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Customer service: Not such an easy repair

Is it possible common sense is a rarer commodity than we think?
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Ian Hendry

Experiencing personal frustrations is sometimes an unfortunate, but necessary way of reflecting on customer service in one’s own company. Let me explain.

I am sure we have all suffered the frustration of a car not starting. Often this happens at the most inconvenient time, and in my case this week, Murphy’s Law kicked in to double the pain.

Like most of you in this situation, I immediately suspected a battery problem and one can quickly attempt to jump start a car using cables. Unfortunately that failed, so the next step was to call CAA and have a technician do a quick assessment, but when that proved fruitless, a tow truck was necessary, and that’s when Mr. Murphy reared his head.

”Would you like a tow truck?” asked my newly found CAA friend, and for this, I was appreciative. I was already planning how to make adjustments to my calendar because of the loss of the car. “How long will it be?” I asked. “They’re saying 45 minutes to an hour,” came the reply.

As he drove off, I thought it would be prudent to forewarn the dealer that my car was getting towed there, and since arrival could very well be after closing hours, seek clarification as to where the ailing car could be left so it could be worked upon first thing in the morning.

“Park along the wall,” I was told by the service manager, “it’ll be easier to haul it into the service bay from there.” Sounded like a good plan. So I waited. Forty-five minutes went by, but no sign of the tow truck. At 50 minutes I followed up with CAA to find out how close the truck might be. ”Sorry Sir. I can see the earlier visit recorded, and the battery was reported as fine, so it must be another problem, but there is no record of a call for a tow truck.”

As we learned last week at our recent event, first impressions can be dangerous, and on this occasion, I did not look for supportive evidence of the technician’s competence to justify my earlier positive impression; rather, I formed a somewhat opposite perspective. In fact, a number of downright unforgiving adjectives came to mind. “How long?” I asked of this service agent.

Hoping that he would commiserate with my frustration, and perhaps put me out of my misery faster, I learned it would now be another one hour to 75 minutes. Why? Apparently there was a sudden rash of breakdowns across the city. I admit visualizing a bunch of tow truck drivers lining up at the closest Timmy’s, but there was nothing left to do, but wait.

Seventy-five minutes passed before my tow truck arrived. On reaching the dealership, we found the wall where we were supposed to park the car for easy access, but brand new cars had been parked alongside it. The direction from the service manager earlier made great sense, but execution had become impossible. Once again, I was reminded that plans (say) and execution (do) are two entirely different things.

Next day, I called the dealership first thing in the morning to speak to the service manager. The reception desk passed me along to the service manager’s phone extension and I got the proverbial voice mail. I left my message explaining the whereabouts of the car, that the key and instructions were left in the mailbox, and requested a quick diagnosis in the hope that I could get the car back on the road by the end of the day.

It so happened that this was Tuesday, the day of our summer social. With no return call, I tried the dealership before I left the house and asked for the service manager by name and went back through the same process. I left another voice mail. Four hours after my first call, growing increasingly agitated, I called yet again and asked reception what I needed to do to get a live person.

It did not help my mood in the slightest to find out the service manager had not been at work that morning, nor was it possible to know who was actually in the service area and able to pick up a phone. At this point, my partners on the first tee knew my plight of utter frustration and just how ticked off I had become. Suffice it to say that at 2:00 p.m., (when I called again) the excuse I was given for the delay was because, the night before, I had left the envelope with the instructions and the key in the mailbox, and not in the key box.

Adding insult to injury, they had tried to call me after my 1 o’clock rant, but were calling the wrong number. The saga continued and I was told mid-afternoon that a part was required, and because it had to be ordered, the car would not be fixed until the following day. At 5 pm, a further call to me from the dealership advised that the car was ready for pick-up. They had miraculously found the necessary part.

At 6 pm, another call asked me why I had not picked up the car. Let me conclude this episode by saying that this same dealership had changed ownership hands two or three months ago, and I had received a very nice, courteous email from the new owner indicating that new and improved service was forthcoming. I had been frustrated by an earlier visit, so I responded back to the new owner, in good faith, with a couple of constructive recommendations. My note went unanswered.

I am using this story because it relates to our next event on behavioural economics. In my last blog, I had made mention that this is a new emerging science and Nick Southgate has made the observation that “simply put, behavioural economics is a squabble among economists about how to fit economic theory with the sometimes chaotic realities of what people actually do.”

In my case, a receptionist (a job designed to ensure customer calls are actually answered by a live voice) directs calls to the appropriate department(s). We know this can be a cost-effective process, and is utilized across a wide array of industries. But who is measuring the effectiveness of the process and the impact on the client relationship?

There are a myriad of operational questions in my story. Here are just a few: how long does it take for voice mails to be picked up, how long does it take to get back to customers, did the receptionist even know the service manager was not coming in to work, would it occur to the receptionist to advise incoming callers of that fact, why not open the key box and envelope box at the same time, why is there no one who can react to my increasing frustration and impatience (aka does anyone really care), and so on.

To me, basic common sense dictates that someone should be thinking about such things, but as one of my golf partners pointed out, “is it possible that common sense is a rarer commodity than you think?” From an organizational standpoint, it begs the question as to how well we employ common sense in our ability to actually provide and measure good service to customers. For me, at the end of the day, does the geographical convenience of the dealership trump frustrating customer service? Does logic outweigh emotion? Is being inconvenienced using a dealership farther away less painful than going through an excruciatingly frustrating service experience? 

In the study of behavioural finance, it has been proven just how illogically consumers can act, repetitively making errors, applying counter- intuitive actions and diligently clinging to ineffective strategies. Today, how well do we understand why people make irrational decisions and how they form persistent and determinable patterns? If we are more informed, how much better could organizations influence decision paths and guide the outcomes of employees.

We shall tackle this question on September 14th when Julian House, a leading Canadian Behavioural Economist, will use case studies to help us gain a better understanding of how behavioural economics can be used in the world of people management.

Ian Hendry

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