Customer Service

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … and the breadth and depth of customer-service quality was put into stark contrast recently, making me cynical enough about substandard service to rival even Mr. Dickens at his most irascible.

The Good:  Chris, a tech for Sprint, spent more than an hour on the phone on Friday night  to help me through a device transfer.  On Friday morning, I got my BlackBerry wet and lost all functionality on the keyboard.  Luckily, I had a replacement device already — one of the two BlackBerries I had acquired earlier in the year for my brother and sister-in-law, which were no longer in use.  So I called and asked if I could transfer one of the working phones to my primary line.  Sprint agreed, but there were a number of legitimate technical challenges inherent in such a simple request.  To his credit, Chris stayed with me almost 70 minutes, working through a number of account- and device-specific problems until we finally met success.  He was polite, good-humored, and he dogged my issue until it was resolved.  He deserves a bonus for his efforts.

The Bad:  A few weeks ago, I had a most unfortunate experience with the misnamed Angel at Fifth Third Bank.  For almost five years, I have maintained a simple savings account with Fifth Third, a holdover from the days I wanted a local bank in Grand Rapids for simple teller-specific transactions while my primary financial institution remained the Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank.  So I had a solid routine: I had $100 per pay period deposited into this account, and I’d pull out my $100 for spending cash at the teller window.  Well, a few weeks ago, I succumbed to the pressure and accepted a simple ATM card.  One day I went and made my customary $100 withdraw, not realizing a $5 quarterly service fee had been applied that very morning, leaving me with a $98 balance.  The ATM simply paid out the $100 without disclosing an insufficient funds condition — something a teller would never do.  So I was assessed a $37 service fee.  And because I had no idea I did this, I incurred $8 per day (billed at $32 every four days) in additional “continuing overdraft” charges.  So when I called to protest this insanity — at this point, my account was over drafted at roughly $70 on an unauthorized “overdraft” of less than $2 off an account with a perfect record and direct deposit for half a decade — Angel told me that he’d refund the $37 because I never had a negative balance with them in the five years I was an account holder, but I was on the hook for the $32 because I never made a deposit to cover the overage that I never knew existed and which I never would have approved of.  Way to go, Fifth Third.  You motivated me to cancel my direct deposit and then, soon, to cancel the account.  I hope your greed was worth it.

I guess the core question for customer service is this: Do you give a damn about retaining your customers?  Sprint seems to care.  Fifth Third does not.  And these extremes are hardly the full story.  I was talking to Becca yesterday about local coffee shops.  Some of them, like Kava House (southern H.Q.), have staff who care and get to know you and make showing up an absolute delight.  Others, like Madcap, may have a great product, but unless you’re in their preferred-customer clique, you are merely anonymous face in their line.  Heck, even the now-defunct Starbucks in Standale had baristas who, after I showed up a few times, made the effort to ask and remember my first name and my preferred drink.

It’s easy to do the minimum and hope for the best, but it seems that for highly competitive industries with relatively uniform product offerings, the quality of customer service will always trump some marginal differentiation in location, price, or product quality.  I’d rather have a mediocre mocha served by a barista who knows my name and smiles when I walk in the door, than an orgasmically good mocha provided by someone who’d rather be talking with his friends perched at the end of the bar.

Life’s too short to settle for unsatisfying customer relationships.

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1 comment

  1. Thank you for a post about customer service that does not mention the airlines. Sweet Georgia Brown could I go off on that one.

    The attitude that a lot of companies put out is one of “Yeah, what are ya gonna do?”

    If I go into a store and can’t find the thing I’m looking for, I mentally give the staff five minutes. If nobody comes to ask me if I need help in five minutes, I walk out. I go into a store ready to be separated from my money. Their job is to facilitate that separation. If that store’s staff is not trained to treat me like a human being in the process, fuck them. It’s that simple.

    I once walked into a North Face store ready to drop a couple of c-notes on a decent backpack. Walked in. Went to the wall o’ backpacks. Took a couple off the racks. Looked around the store in a “got a couple of questions” kind of way. None of the staff who looked at me or walked past me said a damn word. Five minutes later, I walked out without a backpack. I’d be damned if I was going to give them money as though they were doing me a favor. The kicker is that I was the only customer in the store.

    You’re damn right to be pissed off. You’re the one with the money that they want. You hold the cards. Don’t forget that. And don’t be afraid to just drop what you were going to buy and walk out.

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