Customer Serve-less

Every time I encounter customer service that is so bad that I just have to write an article about it. (I call it cheap psychotherapy). You see, I think most organizations cause their own problems because they hire the wrong people to represent them on the phone.

In this article, I refer to my experience turning in a leased car. I always treat the companies I encounter anonymously; let’s just say this organization’s first name rhymes with “smells” and its last name rhymes with “cargo.”

Its logo, a cute little stagecoach pulled by a team of fast-moving horses, is so engaging that one can almost smell the sweat and manure. But enough about sweat. Let’s talk about manure.

When I asked the company representative where to return the car, the rep said I could not return it to a dealer (unlike every other leased car I owned). The rep explained they only had ONE (1!) drop-off location in Georgia. I would have to drive there … so much for convenience. On the other hand, the drop-off point could have been Guatemala.

A few days after I delivered the car to the inconvenient drop-off location, I received a bill for damage to the door. Since I had taken 360-degree pictures of the car before I turned it in, I knew the charge was nonsense. I called another customer-service rep in the End-of-Lease Department. After a short argument, they said they would look at the pictures I sent and call me back in 24 to 48 hours.

144 hours later

After 144 hours, I called again. This time I struck pay-dirt! An agent answered the phone in a droll, bored voice (I could tell I was interfering with his latte). I explained my situation and, although he sounded greatly inconvenienced, he grudgingly went to look at the pictures I emailed 144 hours earlier.

When he came back on the line, he said my pictures were inadequate. Another department would have to examine them (apparently, full-color digital photographs taken with a very expensive camera are insufficient proof when compared to personal opinion).

I said, “I was told that last week.”

He replied, and I quote, “Well, I’m telling you now.”

Stunned silence.

I said, “Can you please have your name?”

He was not intimidated. “M”, he drolled. (Again, I will be socially sensitive and not name names; suffice it to say M is the first name of a jar used to store fruits and vegetables).

I pressed onward. “And, what is the name of your supervisor?”

“We do not give out that information. You have to go through our process. You can’t just ask to talk to a supervisor.”

My mind raced: “Am I in a stooge in one of those reality TV shows?”, “Is Howie Mandel going to pop out of my phone?” … “Was ‘M’ in training for a government healthcare position?”, “Will I have to sacrifice a blemish-free goat before I can talk to a supervisor?”


I could go on about “M” and his smells-cargo employer, but the real point of this article is that hiring front-line customer service people is more important than most managers believe. Organizations are happy to get our money, but the true test of sincerity begins when things go wrong. Unless the organization is the only game in town, customer service is one of its few opportunities to show customers it cares — or not.

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Clearly, M and his employer cared less.

A good customer service agent needs five critical skills. Some can be trained and some cannot. They need skills to: 1) empathize with the customer’s plight; 2) listen and gather relevant information; 3) use questions to clarify the problem; 4) engage in joint problem solving; 5) and, do follow-up.

Why These Five?

When a customer complains, he or she is experiencing two problems: 1) a task problem with the product or service; and 2) an emotional problem. Most people would agree they are not in the mood to solve problems when are angry or upset. This is why customer-service reps need empathizing skills. Empathizing helps the customer and representative relate to each other.

Only when the customer calms down can the representative begin to ask questions and gather information. This skill requires active listening skills and well-honed questions. Discovering what went wrong, and why, minimizes the potential for a repeat problem and maximizes the potential for a happy customer.

Joint problem-solving is the natural next step. It’s the time when customer and organization come together to work out a mutually acceptable solution. This does not mean giving away the store, nor does it mean the customer is entirely wrong (see the M-jar, smells-cargo example above). Finally, it takes some form of action in the form of follow-up or next-steps.

So what should recruiting look for in an applicant? What is trainable? Well, based on your experience, do you find it easier to hire someone without empathy and tell him or her to be empathetic, or hire someone with natural empathy skills? Is it easier to hire someone who is not smart enough, or hire someone intelligent enough to probe for information? Is it easier to hire someone with poor listening skills, or, hire someone with natural listening skills?

Back to the Ranch

From a customer’s perspective, M-Jar was in the wrong job. Instead of customer service, I would suggest he seek a career that used his natural ability to be snide and insolent … a career where he does not have to deal with intelligent life forms …

As for the company who hired M? Its hiring system either failed to identify all the critical factors important to performing a customer service job in a competitive environment, or it had no clue what to look for.

As for me, I’m out there sharing my story about a well-known company and using them as a personal example of what not to look for in a customer service job.


18 Comments on “Customer Serve-less

  1. Great story – but we need the ending. Did you ever find someone who cares, were you able to resolve the issue or are you still stuck in the middle of the poor service quagmire?

  2. This company has much bigger organizational problems than just poor customer service. The poor service the author received is only a reflection of corporate values. It clearly is not outwardly focused on its customers, and seems to exist merely to serve itself. The very fact that one cannot speak to a supervisor illustrates the low value the company places on its employees and the customer.

  3. Why don’t more companies understand that if their customer service sucks they are going to lose customers? I never realized what a foreign concept that was to most companies anymore.

  4. Great story, Wendell. My only comment would be that it is not the result of poor hiring at the CS level. It is the result of poor management at the supervisor and above level. “M” didn’t care because his boss didn’t care, and probably his boss’ boss didn’t care.

    As automation and technology continue to increase, customer service will continue to decrease. It’s like Doc Brown’s “Time and Space Continuum” (Back to the Future)…once you are in it, there is no escape.

  5. As usual, Wendel has written a witty, clever article. There is an old addage in organization development, “When the subordinate is a poor performer, the problem begins at one level above”.

  6. Attributing performance problems to a specifc cause is problematic. Is it the worker-bee? The worker-bee’s boss? The environment? Who knows without doing an analysis?
    In my experience, it’s a chicken and egg problem starting at the top and flowing downward; i.e., management philosophy shares a big part of the blame; hiring managers share a big part of the blame; and poor-fit employees share a big part of the blame. Someone hired M-Jar, someone tolerated his poor performance, and M-jar certainly took a major part in acting out.

  7. BTW, M-jar eventually called back. I could tell from the tone of his voice that it pained him, but the anonymous company grudgingly credited the door damage.

    I think it supports my earlier claim that customer service has two issues: 1) task; and, 2) emotional. My task was solved, but I’m still ticked enough to write about it.

  8. Notwithstanding that they might keep you as a customer of other products, this might actually be a well thought out business strategy – you are at the end of your lease, there is no further revenue from you – unless they can get a few bucks in “damages” on the vehicle. How many people didn’t call to argue the charges, or if they did, were repelled by the agents attitude and lack of response and just dropped the issue (and paid the extra fees).

    Just guessing, but the lease origination department probably follows your advice on hiring.

  9. This was such a great article. I have also dealt with “smells-cargo” and I went to the CEO (it takes some work, but contact information for CEO’s can be found for any company). I do try to work with a company’s process but when I encounter “brain-dead” or “attitude” I skip to the top. In my experience what I have consistently found is that there is a huge disconnect between the “top” and the “bottom” in terms of customer service. Either the message is lost on the way down or the message was never sent to the nether-regions.

  10. Ah, yes…the brain-dead senior management argument. I don’t know about the anonymous company, but there could be a couple arguments we could explore:
    Employees are either acting independently, in which case management is asleep at the switch; or, employees are operating according to management directive, in which case it proves the grand-old Peter Principle. The question I always have is who’s running the show, anyway? If HR insists on calling itself a “resource”, why isn’t it acting like one and providing direction?

  11. Epilogue: I received a call from a gentleman today who said he was the manager of the End of Lease Department I wrote about in my article. He apologized sincerely and said he was working very hard to correct the shortcomings his department. I thought it was a nice gesture and should be reported.

  12. We’ve all been there. Smells-Cargo abuses go way beyond poor customer service though. They literally write their own rules and steal billions from the unprotected public (thanks to deregulation).
    BTW- bashing government health care workers ??? You had us all along for the ride until you threw in that side jab. Considering that long overdue health-care reform legislation is before congress right now- I’d say you’ve exposed a hidden agenda- not so subtlety either, and it weakened an otherwise decent article

  13. Thanks…I was not previously aware that I had a “hidden anti-healthcare agenda” nor that the anonymous company I wrote about “steals billions” from the “unprotected public” …Thanks for pointing that out. I completely missed it.

    Actually, my not-so-hidden agenda is a long-term observation that if you want something screwed-up royally…ask 535 members of the US Congress to get involved. There. I’ve said it! That’s my agenda and I am sticking to it!

  14. Wendell, I agree with your comments regarding employees’ acting independently, management asleep at the switch, etc. You raise an excellent point regarding HR’s being a “resource” and responsibility (failure or lack of responsibility) in providing direction. I find it interesting that the “face” of a company is its customers service people–yet my experience and I would assume the experience of most customers is that the “service” is missing. Companies spend so much money advertising–trying to convince the buying public how much they care, how they go the “extra mile”, la-la-la. Yet, when a customer does require assistance–it is not there–and your point is very on target, while a company’s management is at fault for this–so is HR (before anyone takes offense let me state that I have 20+ years in HR so I am not HR bashing here).

    One last comment, while you were contacted from the lease department apologizing for your experience–I have to wonder if that apology would have been forthcoming if you had only written a complaint letter?


  15. Wendell,
    a)You may have had a bad experience with a government healthcare worker but your wording implied some sort of consensus opinion of them as a whole. There are many hard working dedicated professionals who did not deserve that.
    b)Are you suggesting we do away with the Legislative Branch? Any other pieces of the U.S. Constitution that you would care to remove?


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