Why customer service is everything

Ope Adeoye 12 minute read

Customer service is everything. Almost.

I had always looked at Fog Creek’s MBA curriculum with longing. So I set a target for myself sometime back. I decided to buy/read 2 books every month off that there list. Now there was a problem, most of those books are hard to get for someone who lives in Nigeria. So I decided to place an order for about 12 of them at once from Amazon and chose 2 day shipping. The order was placed on a Tuesday. 2-day shipping means I’ll get them by close of business on Thursday. I was scheduled to leave town and get back to Nigeria the following Monday, so if for any reason I don’t get the books by Friday... I don’t know what would happen.

Alright, I placed the order and the Amazon website told me the items would be delivered to my hotel on Thursday as planned. They sent me the UPS tracking number by email. I was happy. Very happy.

By some weird stroke of fortune (misfortune?) I decided to check the status of my shipping on the UPS website that night and Bam! I was shocked. The status said something like ‘shipment re-scheduled’ and the delivery date was changed to Monday. No! That was not the agreement. I was furious. I paid for 2 day shipping. And by the way, Monday would be too late.

What follows is a tale of two customer service experiences.

I looked for the UPS customer support number on their website. It took a while because it was tucked away somewhere, but finally I found it. I called. Yeah, you guessed right it was an IVR system. There’s no way I could explain my plight by ‘pressing one to track my shipments’ or ‘pressing two to make enquiries’. No canned responses can solve this. I need a human. So I scoured all over the web for a phone number for UPS. No such luck. All I got was that same number. Suddenly it struck me, they must have decided that due to the large volume of customer calls they receive, it makes sense to ‘automate’ and build an IVR system to take care of all customer requests. Maybe they had even gone out of their way to hide numbers of real people from the prying eyes of the public. Maybe. I felt very bad. In the first instance, I was not even their customer... yes! That’s it. I’m Amazon’s customer not UPS.

So I went back to the Amazon and clicked around and right there was a BIG button that says something like ‘click here and we would call you’. Really? Of course I clicked the button. It prompted me for my phone number which I provided then showed a little animation that said ‘calling you now’. That can’t be true! My phone rang. Jeez. I was already smiling. Just that nifty trick melted away 60% of my anger. Then a real nice soothing female voice said ‘hello, can I be of service to you sir?’. My, another 20% went away. I think she even told me her name. That’s really keeping it personal. I was almost happy.

She asked me what my email address was, I told her. She asked for my last order number ‘for security purposes’. I told her. Then she went ahead to mention the number of items in my order, total value, etc. I was thrilled. Someone was paying attention to me. So I stated my case... all the while she kept mumbling ‘hmmm’, ‘mmhm’ at the other end. I could even imagine her listening with rapt attention and nodding. Yes, someone was paying attention. When I finished ranting, she said ‘wow, I’m so sorry, that must be our fault’. The remaining 20% of my anger disappeared.

She asked me ‘if I wouldn’t mind holding on’ while she verifies with UPS. She was so nice and apologetic. After a while she came back on the phone and explained that someone must have made the mistake of categorising my shipment as a land shipment (which takes x days) instead of an air shipment which takes 1+ day. She gave me options. Actual options. You know, like discussing together and weighing alternatives. She said the books were already in NY with UPS so they couldn’t recall them. Best option was that I should get the front desk of my hotel to reject  the shipment and they would bear the cost of shipping and redirect it to Nigeria for me for a little extra fee. I said yes. She apologised again and asked if there’s anything else she could do for me. I said no and she actually said ‘bye and have a nice journey back to Nigeria’. I was thrilled.

But guess what? In the morning, I logged on to UPS and the status had changed. ‘On schedule to arrive Orlando, FL on Thursday’. Ehn! I checked with the front desk on Thursday and yes, my box of books was waiting for me.

I know that was a long story.

But here’s the point.

I learnt in the process never ever to ship anything through UPS because there’d be no way  (that I know of) to follow up. Maybe I’ll try DHL if I have to. I learnt that Amazon actually does ship to Nigeria (which I didn’t know before). In essence, I became an Amazon customer now. I’ll buy books from those guys. I was so thrilled, I shared the story with my travelling companions and it also struck with them. I’m assuming those guys now have a nice impression of Amazon too. Maybe they’d buy something one of these days.

If you are a small business, one of the best ways to market your products and services is to recruit your customers as evangelists. How to do this? One of the ways is to create a product/service that wows them so much that they want to show off to their friends or do some positive stuff that they’d talk about to their friends. If their story is catchy enough, their friends will tell their own friends and there you go! You’ve started a viral loop. Creating a ‘wow’ product is not the easiest thing in the world. All phones can’t be the iPhone. Most of what we would all end up making will not be the best in their categories. No pun intended. Your competitors have brains too, y’know. Something that comes cheap and which every small business can do without investing too much is to give your customers a nice experience in dealing with you. A warm fuzzy feeling in their belly about you. Pick your calls. Reply their emails. Fix the bugs they show you (or at least promise to). Let your emails have a ‘personal ring’ to them. As a small business, you can’t afford to not do this. Every customer counts towards your bottom line. And if you treat them well, they’d even tell their friends about your product or service and you might gain yourself one or two more prospects.

My previous employer seemed to know this. The boss used to harass the hell out of every one if every single email was not replied as soon as possible. Whether the issue was resolved or not, just engage the customer. Make him happy.

In most big companies, you can’t even get through to their customer service lines. They are either always engaged or a canned voice will try to guide you through multiple steps where you are guaranteed to get confused by the time you reach step 3. Big companies can afford to ignore their customers. You can’t. In their own case one angry customer out of 20 million is really a small number. They can squash that with a 20 million dollar advertising campaign that involves smiling Santa giving gifts to African children in Masombo. You can’t afford that kind of campaign. It’s cheaper to use tools that are easily available to you. One of which is just being nice to the few customers you currently have.

Now I know this would pose a problem if you are indeed a small software company. Meaning you are so small that the CEO is also the chief programmer and also the Product Manager and customer support agent. Or, you have too few staff such that your programmers also double as support personnel. The programmer(s) wont be able to concentrate on banging out code if they also have to support customers. But there’a plus. Developers would get live feedback on how to better their product. This is very important to anyone who wants to stay in business. Afterall, the customers know best. Developers would know what features get the most use, what bugs keep recurring, etc. I know most programmers like to see their work being appreciated or in use. Most programmers love real feedback from the users of the things they build. If you have programmers who just want to bang out code that makes them (and only them) happy, then Houston, you have a problem! If your company is more than one person, then you can split customer support time on a schedule. The CEO can join in and help out. Handle support between 7A.M and 3 P.M while the programmers are writing more code, then the programmers can take some time off code to relieve you later in the day. Or something like that. If It’s all just you, then you should be used to wearing many hats by now if your company has survived at least one month. You’ve probably handled development, design, PR, marketing, etc., etc. Adding the green support hat to your wardrobe shouldnt be a problem.

Bottom line: The benefits of providing brilliant customer relations far outweigh the problems. Just give your customers a great experience doing business with you and you’ll end up with positive PR and ultimately more customers soon enough.

More customers = more profits. Hmm... maybe not always but that's a rant for another day.