Are you empowering employees to do right by your customers?

During the course of my big move from Western Massachusetts to Durham, NC, in early August, I had more interaction with corporate America than usual as we disconnected from services in our prior community and connected with ones in our new setting. I am sad (not to mention frustrated and downright angry in some cases) to report that customer service is broken in many (in fact, most) of the companies we dealt with. In this post I’m sharing two highly contrasting examples of customer service and at the end I’ll talk about the important lesson these experiences hold for small business owners…or indeed leaders of any size operation.

First up is the superior service I received at PNC Bank when I went to open a new checking account. But I only made it to PNC Bank because the first bank I went into ignored me for a good 10 minutes, with no absolutely offers of help. Then at a second bank, I was told that one of the two staff members who could open an account was called home for an emergency and the other one had gone to lunch and wouldn’t be back 2:00. It was then 1:20. Needless to say, I was not about to wait around for 40 minutes. I ask you, who goes out for lunch as normal when you’re the only one who can help potential new customers?

Ellen at PNC Bank, where I finally ended up, walked me to the door at the end of our interaction and asked, “Do you feel you received five-star service today?” I said, “Yes, definitely!” She then told me she was required to ask that question of everyone she helps. Wow, now there is a culture that is focused on providing superior service. Their bankers actually ask for feedback on each interaction right on the spot. When I called their service center a day later with a question about online banking, I received the same caring attitude.

On the other end of the customer service spectrum from my new best friends at PNC Bank was the attitude of a member services representative at Health New England, a company that violated all of their own policies (and also Medicare’s policies) by cancelling my health insurance after hearing from one of my care providers that I was moving out of their service area.

I had called Health New England in late June to check on what I needed to do about my coverage when I moved. I was told I had 60 days after the move to acquire new coverage. And until I obtained new coverage, I was covered for prescriptions and emergency care. But when I went fill a prescription on August 3, I was told by CVS that my insurance was no longer in effect. I ended up paying considerably more than normal for the prescription.

Okay, everybody makes mistakes. But it was how Health New England reacted when I called to ask them to fix this error that turned an annoyed customer into a furious one. The customer service person, Martha, didn’t express much, if any, empathy over the hassle their mistake was causing me or about the financial jeopardy they had put me in by cancelling coverage that at least would have covered emergency care if needed. She just said she’d have the enrollment department look into it. I could detect absolutely no sense of urgency about the matter from her.

When I called Martha 24 hours later to see if there was an update, I had to leave a voice mail. I stressed that I had another prescription that needed to be filled in two days, and I didn’t want to have to pay extra for that one, too. Five hours later, when she still hadn’t returned my call, I called again. Martha answered and when I asked if she’d gotten my voice mail, she said yes. I asked why she hadn’t called me back and she said, “We have 24 hours to return calls.”

Say what? What kind of corporate culture is it that let’s someone think “We have 24 hours to return calls” is an appropriate response to a customer no matter what the circumstances, never mind in a situation where your organization has messed up royally? Several times Martha stressed to me that she was working on the call queue, and this is why she hadn’t called me back. Translation: Keeping waiting times on the service line down was valued more than actually fixing a problem for a customer who your company had served very poorly.

I asked to speak with a supervisor, who resolved the problem by the end of the day and gave me an apology that at least sounded sincere. I was also told that Martha was misinterpreting the policy about having 24 hours to return phone calls and that this would be clarified with her.

I was left to wonder this: If Martha had been required to ask each customer she spoke with whether they had received five star service, do you think she may have shown a little more empathy and urgency in her conversations with me? And do you think she might have returned my voice mail when she received it, thereby making me feel that this company actually gave a damn about their mistake?

Based on these examples of superior and abysmal customer service, my question for you, small business owner, is this: Do the policies you have in place match your company values and the culture you want to build? Do your policies and procedures empower and encourage employees to provide superior customer service? Also, do you have systems in place to make sure you know whether your customer service is broken or working well to build strong customer relationships?

Think about it. This issue gets to the very heart of the culture you are creating, whether deliberately or by accident. Make sure you know whether you are creating great employees like Ellen, who make customers feel truly cared for, or creating more Marthas, who leave customers feeling completely unvalued.

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