The title of this post is definitely loaded, and the double meaning is fully intended. Getting customer service “right” as part of your small business operations is critical to your success. That means the right hires, the right training, the right tools (from scripts to knowledgebase to CRM and ticketing systems), the right coaching, and most importantly the right mindset for not only your care team itself but the entire organization. It also means front line representatives that give correct, accurate information to customers that solves problems rather than exacerbating them.

Take Your Small Business From Scrappy to Successful

Lessons on growing up a business from entrepreneurs like you.
Click here to access the FREE [eBook]

Getting both right is not easy, but it can pay enormous dividends in terms of satisfied loyal customers who not only provide a consistent revenue stream via repeat purchases, but also turn into your brand promoters. The Microsoft 2016 State Of Global Customer Service Report puts the importance of customer service in stark numbers that no small business owner can afford to ignore:

  • 97% of US consumer respondents rated customer service as important when selecting a brand or in their loyalty to a brand (67% rating it very important and 30% somewhat important).
  • 55% of US consumer respondents have higher expectations for customer service today than they did a year ago.
  • 63% of US respondents reported ceasing to do business with a company/brand because of poor customer service.
  • 32% of US consumer respondents rated not having to repeat themselves and not being passed to another agent as the most important aspect of a “satisfying” customer service encounter. Fast followers were friendly and knowledgeable customer service agents (28%) and problem resolution with a single contact (24%).
  • 36% of US consumer respondents rated not being able to reach a live person as the most frustrating aspect of poor customer service experiences; and 25% found service agents who lacked the knowledge or ability to solve their problems to be the most frustrating.

The Microsoft report ends with a conclusion that all small business owners should take to heart, particularly when trying to level the playing field with their big business competitors:

“In today’s world where price and product can be easily matched, it has never been more important to marry people, process and technology to serve and engage the customer.”

Thus, it continues to boggle my mind how many companies large and small are getting customer service so terribly wrong. While it is easy to blame technology taking the place of human interaction for customer service fails; that case simply cannot be made. Consumers are actively embracing self-serve help. The Microsoft study found that 79% of US respondents had used a self-service portal for a customer service issue, and of those 78% found the help they needed. When they didn’t find what they needed, the most common reason by far (64%) was that the portal contained insufficient information.

With so many people turning to self-serve, those that actually contact a customer service person (whether that is via Chat, Phone, Social Media, or Email) have the most complex problems. And it is in those cases where the interactions can spiral out of control.

3 Actual Misinformation Customer Service Fails

Last year in 5 Critical Customer Service Don’ts I wrote about my frustrating and surreal customer service experience with an alarm monitoring company. Just recently I found myself caught in an unrelated cluster of epic customer service fails, all related to a single deficiency: customer service reps providing inaccurate (OK just plain flat-out wrong!) information and advice. They say bad things come in threes; so hopefully I’m done for a while. In a cathartic but instructive, vent, here are the details:

Misinterpreting the Fine Print: Airline Elite Woes

An airline we frequent ran a promotion offering elite status if you took three roundtrip flights in a specific time period. There was a bunch of fine print that we had trouble figuring out, but when we had two flights within the promotion period, we thought about taking a third to qualify. Prior to booking we called customer service (Call #1) to make sure that the first two flights would count and that the third would qualify us for the promotion. After “researching” the promotion the rep assured us that we had two qualifying flights already and that we needed just one more flight to qualify. So, we booked a trip to San Diego. (BTW—great trip and great city.)

Fast forward a few weeks, and we check our online accounts to find that elite status has not been conferred. Call #2 to Customer Service: 20 minutes hold time, 20 minutes on with a rep who “researches” the promotion again and is mystified as to why elite status has not yet been assigned, but assures us that it is probably just hung up in the system. We should just wait a bit longer and it should appear. Asked whether he could check to see if that could be expedited (as we planned to travel again soon) he said that he could not do it—that was the responsibility of another department that was closed. If we liked we could call back next week. We booked the upcoming flight on a different airline and waited.

A few more weeks in, we called the supposedly correct department. Call #3, another 20 minutes on hold and another rep who spent 20 minutes “researching” the promotion. She too was mystified as to why it had not yet taken effect and again stated that we had met all requirements. She gave us another number to call, as she could help no further and could not transfer us.

Call #4, another 20 minutes on hold and another “mystified” person who “researched” the promotion, told us we had met all requirements, but couldn’t help. She gave us another number to call for someone in yet another department who could rectify the situation.

How are you accepting payments?

Learn all the ways to accept online payments
Click here to access the FREE [Cheat-Sheet]

Call #5, 50 minutes on hold (not a typo—50 minutes!) and we finally reached a person who could both “research” and resolve the situation. However, upon her “research” she found that the first flight was taken in the promotion period but booked the day before it started, and thus did not count. She admonished us to read the promotions more carefully as this information was clearly provided in the promotion details.

What? Four other service reps “researched” the promotion and told us we qualified. We even checked before booking an extra flight we would not ordinarily have taken and were apparently given incorrect advice regarding our qualification status.

We protested to no avail—no exceptions, no apologies, no admission of responsibility for the just plain wrong information; our flight activity didn’t qualify and we were out of luck.

To recap: 5 calls, over 2 hours on hold, another hour plus on the line with reps attempting to “research” and resolve.

The Point: The promotion did what marketing intended; we purchased a flight we would not otherwise have taken and was a short-term win. However, it turned into a long-term loss as what would have been a successful program for building customer loyalty turned into a customer service fail that will cost this airline our (likely significant) future business. (Oh, and I got a great 4-day weekend in San Diego—so it wasn’t all bad.)

Withholding & Misrepresenting Policy: The UPS Package Never Cometh

This story begins with the frustration of having my credit card number stolen and discovering it myself when reviewing my account online. The banks are getting good at fraud detection, but this time they missed it big time—with two ride service charges at the exact same time, in addition to other fraudulent charges totaling almost $5,000.

I called the bank immediately to report the fraud. That was taken care of professionally and appropriately. The problem arose when it came to getting a replacement card. I was told it would be sent in the mail and I would receive it in 3-5 business days. (As this was discovered on July 4th, a holiday, it was likely to take even longer than that.) I was given no other option for receiving a new card, and was honestly too flustered at all the fraudulent charges to ask for faster replacement.

The next day, after receiving a package at my house of something I did not order (yes, the thief was dumb enough to send his $800 sneakers to me instead of to his address), I contacted the bank again. This time, among other things, I asked about getting a replacement card sooner. The person I spoke with appeared helpful, said she would get it out and that I should get it that Friday and would need to be home to sign for it.

I waited around all day on Friday, but no card. I gave it one more day to Saturday but still no card. I called back, and was then told that the card that had been put in the regular mail had been canceled, that a new card was programmed to go out UPS overnight, but that it never got sent. The card in the mail was invalid, and they could send out another new card in a package that would require a signature and would arrive in 1-2 days. When I requested morning service, so that I would have a time window, I was told that was impossible. When I asked to have a guaranteed delivery day, I was told that was impossible too. With no idea when the envelope would arrive, I couldn’t tell where I would be when it got there, so I couldn’t even provide an alternate location.

I went through two supervisors. The first repeated the same information as the original rep—they could send the card via expedited delivery, but could not use a UPS service with a guaranteed delivery time or date. (That made no sense to me, as I use that service all the time.) The second supervisor said that yes they could not use a guaranteed date/time delivery service, but that the envelope might not require a signature. She said that the bank doesn’t require a signature, but the UPS driver might take it upon himself to require one. (Not sure why—but I guess that is a process story all of its own.)

After explaining again about the service fails, and waiting all day for a package that was never sent, I got absolutely nowhere. That was their policy, and they could use one expedited delivery option and that option only. They were sorry that they had a system glitch that prevented the replacement from going out, and they were sorry but the only option was to hope a signature would not be required.

It worked out in the end—the package was left at my house with no signature required—but I now have a new (different) favorite credit card.

The Point: This entire situation could have been avoided if the first rep I spoke with had offered the overnight shipping option. It would likely have avoided the glitch, avoided additional calls, freed up my Friday, and not added more stress to an already stressful and frustrating situation.

Providing Inaccurate Information: Sorry Wrong Number

I’m planning to spend some time in Canada and Alaska, and my current mobile phone service (which I actually liked a lot prior to this incident– I’ve referred several customers to them, and was definitely a brand promoter) is not supported in either place. So, I ported my number to another carrier (and a new phone) with every intention of porting it back after the trip.

My plan was to put a new number on the old account and phone, and then port back my main number upon my return. Before the port was complete, I logged into my old account and attempted to change the number on the old phone. The system hung with a “please wait…” message. After about 15 minutes of “please waiting…” I called customer support using the new phone (which was at that point servicing my number with the new service at the same time as the old service provider on the old phone).

The rep I spoke with was at first confused about the problem, and couldn’t comprehend how I could be calling from the number I wanted to change. OK, I understand how that can be confusing to a lay person, but to a customer service rep it should have been immediately comprehensible. After finally understanding that I wanted a new number on my existing phone she began the process of opening a new account. I stopped her mid open, and told her I didn’t want a new account because I had a $19 cash balance on my existing account. I was put on hold for about 10 minutes while she “researched” what to do. She came back and told me that I couldn’t change the number while the port was in progress, but that once it completed I should log into my account and I could make the switch then. I hung up the call satisfied and with a plan.

Not so fast! Port complete I attempted to login to my account, and found that I couldn’t. Call #2 to customer care. The IVR menu had two choices: existing customers and new customers. I picked existing and was asked to enter my phone number. I did that, but it was not found by the system, which put me in a 5 cycle loop of asking for a phone number (with no option to go directly to a live person) and hung up on me when the 5th try failed.

Call #3 to customer care, this time choosing the new customer option. The rep who answered the phone was clearly in another country with a bad connection. After several seconds of incomprehensible static, she hung up on me.

Call #4 to customer care, again choosing the new customer option. Answered by a live person again (also clearly not a native English speaker). I explained the problem, and she immediately launched into a speech about slow porting of phone numbers and that the port should be completed soon.

I stopped her, and again explained that I wanted to access my account and put a new number on it because I wanted to reclaim my balance. She was able to use information I provided to look up my account, but claimed that there was no balance because I had used it all up. I explained again that I had not, and that I checked it immediately before the port and spoke with someone who told me I could log in after the port and change the number.

She continued to insist that I had used the entire balance, and asked me when the last time was that I added funds to the account. I said that I didn’t know off the top of my head and would need to get into the account to see the history.

She then told me that I must be typing the wrong password into the system. I told her I was not. She had me try again, and then give her my password so that she could try on my behalf. (BTW—Never, Never, Never ask a customer for their password. It is against PCI rules, and is just plain poor, risky business.) As I could always change it later, I gave her the password.

Guess what, she couldn’t log in either. So, she decided that I should try a different system. We went through this exercise again on two different websites. It still didn’t work—imagine that! So, she instructed me to use the “forgot password” link to reset my password. Again, didn’t work because the phone number was not found in the system. At this point, she decided that I was totally inept and that she would reset my password for me. So she asked me for a new one that she would enter in the system. (Again small business owners, please don’t try this with your customers!) I did, and surprise surprise was still not able to login with the new password.

At this point I was put on hold for 10 minutes while she checked her “other resources.” She came back and told me that the account was deactivated when the port completed and that my balance was wiped out in the process. When I referenced the instruction I had been given for changing the number, she said that was incorrect advice. She apologized for the “inconvenience” and again informed me that their policy was to take all funds from accounts that were deactivated and that no refunds would be provided. (My protestation that taking my money was “theft” not “inconvenience” fell on deaf ears.)

Finally, I asked if there was a supervisor with whom I could speak. I was told that yes there was a supervisor but that she was busy and that I couldn’t talk with her. In exasperation I hung up.

I then went directly to the Better Business Bureau and filed a complaint. That was Sunday afternoon. I received a call from a company representative on Monday morning and had the full amount they confiscated refunded to my credit card. The solution was satisfactory, but it should never have gotten that far.

The Point: Had this company provided better information to their frontline support I would not have gotten bad information in the first place. And, if their frontline support was as responsive as the team they have responding to BBB complaints, it would go a long way towards creating satisfied customers. And finally, this whole experience turned a big brand promoter into a detractor who may never return as a customer. All for $19. Do the math.

A Common Theme: Good Intentions Thwarted

These kinds of interactions are the most frustrating of all—They spring from a service reps genuine desire to solve a problem coupled with the complete inability to do so. They spring from fractured organizations with opaque boundaries and enforced blinders. They spring from scripted interactions more interested in keywords and rote solutions than problem solving. And, they spring from poor training and well-meaning people who are at best ill informed and at worst instructed to withhold information.

The failings in these cases ultimately fall to the companies themselves for not providing the right people the right tools to make every reasonable customer interaction a success. (Though, I am willing to admit that not everyone who contacts customer service is reasonable, and that I myself can teeter over to the unreasonable side from time to time.)

Solving the Problem & Getting Customer Service Right

The complex issues that typically spark a customer support interaction are not the type of problem that can be solved by someone with cursory training; and they are not ideally addressed (even by someone competent) when there is a significant language barrier. Solving those problems takes a skilled person on the company side of the phone who also has good communication skills, problem solving ability, a cool head, and at least some degree of empathy.

So, who are these people; where can you find them; how should you train them; and how can you retain them? According to a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article covering a study of customer service representatives, Kick-Ass Customer Service, they aren’t the people you might expect; and they aren’t the people that most hiring managers choose when staffing customer service call centers.

The study defined seven types of frontline reps: Accommodators, Competitors, Controllers, Empathizers, Hard Workers, Innovators, and Rocks. Each is described below in order of effectiveness (using the verbatim descriptions from the HBR article, see the infographic here).

  1. Controller: Outspoken and opinionated; likes demonstrating expertise and directing the customer interaction. (15% of average rep population.)
  2. Rock: Unflappable and optimistic; doesn’t take difficult conversations personally. (12% of average rep population.)
  3. Accommodator: Meets people half way; involves others in decision making; eagerly offers discounts and refunds. (11% of average rep population.)
  4. Empathizer: Enjoys solving other’s problems; seeks to understand behaviors and motives; listens sympathetically. (32% of average rep population.)
  5. Hard Worker: Follows rules and procedures; likes working with numbers; is persistent and deadline oriented. (20% of average rep population.)
  6. Innovator: Identifies ways to improve processes and procedures; generates new ideas and options. (9% of average rep population)
  7. Competitor: Focuses on winning, outperforming colleagues, and changing others’ views. (1% of average rep population)


The study took a close look at the performance of each of these types to come up with the effectiveness rankings. It found that “Controllers” were more effective because they, “turned out to be the best problem solvers. Not only do they proactively diagnose customer issues, but they also consider the customer’s personality and the context of the call in order to customize a solution and present it effectively. Controllers focus less on asking customers what they’d like to do and more on telling them what they should do—the aim always being to get to the fastest and easiest resolution.”

If they are so effective, why are “Controllers” a minority in the service rep world? To answer that the study also interviewed hiring managers, who almost unanimously preferred “Empathizers” to the more effective reps. In fact, only 2% of the managers surveyed would choose a “Controller” over the other types, making it the least preferred type.

Perhaps that is a sign of our times and we live in an age when a sympathetic ear is thought to be more important than a quick thinking expedient one. However, my guess is that with our busy lives most people would prefer a fast solution that solves their problem with cool professionalism than a half hour chat with a friendly empathetic ear that leaves them feeling understood but their problem unresolved.

So, how do you find these “Controllers” and put them to work in your small business? The latter part of the HBR article is devoted to this problem. It suggests that the typical job descriptions and experience requirements for service reps are designed to attract and select “Empathizers” and simply do not work for attracting “Controllers.” One great tip is to look for problem solvers and people who can think on their feet rather than those with customer service experience. That’s because in a customer service world of “Empathizers” your average “Controller” while suited to the job is likely not to have any direct customer service experience. This interview checklist will help you identify those future customer service rock stars.

For additional help with hiring and training customer service representatives, check out the Help Scout ebook Hiring Your Customer Service Dream Team. It provides useful advice for every step in the hiring process from creating your ideal rep profile to the interview process to onboarding and training and finally ongoing coaching and retention.

Once you’ve got your team help them to develop the skills they need to effectively represent your small business. Teach your agents the art of call center improvisation provides tips for fostering successful off-script interactions. The Power of Every Word: Why I Stopped Using “Actually” and “But” In My Customer Service Emails, provides advice on how to use language choices to set a positive tone for customer service interactions. (Bonus Tip– when you confiscate a customer’s funds don’t apologies for the “inconvenience.”)

Finally, 50 Call Centre Training Tips pulls together advice from experts across industries to help you effectively educate and empower your service reps so that you can avoid business imperiling interactions like the poor customer service cluster I recently endured.


Get Small Business Tips like this one by signing up for our Small Business Smarts newsletter.

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.

More Posts - Website - Google Plus