Customer Service, Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, I discussed how giant companies such as AT&T, Xerox, and IBM have fallen from grace with their customers through arrogance, ignorance, or both. Put another way, they have lost touch with how the new-millennium marketplace works. They simply haven’t grasped the idea that the most successful companies today are those that place their customers on a pedestal. I also gave a couple of examples of employees who had not been properly trained by their companies to understand that going above and beyond the call of duty to please customers is their primary job.

Today, I’m going to discuss another aspect of customer satisfaction – customer feedback. For many years, I felt a moral obligation to inform business owners whenever I thought they had a personnel or customer-service problem on their hands. I say “moral obligation,” because I have always been grateful to customers – or anyone, for that matter – who have taken the time to clue me in on any aspect of my business that was not up to par. I use the past tense here because, sadly, I rarely volunteer my observations anymore. The inherent urge to be of help to a fellow entrepreneur or business owner still resides within me.

The problem, however, is that too many business owners have demonstrated that they are neither interested in, nor serious about, receiving such feedback. A few years ago, I was doing business with a public relations firm that assigned a seemingly intelligent young lady (“Ms. Snit”) to my account. Unfortunately, subsequent events proved that she had it all – negligence, laziness, incompetence, and a huge chip on her shoulder. Her purported job was public relations, but her entitlement mentality caused her to focus on her technical “duties” rather than on pleasing customers.

After one abysmal experience after another, I took the trouble to write a letter to the CEO of the company, detailing Ms. Snit’s myriad deficiencies and belligerent attitude. I also spoke to him about it over the phone, and he seemed genuinely concerned. I further emphasized that I would prefer he handle the matter in a general sort of way in order to avoid hard feelings. I specifically told him that I would appreciate his leaving my name out of his discussion with her so she wouldn’t personalize the matter.

My suggestion was that he simply point out some areas of weakness that he felt Ms. Snit needed to improve upon. He assured me that he wouldn’t even mention my name and that he would handle things gingerly. I guess we had differing definitions of the word “gingerly,” because he not only told her straight out about my complaints, he actually showed her my letter! When I subsequently called Ms. Snit to inquire about something, she went into a tirade about how I had “defamed” her.

In rare form, she demonstrated an uncanny knack for coming up with four-letter words that I didn’t even know existed. (It was okay, of course, because she did it gingerly.) Needless to say, from that point on she went out of her way to make things difficult for me. Worse, having been allowed to get away with her outrageous behavior, it was a green light for her to continue to treat her company’s most valued assets (i.e., customers) with contempt. About a year later, I paid an audio/video company to do some extensive work for me, and I dealt primarily with the vice president of new business development.

Notwithstanding his impressive title, he never once delivered work when he promised it to me. Worse, he was unresponsive to an extreme. I finally got so fed up with the bad service I was getting that I thought I should let the owner know about it. Since he had been the one to personally solicit my business, I knew he would be concerned about the lack of follow-through on the part of one of his top people. I emphasized to him that he should handle the problem gently, since we were only about halfway through my project and I had a lot of money invested in it.

This time, I guess the problem was our differing definitions of the word “gently.” Wham! Immediately after the owner of the company talked to him, the vice president of new business development called to let me know, in very harsh terms, that he didn’t appreciate my “going behind his back” to complain to his boss. I didn’t bother to remind him that on numerous occasions I had expressed my dissatisfaction directly to him, but it didn’t seem to have any effect.

Needless to say, working through the remainder of the project was very uncomfortable. If you’re a business owner, when a customer does you a favor by pointing out that one of your employees is not doing his job properly, don’t make the mistake of creating an employee-versus-customer battle. Be grateful to the customer, thank him for taking the time and trouble to tell you about his dissatisfaction, then approach the employee in question GENTLY (or gingerly).

By that I mean by tactfully pointing out an area or areas where you feel he needs some improvement. But leave the specific customer out of it, for at least two good reasons. First, because you can count on the employee’s having his own version of the story, and that version is almost certain to cast him as an innocent victim. Which means you then have a customer-employee debacle (see “Word to the Wise,” below) on your hands. Second, if you intend to have an ongoing relationship with the customer, the offending employee is likely to act in ways that will drive that customer away from you by exacting retribution for your “tattling” on him.

I believe that one of the reasons so many employers make this mistake is that they tend to be naive. By and large, anyone ambitious enough to go into business for himself is usually conscientious, competent, reliable, hardworking, and customer-oriented. Where the naivety comes in is that such business owners also tend to assume, at least subconsciously, that their employees possess the same traits. And, fortunately, many employees do – at least the ones who are focused on getting ahead in life. However, the very employees who don’t treat their company’s customers with respect are the same employees who are most likely to excel at kissing up to their bosses. How do some employees manage to get away with this kind of charade throughout their careers?

Sadly, I believe that the egos of many business owners simply can’t resist the verbiage of professional sycophants on their payroll. It makes them feel secure to know they are surrounded by a cadre of pit bulls who make great theater of protecting the boss. In fact, many bosses are addicted to the fabricated adulation of their employees. The unspoken understanding is that in exchange for treating the boss as if he were the Pope, they can count on him to stand up for the guys and gals on “his team” at all costs. All of which sounds very noble, except for the reality that it’s simply not good business.

An owner cannot serve his customers effectively if he is focused on not offending his employees. I want to emphasize that making certain your employees are treating your customers with tender loving care does not prevent you from being respectful and loyal to those same employees. But how good your relationship with an employee is should depend upon how well he or she treats your most precious asset – your customers. The corollary to this is that if you happen to be an employee, you should skip the sycophantism and focus your efforts on pleasing your company’s customers.

You’ll get ahead much more quickly by having customers tell the owner how great you are rather than by your continually telling the boss how great he is. And if you are guilty of not delivering on time, or not delivering what you promised, be quick to own up to your mistakes. Nothing conjures up more respect, from both customers and superiors, than being accountable for your actions (or lack of action). Everyone makes mistakes. That’s not the problem. What creates a problem is when someone refuses to own up to his mistakes.

Finally, if you’re an independent entrepreneur, everything is in your lap, because you are both the employee and the boss. Without customers, you have nothing. Treat them like the valuable assets they are. The only policy that should be rigid is making certain that your customers are always satisfied. In fact, you should look at every customer complaint as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with that customer. I’ve done this a thousand times in my career by not only apologizing and thanking the customer for letting me know about his dissatisfaction, but also by doing something special for him.

Almost without fail, this will result in your ending up with a more loyal customer than one who has never registered a complaint. In other words, view a customer’s complaint as an opportunity rather than as a problem. One last piece of advice that I feel is critical. Don’t ask customers to fill out evaluation forms unless you are prepared to read them yourself. On at least two occasions that I can think of, I was about to fill out one of those “tell us how we’re doing” forms, because I thought the owner of the company would appreciate knowing that someone in his organization was not performing up to par.

The problem? In both cases, the form was to be returned to the very person I was dissatisfied with! As I said, many business owners are very naive. If you now own a business, or plan to own one some day, never – ever – make this mistake. If having your customers evaluate your products and services is really important to you, make sure those customer evaluation forms are sent directly to you. Otherwise, the employee reading them could be tempted to shred the ones that don’t please him. I have several hundred other customer-service stories that I hope to pass along to you from time to time. But if you’re a customer-service junkie, this article should be enough of a fix to tide you over for a while.

[Ed. Note: To read Part 1 of this article, go to Robert Ringer’s website and look under “article archives.” To receive his wit and wisdom on alternate weeks, when his articles do not appear in Early to Rise, be sure to sign up for his e-letter. You can do both at .]