Customer Service Is a Mindset

“A business absolutely devoted to service will have only one worry about profits. They will be embarrassingly large.” – Henry Ford

When I was a kid, telephones and telephone service were synonymous with AT&T. In fact, it was against the law for a person to install his own phone jacks or even use a telephone not sold by AT&T. Aside and apart from the immorality of such government-created monopolies, they breed arrogance and indifference toward customers.

After decades of having everything its way, AT&T was finally forced to compete. But it was too late. The company’s “You’re lucky to have us as your service provider” attitude was firmly entrenched at every level of the telecommunications giant.

To my embarrassment, I can remember spending more than an hour on the phone, trying to get through to someone at AT&T who could answer a simple question for me. I normally don’t allow myself to become involved in such nonproductive details, but in this instance it became something of an obsessive challenge – kind of a voice-mail-hell version of road rage.

I was stubbornly intent on proving that I could figure out the maze of options … and more options … and still more options that AT&T techies had sadistically placed in my path. And that I would finally succeed in deciphering the secret code that would lead to an AT&T human being surfacing on the other end of the line.

The good news is that I ultimately succeeded. The bad news is that the woman on the other end of the line, after listening to my homily on why all high-level executives at AT&T should be executed without trials, explained that the company was in the process of phasing out most of its employees. She went on to say that she herself expected to be fired soon, and that AT&T’s near-term goal was to save billions of dollars in salaries by forcing its customers to talk only to recorded messages.

Like all people, I have a natural tendency to resist change. IBM … Xerox … AT&T … I grew up believing that people of substance dealt only with old-line companies. I was loyal to a fault. The problem is, none of those companies had the slightest interest in my wants, my needs, or my problems.

So, as AT&T’s customer service continued to devolve from hard to deal with … to nearly impossible to deal with … to completely impossible to deal with … to an arrogant refusal to even allow a customer to speak with a live AT&T representative, I began to think the unthinkable: Change to another carrier. And finally, after decades of loyalty, I made the switch.

Everything that goes around does, indeed, come around. Consciously or unconsciously, AT&T’s top brass made the ignorant decision to treat their customers with rude indifference. It saved the company untold millions in salaries, but it also lost AT&T millions of customers.

When I need information, I don’t appreciate being led by the nose from one voice mail to another by some robotic voice. Nor do I have the time or patience to listen to a recorded list of “frequently asked questions” (especially since I have never once heard one state, let alone answer, my specific question).

Above all, I don’t want the presumptuous robot on the other end of the line to continually encourage me to go to the company’s website to search for my answer. If I had the masochistic desire to click around on its website, I wouldn’t have called in the first place. The websites of some of America’s biggest corporations are so confusing and user-unfriendly that it makes you wonder if they were designed by chimpanzees.

Every company has a mindset toward its customers. The mindset of many businesses is: “This is our policy. Take it or leave it.” When it comes to dealing with a company that harbors this kind of attitude, unless there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise, I almost always opt to leave it.

By contrast, the mindset of companies that are winning the hearts and minds of both old and new customers is: “This is our normal policy, but we’ll do whatever is necessary to find a way to work around it so we can satisfy your needs.”

It’s amazing to me that so many companies still don’t get it when it comes to giving customer satisfaction a higher priority than company “policy.” And this is not just a giant-corporation phenomenon. It’s a problem with small businesses and independent entrepreneurs as well.

For example, a couple of weeks ago I was having lunch with a business associate at a fine restaurant. The food was superb. But when you pay 80 bucks for lunch for two people, you also expect great service.

When the waitress brought our appetizers, I asked her to please give me some cracked pepper on my salad. Though she was pleasant, she responded with, “The pepper mill is on the table.” Being the peaceful, gentle soul that I am, I let it go. But what I really felt like saying was, “What I meant was that I wanted you to put some cracked pepper on my salad. I don’t like to work for my food, especially when I’m paying $80 for it.”

About a month before that little incident, I had checked into a fairly high-priced hotel. I always set up a hotel room as though I were going to be there for an indefinite period of time, so the first thing I do is call housekeeping and read off my standard list of requests.

One of those standards is two extra boxes of Kleenex. Being an efficiency aficionado, I put one box on the nightstand next to my bed and another box on the desk. Why walk into the bathroom every time you need to blow your nose? Okay, so I’m strange. But so was Howard Hughes. (Hmm … maybe not such a good comparison.)

The lady in housekeeping responded to this request by telling me, “I can only give you one extra box of Kleenex.”

Out of morbid fascination, I asked her why. She explained that it was a hotel policy. She added, however, that after I used up the extra box of Kleenex, she would be happy to have another box delivered to my room to replace it. How kind of her. It was beginning to feel like I was in a Saturday Night Live skit.

What we have here is a common employee disease known as “Make Up the Policy as You Go.” This illness is especially prevalent in the airline industry. If you’re a ticket agent or a flight attendant who had a fight with your spouse this morning, the remedy is to vent your anger on some poor passenger whose only objective is to get from Point A to Point B with as little hassle as possible. And the simplest way to vent is to make up a new rule just for him.

Ditto with hotel employees. Trust me. There is no hotel in the world that has a policy which states: “If a guest asks for two extra boxes of Kleenex, tell him he can only have one.”

I didn’t want to make Ms. Housekeeper’s illness any more painful than it apparently already was, so I simply said to her, “Not a problem. Just put your supervisor on the line and I’ll place the order with her.” Remarkably, she immediately opted to change her One-Extra-Box-of-Kleenex-Per-Guest Policy and leave her supervisor out of our fascinating discussion.

Hopefully, this problem doesn’t infect your business. But if you suspect it does, I suggest you start rethinking your personnel training and your customer service “policies” right now.

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