Jul 2

How Not to Do Customer Service

Customer Service Now that the single worst customer service experience of my career is safely in the rearview mirror, I’m taking steps to address its root cause.

This blog is the first one.

I’m not going to rant. I’ve already done plenty of that over the last three years since hiring a West Michigan IT company to set up a server and to switch us to Outlook. It’s been three long and often excruciatingly painful years as we have received customer service that alternated from indifferent and lackadaisical to breathtakingly bad and, in the words of my lawyer husband, potentially actionable.

Rather than run through the saga, which would only raise my blood pressure and bore you, I’ve boiled everything down to seven ways NOT to do customer service – with examples.

  1. Lie. This should be a given in any customer relationship but wasn’t with our IT provider. I found the company I had used for occasional computer issues was purchased by another company. “Do you have Mac experience?” I asked as my first question. Oh, yes, of course we do, came the response. Turns out that wasn’t the case. The Mac experts were no longer with the company, and our rep had little to no practical experience with Apple products. As the leader of a professional service firm, I understand the temptation to stretch the truth when a client asks if we can do something outside our wheelhouse, such as designing ads. We’re always honest and say while we likely CAN do what is being asked, we’re not experts – and that invariably will mean our learning on your nickel. I wish our IT firm has been similarly upfront with us back in May 2015.
  2. Fail to be competent. If you are providing a service or selling a product, make sure you can deliver. We all understand things may go amiss from time to time – you may receive scrambled eggs rather than over easy or a media pitch when you were expecting a press release. Neither should be the end of the world and both are easily fixed. Our first big project with our IT provider was to transfer our data from a cloud server in Ohio to one we had purchased at its recommendation. We were told the process would take 24 hours. It took more than a week – many files never made it over, and my team and I struggled for five business days (aka a lifetime) without reliable access to our data. Although this is the most egregious of examples, it was far from the only one over the course of three years.
  3. Make excuses. As my team knows, when we make a mistake, we own it. We don’t make excuses. We figure out what happened, apologize for the error and do everything in our power to ensure it won’t happen again. It’s a formula we successfully use in crisis management: acknowledge, apologize and prevent. When I asked our IT provider about the snafus with our data transfer, I heard one excuse after another – no solution, no apology.
  4. Blame a team member. Mistakes will happen in any business. When they do, though, don’t single out a member of your team and blame him or her. The buck stops with leadership – ultimately, everything that happens under the umbrella of Sabo PR is my responsibility. So when debriefing with the owner of the IT company about what a truly wretched experience we had had with our data transfer, I was surprised when the owner laid all the blame on the shoulders of a team member no longer with the company, then started bemoaning what a bad hire he had been. Really?
  5. Blame the client. Clients aren’t always right, but mistakes are seldom – if ever – their fault. Blaming a client for YOUR error is a non-starter. When I pushed back in the conversation above, noting the IT company had ultimate responsibility for its employee’s actions, I was told that we had “too much data.” Again, really? You are blaming me for your mistake? You knew, or should have known going in, how much data we had and how long it would take to transfer.
  6. Hold your client hostage. As a professional service firm, we all hold information proprietary to our clients. When you’re breaking up with a client, ownership of that information can come into question if not spelled out in a contract. I’ve seen PR firms refuse to hand over media lists when clients decide to switch agencies and other examples of similarly poor sportsmanship throughout my career. I was treated to one of the worst, though, when we decided not to renew our contract with our IT provider for a fourth year. The new contract locked me in for three years with a sizable monthly service increase and hefty walk-away penalties. Frustrated by three years of less-than-stellar customer service, I finally found a new IT company. After my contract with our original provider ended, I asked for our email and website accounts to be transferred back to our name. I was told I had to pay a walk-away penalty that equated six months of our service contract to get this information – even though this stipulation was not in the contract I had signed. Faced with losing access to our email and website, I paid up.
  7. Ask for a referral. One of my favorite attorneys talks about what it takes for companies to get to the spot where clients not only choose to do business with you but actively refer you to others. As professional service firms, it’s where we all long to be. It is always a great honor when I receive a call from a prospective client who says she got my name from a current client who loved the work we do. That is the most open, welcoming door to a potential new relationship I can ever hope for. I must admit, I was more than a bit surprised when the owner of the IT company ended our contract renewal meeting this spring by asking for referrals to our municipal clients. Didn’t he realize just how strained our relationship was, I wondered?

Our relationship with this IT provider ended on May 31. We love our new company, EMTech Services – during the final frenetic 24 hours when it looked like we might lose access to our email and website, the owner came up with Plans B, C and D for us. One of his team was on-site most of the day to make the switch as painless as possible. In all the tech conversions I have lived through, this was the smoothest and easiest.

Since that time, EMTech has helped us find a solution to backing up our server nightly. Our other provider had said it would take $6,000 to do so – EMTech figured out a way to do so for $600. Ellis and Reuben have been helpful in suggesting ways to improve what we are doing so we can, in turn, improve how we are serving clients.

As many of you know, we developed a social contract a few months ago to help guide how we interact with our clients and fellow team members. At the core of it, it comes down to customer service –whether internal or external. Providing exceptional service every time is just who we are, which is why this situation irked me so much.

I know my team and I certainly got a front row seat on how NOT to treat a client – lessons I think we’ll keep for life.


4 thoughts on “How Not to Do Customer Service”

  1. Mary Helmic says:

    Wow, lots of lessons at a high cost. Thanks for passing those along! So pleased to hear that your new experience is going so well.

    1. Brian Jon Greenleaf says:

      My pleasure, Mary. If others can learn from our professional pain, always happy to share. — Mary Ann

  2. Robin Keith says:

    So glad you are looking at the imcompetents in the rearview mirror!

  3. Brianna Peña says:

    Amen, Robin — we are, too!

    Mary Ann

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