Customer Service: How To and How Not To

The cover of this week’s BusinessWeek is all about customer support. The subheads read, “Consumer Vigilantes” and “Customer Service Champs.” Meanwhile, CitySquares just got done tabulating our 2007 customer renewal rates: 80%. We’re an extremely customer oriented business – and I can’t stress that enough. These three points make the subject of this blog entry more poignant, I think. Here’s how not to do customer service – from my own personal experience in the past few days. If you don’t want to read my angry rants on two bad customer service experiences, go to the bottom.

First story – Jennifer Convertibles: Ali and I moved into a new home just after the holidays. Our new home is quite spacious and our existing furniture just ain’t cuttin it. Amidst all the excitement we got impulsive and decided to buy a couple chairs at Jennifer Convertibles in Porter Square. Truth be told, Jennifer Convertibles is a publicly held company based out of NY – they’re not a customer and they’re not local. I was actually a bit disappointed in myself, giving them my business. Anyway, we ordered the chairs and put the purchase on a 90 day interest-free payment plan – very handy indeed. Then we waited – we waited a month for these chairs to arrive. Three weeks ago, on a Thursday evening around 8pm, Jennifer Convertibles called us to tell us the chairs would be delivered the next day, between ….. 11 and 5. Well, thanks for the notice, first of all, and thanks for such a specific window of time. Well, I worked from home that next day and they showed up and delivered not one, but two busted chairs. That’s right – after waiting a month both chairs arrived broken. This could be a longer story, because there are other priceless details that I’m avoiding, but, long story short, they removed one chair, left the other. After dealing with the folks at Jennifer Convertibles’ Porter Square store, which in itself was a test of patience, I managed to get a couple new chairs delivered a week later. Now, we’re about 2 days before the anticipated delivery and I get a phone call – they can’t make it. I have to wait a few more days. I’ve had it – cancel my order, cancel my financing, forget the whole damn thing. They complied. This past week, however, I got a bill from Citi Financial. A bill? For what? For these two chairs. Yesterday morning, I placed literally 20 phone calls or so to a variety of Jennifer Convertibles stores in the Boston area, as well as their NY headquarters. I could not, for the life of me, and with all my trickery, get a human being on the phone. Finally, later in the day, I got someone at the Burlington, MA store. Apparently he’s circulating emails around the “higher ups” to ensure that Citi Financial is notified of the cancellation and my account is closed.

(last weekend Ali and I went to Gardner, MA to the furniture stores there. What a difference! In quality, in service, in guarantees, and sure, in price. But that’s where we’ll be buying our furniture.)

Second story – Comcast: When we moved into our new home on Dec 27th, we had Comcast come out the following day to wire up our much needed Internet and television. The technician was super nice, and did a nice job – even went above and beyond. But since then we’ve been getting strange tiling effects on our tvs. In the middle of a TV show, like um, the SuperBowl, the feed would stop – it’d freeze and we’d get these digital-like tiles all over the screen. One of our TVs became so bad a couple weeks ago that we just stopped watching it. The other one was bad too, but it was at least tolerable. Last week Ali called Comcast to have it looked at. We were told we’d have to wait a week for someone to come out. OK – fine, whatever it takes. A week was yesterday. We were told that a tech would be here between 3pm and 6pm. Ali was willing to leave work early and be home for them, so she did. At 11:30, I was at work and got a call on my mobile. It was the Comcast technician! He was outside our house – apparently it was more convenient for them. “Sir I appreciate your earliness, but no one will be home until 3pm, as scheduled.” He was totally cool and said, “Oh no problem, we’ll just come back then.” And that was that. At 3pm, Ali was home. At 4pm, Ali was home. And at 5pm and 6pm, Ali was home. No one came. We were very annoyed, to say the least. So, I called Comcast and ripped them a new one – they wasted Ali’s time and that’s enough for me. They gave me a hard time but I managed to schedule something for today, Saturday. So I snow blowed the driveway, did some work, read a little bit, and basically waited around for Comcast to come between 12 and 4. At 3:35 I called Comcast to be sure they were still coming. They assured me someone would be here by 4pm. At 3:53 my phone rang – it was the Comcast technician:

This is Comcast, you got a problem with your tv?
Yeah, is this the tech?
You on your way?
(pause) Yeah, tell me about the problem.
Why don’t we just talk about it when you get here?
(pause, sigh) What’s the problem with your tv?
Look, I got my hands full – if you’re on your way why don’t I just show you when you get here.

After the call, I went to check my TVs. Guess what – working fine. I’m confused. At 4:01 my doorbell rang – Comcast. I open the door.

So come on in but I’m really confused now. As far as I know we were still having problems. My wife waited at home for a few hours yesterday and nobody showed. I’ve been here all day waiting for you guys and I just checked and the TVs seem fine now.
Oh yeah, when we were here yesterday we climbed up the pole and rewired you – there was a bad connection.
(my turn to pause)
What time?
Like 3. We rang your doorbell and waited for a while but no one was here so we went up the pole to see what we could see.
At 3?
Funny, my wife was here from 2:30 and onward. You sure it wasnt earlier in the day? Didnt you call me?
OK look, I dont care anymore. Our TVs seem to fine now – so you think its fixed.
Thats what was causing the tiling and shit? Something up the pole in a box?
Yeah it’s all rewired. We’ve seen this before and it should be fine now.
Alright, thanks. Off you go.

Can someone please explain to me what just happened!? I called Comcast back and explained myself to a customer service rep becaues he said he might be able to do as much for me as a manager could. I bought that and explained my case to him, quite calmly too. He could offer me a $20 credit. $20! That’s what our time is worth! Twenty clams! I don’t think so pal – put your boss on.

The boss didnt even understand my story and decided she’d rather argue with me and make excuses. She didn’t understand her own title – “Customer Service Supervisor.” She offered me $40 – for my time yesterday and my time today.

OK. All that aside – what the heck is going on? Where is the customer service!? How can these companies neglect us like that? Not answer their phones!? Blow us off? Disrespect us? Waste our time? It’s really unbelievable to me. Strangely enough, this customer service is so bad that I actually am left scratching my head, wondering if I’m just too demanding of a consumer!

There are, of course, the rare companies that exceed in customer support. Many are named in the March 2nd issue of BusinessWeek. In my experience, some of the best customer service I’ve ever received has been from local businesses, of course. Local businesses need their customers, need loyalty, need favorable opinions of their customers more than the usual publicly traded company. This is not news to you of course.

A few weeks ago Ali and I were painting the walls in a few rooms. We wanted Benjamin Moore paints – only the best. We didn’t go to Home Depot, or Lowe’s, we went to a couple local hardware stores, including Hillside Hardware and Modern Hardware, both in Medford. The customer support that we received at both places, over the course of numerous weekends, was unparalleled! They were gentlemen, they were accomodating, they went above and beyond each and every time we stopped in. I will be a customer for life and I will recommend them to anyone, anytime!

The impact of bad customer support is largely diluted these days because it happens so often. We’re used to it. We’re totally used to it! And this whole consumer review trend we’re seeing is a reaction to it. Greg Sterling has blogged about this quite a bit.

CitySquares is all about the local business – not so much the consumer. We want to give consumers a voice, but we’re first and foremost about the businesses – letting them demonstrate their goods and services and giving them a platform. Consumers have enough platforms – let’s give the local businesses a real platform and let’s highlight the best of them. Let the worst sink to the bottom and let the best bubble to the top.