As a small business owner, you likely have advice coming to you from all angles about all aspects of running your business. One of the most commonly bandied about topics is how to provide the best customer service. This blog is no exception, and we have spent quite a bit of time and space giving you our two cents on what makes a great customer service experience. For some of the latest statistics on what customers want, or claim to want, check out Microsoft’s annual Global State of Multichannel Customer Service Report.

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Customers clearly value good service. In fact, a recent study from NewVoiceMedia found that US Companies collectively lose about $41 billion per year as a result of poor customer service experiences. Thus, the frequency with which this vital service is so poorly performed truly amazes me. So for this post, I’d like to highlight some important things that make for an absolutely abysmal customer experience so that you can be sure to avoid them in your small business. This advice is based on a recent encounter I had with the customer service department for the company that provides my home alarm system monitoring. I won’t name the company to protect the innocent (or the ridiculously incompetent), but my encounter went something like this:

The Epitome of Poor Customer Service: An Anecdote

I walked to the keypad in my bedroom to disarm the alarm system in the morning, and after hitting one key the entire keypad went dead and began to emit a loud buzzy/ringy sound that would not stop. I went to the other keypad, which was working, and disarmed the system. 15 minutes later, the keypad in my bedroom was still making that annoying sound.

Now, I was starting to be late for work, but as I didn’t want the system to malfunction while no one was home, and as we were leaving for an out-of-town trip the next day, I called the alarm company customer service line. I explained the problem in detail, even holding the phone up to the keypad so the representative could hear the sound, and was then told by him that I would have to shut down the entire system to reset it and silence the alarm.

Now, at no point did I tell this representative that an alarm was going off (which if you have an alarm system you know is loud enough to hear 10 blocks away, and could not be mistaken for the very annoying but much softer buzzy/ringy sound) but he insisted. When I asked about simply disabling the noisy keypad, he put me on hold to check with a “tech guy” and returned to tell me that disabling the keypad would “cause even worse problems” and that I absolutely should not do that—I needed to go into the garage, find the key to the locked alarm box (which was located near the ceiling so I needed a ladder), disconnect the battery by removing the red and the black wire, and also unscrew and unplug the main power to the alarm.

If I wasn’t willing to do that, he would be happy to schedule a technician visit sometime in the next couple of weeks. Well, not only would it be impossible to sleep that night with the buzzy/ringy sound in my bedroom, I was headed out of town the next day, thus a near-term technician visit wasn’t possible.

So, I hung up with the representative and managed to find the key to the box, to disconnect the battery (which by the way only allowed removing the black wire and not the red wire), and unplugged the alarm system. The functioning keypad went obligingly dead, but the buzzy/ringy keypad kept on its buzzing/ringing.

By that time I was very late for work, quite frustrated, and just a bit frazzled from listening to that buzzy/ringy noise for over a half hour. So, I called the customer service line again. Apparently they have a small team, as I got the same person as before. I reported my actions, noted that the system was now off (as evidenced by the working keypad shutting down), and informed him that the bedroom keypad was still making noise.

At this point, he told me that it was not possible for the keypad to make noise and thus it was not making noise. I held the phone back up to the keypad so he could hear the noise, at which point he told me it was not the keypad that it must be something else in the house. He wanted me to check all the smoke alarms and CO2 alarms, and remove all of their batteries because they must be the source of the noise. Luckily my smoke alarms are attached to the alarm system, which was powered down, so there were no batteries to remove. I dutifully removed the batteries from the CO2 detector, and unsurprisingly that had no effect on the buzzy/ringy noise emanating from the keypad. Upon my reporting that, he continued to insist that I was not hearing a noise from the keypad, and again instructed me not to try to disable the keypad. He informed me that I would need to schedule a technician visit if I wanted any further assistance, as it was simply not possible that the keypad was making noise when the system was powered down.

I, probably not quite patiently enough, explained that while he didn’t think the keypad could make noise with the system powered-down, it actually was making noise, and that the problem was clear. I also explained that I could not sleep that night with the noise, and that a technician visit 7 days from now would not be a viable solution. He again insisted that what I was experiencing could not possibly be happening, but offered to transfer me to a supervisor. I eagerly accepted.

Several minutes of buzzy/ringy noise later I was connected to a supervisor. I again explained the situation, and while she was puzzled she at least entertained the notion that the keypad could be the source of the noise I was hearing. After suggesting possibly cutting the power to the bedroom or the entire house at the fuse box (something I really didn’t want to try or want to live with for an extended period), I decided to throw caution to the wind and asked her about disconnecting the keypad by popping off the top (even though the first representative told me several times that doing so not only wouldn’t work but would make it worse). She said that sounded like a good idea; I grabbed a screw driver and popped the keypad off its connection, and voila, the noise ceased!

With much relief I walked through resetting the system (which it turned out did not need to be disconnected in the first place) with the supervisor, and got everything but that darned bedroom keypad back up and running, so I could sleep that night and head out of town the next day with the peace of mind that my empty home would be protected while I was gone.

Dealing with the defective keypad was left to another day—I can live with broken and silent indefinitely, while I don’t think I could have taken another minute of broken and buzzy/ringy!

The major takeaway I have from this experience is that I should trust my gut and try to fix a problem myself before calling for assistance. (In hindsight, I should have just popped off the darn keypad and dealt with any potential system malfunctions if they actually occurred. But in my own defense, the alarm company instructs customers not to take any action related to the system without calling first.)

However, as with most unpleasant interactions, it can be redeemed as a teaching moment. The following are lessons that can be gleaned from even the most frustrating moments of my customer service encounter:

5 Customer Service Don’ts

1. Don’t Deny the Customer’s Problem Exists

I can’t tell you how much control it took not to unleash a verbal tirade when the representative told me that what I was experiencing was not happening. (Nor can I truthfully report that I remained appropriately polite.) Now, I’m not one of those “the customer is always right” people, especially when it comes to technical problems. It is perfectly plausible that the reason your customer can’t access your website is that your customer’s monitor or computer is unplugged, or that the customer’s internet connection is down, or any number of other reasons not at all directly related to your website. But, telling the customer that she CAN access your website, because there are no problems with the website and you can see it just fine, does nothing to move the problem toward a solution and only causes further frustration.

2. Don’t Assume The Problem

After several moments on the phone with me, the representative assumed I had a full blown alarm going off, and instructed me on how to reset the alarm system. Had he listened to my description, he would have understood that the sound was coming from the keypad and not from the house alarm bells. Before making a snap assumption about a customer’s problem, which is all too common especially for representatives working off keywords and decision trees, take the time to listen carefully to what the customer is saying, and even repeat it back to make sure you fully comprehend all of the issues. Then, and only then, suggest an appropriate solution.

3. Don’t Ignore Customer Pain Points

In my interaction with the representative, he repeatedly attempted to end the call by offering to schedule a visit by a technician for several days in the future, even though I repeatedly explained that the noise was in my bedroom, and that I was going out of town. Had he really listened, he would have understood that my immediate need was to STOP THE NOISE, and that anything more could wait. I certainly wasn’t going to sleep with that noise going on all night. (To her credit, the supervisor understood that immediately.) The lesson here is to pay attention to a customer’s most pressing needs, even if that means putting off a solution to a larger problem. To turn an old adage on its head, while it is true that if you give a man a fish he eats for a day and if you teach him how to fish he’ll never go hungry; if he is already on death’s door and is too weak to hold a fishing rod, by all means give him the darn fish!

4. Don’t Discount Even Seemingly Impossible Solutions

As Sherlock Holmes teaches, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” My call with the representative would have gone much more smoothly had he simply entertained the notion that the keypad could be making the noise even with the system powered down. Further, even though his “tech guy” told him that disconnecting the keypad in question would be problematic, when the preferred solution didn’t work he should have suggested (as his supervisor did) trying it anyway, since things couldn’t possibly get any worse. (And in all fairness, at that point I probably should have ignored his warning and done it anyway.) Most good customer service representatives have a vast store of experience to draw on, and they can use that experience to find the right solution to just about any problem. But in some cases, apparently like mine, the usual doesn’t work and things behave oddly. In those situations, the best representatives keep an open mind, and suggest the seemingly impossible solution, on the off chance that it is merely improbable and may just do the trick. (Documenting these situations so that they can be used again in similar circumstances is an invaluable tool for your service team.)

5. Don’t Wing It

Your customers expect that when they call a customer service line, that they are speaking with an expert. When you provide troubleshooting instructions or advice of any kind to customers, it is your responsibility as a customer service representative to not only provide the correct advice, but also to refrain from providing possibly incorrect advice just to be able to offer a (any!) solution instead of pleading ignorance. No one is an expert on everything, and it is perfectly acceptable to tell a customer that you don’t know an answer and will ask someone else or get back to them after researching it. What you absolutely should not do is provide specific instructions based on general knowledge, or worse wing it. In my example, had I a bit less common sense I might have tugged on the permanent red battery wire (which the representative told me to remove along with the black one) and ended up breaking my system and having even bigger problems. And clearly, the instruction not to remove the keypad was not only way off base, it actually prolonged the problem.

Both Sides of the Customer Service Story

Those are my top-5 Don’ts, and apparently I’m not alone. According to the SDL 2015 The Global CX Wakeup Call Report 76% of respondents readily recalled a customer service failure from the last decade, while only 55% could recall a success. (Think about that one; 45% of people cannot recall a positive interaction with a customer service representative!)

A Consumer Reports survey from last year found many of the same complaints I have about customer service, or lack there-of. The top two complaints in that survey, both rated by 75% of respondents as “highly annoying,” were rude or condescending customer service representatives (a complaint I fully understand), and not being able to reach a live person. Other common “highly annoying” complaints were being disconnected (74%), and my personal favorite being “transferred to a representative who can’t help or is wrong.” In fact, the survey found that the customer service experience was so frustrating that 57% of people calling customer service lines “were so steamed that they hung up the phone without a resolution.”

Of course, for every customer service incompetent there are many people doing this often thankless job with good humor, extensive knowledge, and a true desire to help. (For example, PaySimple’s own award winning Customer Care team— when you call us you’ll never have an experience like the one I had with my alarm company.) Read The Top Pet Peeves of Customer Service Representatives to get their side of the story.

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Lisa Hephner

Lisa Hephner

My name is Lisa, and I'm the Vice President of Knowledge, responsible for the management of corporate, product, competitor, marketplace, legal, and regulatory knowledge, and creation and dissemination of knowledge tools using these assets to PaySimple prospects, customers, employees, and partners.

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