Has customer experience killed customer service?

“Customer experience is the impression your customers have of your brand as a whole throughout all aspects of the buyer’s journey. It results in their view of your brand and impacts factors related to your bottom line including revenue.”  That’s the definition given by Hubspot, one of a multitude of companies trying to become part of the “software stack” companies are trying to leverage to attract and retain customers in this hyper-competitive world.

The phrase “customer experience” is found everywhere these days. It’s the holy grail of the new digital enterprise. You can find no end of reports or studies showing how important customer experience is, how maintaining a customer is so much more cost effective than replacing one and how essential it is to compete in the new digital corporate world.

So why do so many companies suck at actually creating a pleasant customer experience?

Firs, many have drunk the Kool-Aid – mistakenly thinking that some magic software solution would be able to magically create this great experience. They’ve missed the key point.

Customer experience is not created by software. It is not created by process. Customer experience is a product of company culture and effective leadership.

A case in point from my recent experience. For decades, I had an insurance broker who handled all of my insurance – house, car and anything else I needed. On the odd occasion where I had to interact with the insurance company they handled it all. When we had a question or on the few occasions in thirty years where we had an incident, they always knew what to do.

Every year they sent me a renewal. They asked questions to see whether my coverage needed updating. I was always certain that they had got me the best value and that I was protected. I had what insurance should bring you – security.

They never once said, “have a nice day” or any of those catchy phrases. They always called you back.

They were bought by a larger insurance broker called Excelsior or one of those many names that are somehow going to make us feel energized. Now, when you call, people ask you how they can make this the best call of your day or something syrupy like that.

But if you need them to do anything, they patiently explain to you that they are not the insurance company. Their job is to bill you, not serve you. They take no responsibility for the insurance company they have recommended.

As a case in point. I had deer leap out at our car last fall. After 50 years of driving northern roads without mishap, my number got called. Fortunately, I’ve been driving these roads for years and we managed to slow enough so the impact was slight and no-one was injured. The air bag didn’t deploy. Everyone was safe.

We had the car towed to our dealership. Their first question was, “is everyone alright?” There was no issue. We live in a small town an hour away from the dealer, but they knew where to send the car for repairs.

We called the broker who referred us to the insurance company – Intact. That’s when the nightmares started. The dealership offered to have the car towed to a body shop. Oh, no, said our insurance company. We’ll do that.

Two weeks later when the car had not moved, I called the broker asking them to get the insurance company moving on this. Not their job, I was told. When I insisted, they did place a call. They never followed up to see if anything happened. Again – not their job.

Still nothing happened. After my constant harassment I got a promise that that the car would be taken to the body short in two hours. I was on the phone when the “customer service” person at the insurance company was contacting the towing company.

Still nothing happened. Calls to the broker yielded nothing. I asked to speak with the manager of brokerage. She wasn’t in. I’d get a call back. No call happened.

It was the same with the insurance company. Time after time I would call, promises were made and nothing would happen. Weeks went by.

At the same time, we have been in a period where supply chains, engineered to be more profitable by having zero inventory – broke down. Would faster action have been better? We may never know.

All I know is that I went four months waiting to get my car back. And every time I phoned the body shop to find out that they were waiting for approvals or something to come back on the claim, I’d call the insurance company and get promises made that were not kept.

I confess that I lost it. I demanded to speak to a manager. The first time I was promised a manager would call me back – within two business days. The call never happened. The next time when I called and refused to get off the line until I spoke to someone they finally cut the call.

On one call, I was assured by some confident young person that they “had escalated the problem.” I asked if they’d spoken to anyone or just sent off an email. The answer came back, “I escalated it.”

I found that fascinating. After multiple attempts, it because clear that I was only going to get obfuscation. This person would not admit that they hadn’t actually talked to anyone when they put me on hold to consult or escalate.

That’s when it hit me. We’ve lost personal contact. Companies like Intact are overwhelmed and don’t have real people managing – they have “policies” and “escalations.” So even if a customer has been waiting four months, there is no sense of urgency or empathy. Policies and claims systems have no empathy.

We live in the country. Not having my own car is a real inconvenience. Still, my wife and I managed on sharing her car until I finally had to go out of town and couldn’t leave her with no car. When I went back to the insurance company to get them to cover the rental car, I was informed by another of these “customer service” associates that I would be cut down from my twenty days of rental coverage to five days, because “I hadn’t gone to an approved body shop.” Not only had that not been mentioned at all, but I had my car towed free of charge to the insurance company to my nearest dealership, because I have a road assistance plan with towing included.

When I pointed out that I was being penalized for saving the insurance company money, I was back in the Franz Kafka novel that is my insurance company. But after simply refusing to accept this, miraculously and magnanimously, this young cannon fodder customer service person found somehow that he could extend this to 10 days. I was supposed to be grateful that they’d only stolen half of my actual entitlement instead of seventy-five percent of it.

So I’ve been railing about this and if you are still reading, you may ask – what is my point? There is no way that companies can still offer personal service. This is just an unfortunate byproduct of our digital corporate environment. In the name of efficiency we have automated and streamlined our policies and we have to just accept it.

Customer experience is good web design, a chat bot and better designs for our bills. It’s the cheerful, “have a nice day” even when we are being shafted. We have to accept that as a part of the modern era.

But we don’t.

How do I know? I had to deal with another large company – Enterprise. That’s where I went to rent a car for my out of town trip. Again, it’s an hour away in a small town called Lindsay, Ontario. And I needed to make sure that the car was going to be there so I could get my wife to drive me, pick up the car and still make it to my flight in Toronto. My tickets were not refundable.

From my insurance company, I got promises that everything would be alright. But I’d heard that before. They were upset that I’d called to reserve a car in advance – because I couldn’t afford to not have one guaranteed. That caused some problems.

At least it caused problems for the insurance company. Not for the cheerful young lady who answered the phone at Enterprise. “No problem, I’ll handle it,” was her response.

Then an hour later, she called back just to tell me that everything was okay – they had the car and it would be paid for. She explained everything needed. I told her I was on a tight deadline and that I needed to be at their office as soon as it opened and out quickly. “No problem,” she said.

True to her word, the office was open ten minutes early and my car was out front, warmed up and ready to go.

When I picked up my rental, far from having to demand to see a manager (which I was not planning on because everything was going smoothly) the manager came out and greeted me. No phoney “how can I make this the best day” BS – just a cheerful hello as he asked if the car was okay with me.

True to their word, I was in and out in minutes. I learned later, that the start of the week was one of their busiest times, but nobody appeared to be in a panic. You can be efficient and still be a real human being. Go figure.

These are two large companies. Both are trying to be profitable in a very competitive marketplace. One can have the time, despite how busy they are, to make sure not only that they keep their promises, but that they let you know what’s happening so you don’t worry. That one has empathy.

The other has found their efficiency by preventing you from ever breaking their tightly controlled process. If the process doesn’t work for you, tough luck. Rules are rules. If they fail to help you, they’ve done what they were supposed to do. Nothing more.

They don’t exactly lie but they are carefully trained to obfuscate. Yes, they can give you 10 days of something and they know that, but if you’ll be a good little customer and take half of what they could do, it’s a bonus. They don’t talk to anyone in authority, they “escalate” and “follow process.” But they won’t admit it. And after a call where you are absolutely unhappy, they’ll dig in the knife further by telling you to “have a nice day.”

What’s the difference? Culture. Empowerment, empathy and going that little extra. All those “old fashioned” things that really make for “customer experience.”

It has to be better for company morale as well. As I said, the folks at the rental place were clearly busy. But they found time for me. I suspected that at one point, the lady who was helping me was cutting into her own lunch time to help me, but she clearly enjoyed helping me. That’s as opposed to what must be the soul destroying experience of having upset and frantic customers losing it when your process is to treat them like they don’t matter.

As I said to my wife as she talked me down, hoping I wouldn’t have an aneurism – “if anyone at Intact had just said, ‘sir, I appreciate your frustration and I’ll find a way to help you,” I would have at least been acknowledged. I’ve been in business for more than forty years and I know that things can go wrong. I’m one of the owners of our company and I will talk to any dissatisfied customer anytime. Many are surprised when I call them directly to follow up. I want that to be our culture.

We try. We aren’t always perfect. But we take responsibility. And we care. Not just because it’s good business. We are in business to serve our customers. And as I always say, “if someone has placed their faith in us to deliver, we owe it to them to move heaven and earth to keep our promises.”

We don’t do it with our systems, but we have IT systems. We don’t do it with our policies, but we have clear and effective policies. We do it with our culture. Our management is not afraid to engage with our customers. We aren’t insulated.

Of course, you might argue, we aren’t as big as an Intact or Enterprise. That’s fair enough. Although worked for the CEO of a billion dollar company and my cell phone rang in the middle of a meeting with him. I apologized for not killing the ringer. He looked at me and said, “answer it. It might be a customer.” That was just one of many lessons I learned and hopefully try to pass on in our culture, not by having a policy, but by my own actions.

And what does it matter? Even you are in an industry where service is lousy form all your competitors, you create an opening for a real competitor. Because in business it’s all about your reputation.

I was once told that if someone has a great experience they might tell one or two people. If they have a terrible experience they will tell 7 or more people.

I’m not normally one to ‘dox’ a company. I rarely do it. But I will tell anyone that listens, not to deal with Intact. Equally, I will tell anyone that will listen to rent from Enterprise in Lindsay.

How about you?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s