Being a selection wonk, I continually look for disconnects between company policy and employment practices. Glaring examples tend to occur when I have a problem and need assistance from an employee who was supposed to be hired for his or her customer-service skills.

A Promise Made

Late last year, I received a Christmas package from my son and his fiance. I’m sure they put a lot of thought and effort into choosing just the right gift. There was even a special card included the message, “Of all the gifts in the world, someone has chosen to give you this tower.” The actual company name will remain anonymous, but I can say the card was signed by two guys in the shipping department named Harry and David.

Yes, I was impressed with all the fancy ribbons and wrappings. The card continued, “After all, a gift like this is possible only after we’ve spent months choosing the delectables?evaluating hundreds, if not thousands of samples for taste, texture, and more.” Yummy!

On the back of the card printed in big red letters, “THE STRONGEST GUARANTEE IN THE BUSINESS?We guarantee your complete satisfaction with this product, just let us know and we’ll make it right with either an appropriate replacement or a refund.”

You get the idea. The company promised the very best product it could find and, if a customer had any problem, it would be resolved.

A Promise Broken

My wife started on the pears, and I grabbed the bag of premium mixed nuts. Well, I don’t know about you, but when someone promises they have spent months choosing the delectables, backs it with the strongest guarantee in the business, prints the word “Premium” on the label, and then charges 50 bucks for the package, I have high expectations.

My mouth watered as visions of brazils, pecans, almonds, filberts, and cashews filled my head.

But as I opened the bag, a chilly wind blew out of the bag. Peanuts, peanuts, everywhere peanuts! Peanuts are not even a nut! They are nodule on a root.

Oh sure, there was the occasional pecan and cashew, but carefully chosen premium mixed nuts that took months to choose? I think not! I could have bought the same thing for two bucks at Walgreens. I was not completely satisfied.

I was preparing to physically count the number of almonds and pecans in the package, but without thinking, I ate both of them. So, I decided to check out their customer service claim about having the STRONGEST GUARANTEE IN THE BUSINESS.

I wondered, “Did this unnamed company hire customer service people with the interpersonal skills to back up their guarantee?”

In my experience, executives are quick to emphasize their organization’s excellence and service, but maintain the same resume-interview hiring drill. Any difference between hiring practices and wishful thinking become glaring when service employees meet face-to-face with customers.

Finding the Culprit

Customer service is a tough way to make a living. Low-paid people sit for long stretches listening to a never-ceasing queue of complaints. As soon as they hang up one call, an inbound router sends another. Their managers make things worse by expecting reps to deliver quality but punish them for taking too much time to solve problems.

It is any wonder that customer-service reps turn over?

Assuming, for a moment, that retaining happy customers is a high priority, and that managers do not abuse employees, successful customer service reps have two major characteristics: 1) above-average interpersonal skills, and 2) the complimentary attitudes, interests, and motivations to use them. Both are hard to train and develop.

Let’s see how these skills and attitudes played-out when I phoned the unnamed fruit company.

Me: “Hello, I received a gift basket with a card signed by two guys in your shipping department. The bag of mixed nuts in the gift were hardly premium and mostly peanuts.”

Rep: “Let me look-up the description. Nope. They’re okay.”

Me (pushing the envelope): “No, they are not. This package of premium nuts is not “premium.” I’m not completely satisfied. I thought you had the strongest guarantee in the business.”

Rep: “Just a minute. Nope, the ad does not say anything about peanuts, and besides, we never had any complaints before. Let me ask my supervisor.”

Me (waiting).

Rep: “Nope. She agreed. You received what was ordered.”

Me: “May I speak with the supervisor?”

Rep: “It won’t do any good. I just told you what she said.”

Me: “Supervisor?” (waiting again)

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Supervisor: “May I help you?”

Me: (Repeating my complaint about their definition of “premium” and invoking the words “STRONGEST GUARANTEE IN THE BUSINESS”.)

Supervisor: “I’m sorry. We have 4,000 reps. I don’t even know where this call came from. Do you want some jelly? Our jelly is really good.”

Me: “I really wanted premium mixed nuts, but I guess jelly is okay.”

Supervisor: “I’m sorry, we’re out of jelly. Would you like some truffles?”

Me: “Ok.”

Supervisor: “I’m sorry you had a problem.”

Me: “Me too.”

It occurred to me that 4,000 customer service reps treated customers the way I was treated. Why didn’t the company just be honest? They could have printed a gift card with words to the effect, “You bought it. You got it. Call 1-800-WeDontCare to listen to an impersonal pre-recorded message.”

At least I would not have been surprised by how I was treated.

Selecting for Customer Service

It goes without saying that bad management can completely undermine service quality, but assuming skilled customer-service reps can be trained or developed (as opposed to pre-selected) is silly and downright dangerous to repeat business.

The organizations with the best customer service reps have the following in common:

  • Applicants are fully aware about what they are expected to do on the job?the good, the bad, and the ugly.
  • The company screens for a work and biographical history associated with success.
  • Companies know the whole job and measure the whole person by using a battery of tests that accurately predict future performance (in both training classes) and on the job.
  • Every applicant successfully passes a job simulation that evaluates interpersonal skills.
  • Customer-service supervisors are selected using the same standards.

Yes, this is an exhaustive screen. Why do it? Simple: if a company wants to align its rhetoric with reality, it needs to choose employees with the same care it chooses the “delectables” it sells. This includes evaluating hundreds, if not thousands, of samples.

Of course, that is a multi-layered choice.

Management must decide how badly it wants repeat customers and make a formal commitment of time and money. HR needs to think of itself as a talent scout, not a clerical operation, studying jobs, validating tests, and expecting candidates to demonstrate skills, not just talk about them.

First-line managers have to be selected for their management skills, not performance as jobholders (the guy/gal you report to usually has a big influence on your performance).

Will I buy from the fruit company again? Doubtful. Will I recommend them to others? Probably not. Will I buy from their competition? Eagerly.

Too bad. The two guys in shipping seemed like such nice folks.


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