#42 Customer Service in Our Times (2000)

All Rights Reserved © 2000 Thomas W. Day

Supposedly, the 80's were the decade of quality management and the 90's were the decade of customer service. I read that somewhere. I don't believe it for a minute, though. I'd call the 90's the decade of pretending to care about customers while doing the exact opposite of what any rational customer would expect.

We've all heard the statistics that tell us that most businesses only hear from 1-4% of dissatisfied customers. Those of us who studied customer service and product loyalty have seen the numbers that tell us that the other 96-99% of customers just swallow their disappointment and go away. We've been shown that 90+% of the folks we've disappointed NEVER come back. No matter how much marketing we throw at them, those customers remember the shafting they received and do their best to avoid making the same mistake twice.

The old numbers said that each of those burned-for-life customers told eight folks about their experience and that word-of-mouth connection spreads the news to as many as 100 potential or existing customers. That might have been true in 1980, but those numbers are ancient history today. We're living in a new world of direct experience information and, while the MBA crowd doesn't know it yet, it's really easy for a single ripped off customer to warn off thousands of victims from a product or company.

For example, in 1994 I was just getting into the Internet, through maillists and newsgroups. I'd purchased a Back-UPS Office 500 from APC (who's marketing mantra is "legendary reliability") and that product turned out to be a disaster. Instead of protecting my computer from power interruptions, the APC product introduced dozens of interruptions and, eventually, screwed up my computer so solidly that the hard drive had to be reformatted. Since the UPS had a warranty, I attempted to get some assistance from the manufacturer or the dealer (CompUSA).

Of course, CompUSA sent me to the manufacturer. Anyone who's ever bought anything from CompUSA knows that they are a customer-hostile organization that exists only because of their (sometimes) low prices and available inventory.

APC's Tech Service rep told me that my product had been released with a glitch that did exactly what I'd described. He sent me to Customer Service where I was told I'd have to box the unit and ship it to them for replacement. It has always seemed to me that, when a manufacturer admits to selling a defective product, the customer shouldn't be liable for the shipping for repair or replacement. I mentioned that and got a stern lecture about APC's "reputation for excellence," something the Customer Service person thought that "everyone knows" about and respects. I didn't know squat about APC, but I learned plenty during the course of getting this product replaced and having the $20 mail-in rebate voided because of the way APC chose to make the replacement (with an alternate product that didn't have a mail-in rebate offer). (with an alternate product that didn't have a mail-in rebate offer).

So, I wrote all this up and stuck it in a letter to a half-dozen newsgroups. I got a few letters from folks thanking me for warning them about this funky company. That was the end of it, for me. I have avoided APC, while purchasing a dozen or so UPS units for my employers, ever since. Count me as one customer in the 96% who never go back.

But my opinion of APC didn't end there. I got an email from a guy from Holland, about a month later. He said he'd read my article in a Dutch newspaper and thought I might get a kick out of the translation. I gave him my address and he sent me a copy. It was an article about the "new" communication link between customers. My article was included as an example of how a single customer could influence hundreds of potential customers, all over the world. There were a half-dozen articles, all in the same vein as mine, which did a half-dozen companies no good at all, I'm sure. Who knows how many Dutch computer users saw my article about APC? How many read it, worldwide?

It still hasn't ended. I get an email, about once every few months, from someone thanking me for the APC warning. So, what kind of statistics can you derive from all this? If only one in a hundred customers complain to a company when they find their hard-earned money was wasted on a product, how many people do you figure write someone about an article they've read, like the one I wrote? One in a thousand? One in ten thousand? This is the kind of word-of-mouth with which advertising can never compete.

I'm not the only guy to write this kind of "review," either. I see detailed product/company comments on a regular basis and they hold a lot of weight for me, too. In fact, I'd value a direct customer experience opinion over a professional reviewer's opinion by an order of magnitude. Anyone who didn't have to, personally, pay for the product or service isn't really a customer.

The weirdest aspect of my personal opinion of APC is that the replacement that I, finally, received from the company has been working, flawlessly, for all these years. It's practically an invisible part of my office. Every a year or so, when I'm vacuuming the office, I jar the desk hard enough to dislodge the UPS from its outlet and I get to hear it beep and flash its LED's, letting me know it's still working. A couple of times in that period, Midwestern lightning storms have shut down our neighborhood's power and the UPS is the only electrical thing working in the house for that period. Still, I can't notice the little beige box next to my computer without remember that APC cheated me out of $40, by my calculations. They substituted a cheaper UPS than the one I'd originally purchased and they weaseled their way out of paying a $20 rebate. I guess it's a principle issue. I paid too much for what I got and I didn't get what I intended to buy. So, in my mind, APC may always be a dishonest company.

So why do companies insist on writing hostile customer policies? Why do they keep trying to piss us off, when we're actually doing them a favor by taking the time to complain? My guess is it's because there's no glory in providing decent customer service. Nobody gets to put a glossy high-tech advertising campaign on a resume. Nobody gets to present a dog-and-phony show, with overheads and spreadsheets showing how much money was saved by cutting X feature/function/cost out of Z product, to pack of detached executives who have absolutely no connection to or interest in whoever might be foolish enough to buy Z product. Nobody collects brownie points for cutting the budget from Customer Service and adding to the pile of dollars available for executive bonuses. Providing actual customer service has absolutely no sex appeal. Talking about it is all anyone really wants to do. Doing it requires too much thought and effort.

June 2000

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