Making the Most of Customer Service

One of everyone’s most frustrating experiences is dealing with poorly trained, less-than-motivated, and often distant-sounding customer service representatives. Sometimes I hesitate to make a purchase at the thought that I might have to return the item and be forced to navigate the muddy waters of the customer-service return process.

The following experience illustrates the benefit of taking a step back and looking at the situation from a mediator’s perspective.

I had changed apartments and asked my local phone carrier to transfer the number. Soon after I moved I got an offer from a long-distance carrier to switch, and I accepted it. I then ordered new business cards with my new address and phone number, and left for an overdue vacation.

Two weeks later I returned home – tan, but listening to the sound of silence whenever I picked up the receiver. Initial calls (from my cell phone) to the local and long-distance carriers went unreturned. When I finally spoke with one customer-service person, he predictably blamed the other company for the incident.

Either way, I was informed, I would now have to get a new phone number, because too much time had elapsed since the phone was deactivated. My old familiar number will get recycled and be given to someone else in due course. That was not the course I felt due, as I had just received a shipment of my new business cards.

After some research I found the numbers of my new phone company’s corporate offices. I called and asked to be transferred to the executive office. There a courteous assistant answered. I introduced myself, asked her for her name. I then asked if there was anyone capable of reversing the fate of my quickly fading phone number. Alternatively, I asked to be reimbursed for my soon-to-be-useless business cards and the good will of losing a phone number many of my clients already knew.

The person I was speaking with seemed sympathetic to my plight, but reluctant to legitimize my request. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a point, but how could she determine a fair value for my loss of good will?

I then suggested a conference call with technical people of both companies so we might sort out the situation. I was told it was theoretically possible but not commonly done.

A few days later I received a call from the local company’s vice president with experience in handling such issues. Until that point I didn’t know there was such a person. She dialed a number and another voice came on – this one from the long-distance carrier. They exchanged pleasantries followed by codes which seemed to me like a random recitation of the alphabet. But within minutes they proclaimed success and I was on my way to making local (and long-distant) calls once more.

Leaving aside the practical lessons of timing my move, ordering business cards and long-distance service, what lessons can be drawn from this?

• Clear Story. Before making my first customer-service inquiry, I reviewed the events leading up to the situation, found the confirmation numbers I received, and looked up the cost of my business cards to the penny. These minor facts gave me credibility.

• Clear Goals. I knew what I wanted (my phone number back) and created some “next best” alternatives (refund for the cards and the good will). I also knew that issuing checks is not what companies want to do.

• Clear Plan. Before calling customer service I’d decided that if I didn’t get a satisfactory answer I would hunt down the executive-office phone numbers. Making this decision early gave me a “next step” alternative. Without it I would have been frustrated by the lack of responsiveness and unable to focus on a next-best course of action.

• The Kindness of Strangers. When calling the executive office I expressed my frustration, but made it clear that I was not mad at the person answering. I just needed her help since I was running out of options. She had not been calloused by the daily routine of handling customers, and empathized with my situation. By the end of our conversation she wanted to help me.

• The Name Game. I did this as a matter of introduction at the beginning of each conversation, and referred to each person by his or her name. This created an aura of relative friendliness and also let the person know I knew his or her name for any future correspondence.

• The Path of Least Resistance. I knew that it was easier for the central-office assistant to find my friendly old helpful phone number than the alternatives I presented: issuing a refund or doing nothing. Given that I knew her name, she was reluctant to leave me without at least some outcome. Finding a technical expert is not difficult when calling from an executive office.

• Persistence. I didn’t give up, especially when my initial calls went unanswered. I used each unsatisfactory result as a stepping stone and evidence of my best intentions during the next conversation. My attempt to work within the system even when it failed me paved the way to support from others to help me get my number back.

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