Tweeter used to be my only choice for big-ticket consumer electronics, because I knew I could get straight answers from their salespeople and never felt they were just trying to upsell me. That changed as the service fell below the premiums they were charging for their products. My last visit was at least 8 months ago, when I couldn’t grab the attention of any of the half-dozen clerks talking to one another to ask a simple question about an HDTV (LCD or plasma?). I bought one the next day at Best Buy.

Tweeter’s management finally figured out that their best asset was their loyal customer base, which they let drift away to Best Buy and other big-box retailers without a fight. The epiphany may be too late to pull them out of their death spiral, but at least one former customer is willing to give them another chance.


Negative Influencer

My 9-year-old son Conor was engaged in his usual hypermultitasking activities last night – simultaneously watching TV, building something out of Legos, visiting the Webkins site, hugging the dog – when a Circuit City commercial came on. He stopped everything he was doing and proclaimed to no one in particular, “I will never shop at Circuit City again!”

You see, Conor and I had a bad experience at a local Circuit City store when an overmatched and undertrained sales clerk couldn’t figure out how to ring up the three items we were purchasing. His incompetence was both comical and frustrating. Twenty minutes into the transaction, I gave up, stopped a manager on the way out of the store, and ripped him a new one for putting staff on the floor who obviously weren’t prepared to do their jobs.

Not a big deal, right? Especially for Conor, who as a consumer-in-training is endlessly bombarded with brand messages and has trouble remembering where he left his socks 10 minutes ago. The negative memory will surely fade into the background, and all will be well. Except for one thing: That in-store experience happened nearly four years ago, when Conor was 5. No amount of slick advertising will ever convince this young consumer to spend his allowance in a store that wouldn’t let him buy a PlayStation game.