Customer Service – Alive & Well?

Customer service or at least the mindset to provide customer service starts at the top of any organization.  While that seems to be obvious and not even worth commenting on, it doesn’t seem to always work well.

Some years ago, when Amtrak took over the passenger rail service a businessman decided to take a train from Chicago to L.A.  He thought it a good opportunity to experience the new service, have a few great meals and get some work done in his compartment without interruption.

Sadly, it turned out to be the trip from Hell.  The train was filthy, the dining car closed more often than not, but the worst of the bad was that his compartment was alive with cockroaches.  So, he subsequently wrote a letter of complaint to Amtrack.  In a few days, he received a reply.  The letter was very apologetic and assured him that all possible was being done to rectify the problem (s) and thanking him for his concern.  The man noticed a paper clip on the top of the letter with a note attached.  The note said, “Susan, send this stupid SOB the standard cockroach letter, JB”.  (Names and initials changed to protect the guilty.)

Fast forward to today.  We have a broken drawer in our refrigerator, purchased from Sears.  It is a top of the line appliance.  After several calls and emails to Sears, we finally were told that we could purchase a new drawer for a ridiculous amount of money.  However, we agreed so that we could have the drawer.  When the drawer arrived it was the wrong drawer.  Several more calls and emails were required to ascertain that the drawer that was broken had been discontinued by the manufacturer and there was no option except to not have the drawer.

Now, somewhat aggravated, to say the least, several terse emails were dispatched to Sears Customer Service.  That eventually resulted in our receiving what was clearly a “canned cockroach letter” from some knob in customer service.  After informing this dope that the nice form email didn’t solve our problem of finding a replacement drawer we received a second email from another uppity in customer service.  Wow, the exact same email word for word.  What part of “form letter” do they not understand?

If your company has a department called customer service then ditch the form letters and empower those people to provide real customer service by fixing the customers’ problems.

So, customer service hasn’t changed for the better since the Amtrack event, at least not at Sears.  The top puppy at Sears, a Harvard graduate, was obviously not hired to fix the company’s problems, but to dismantle it in a more or less orderly fashion and the Devil take the hindmost, i.e. the customer.


Ken Vincent
Ken Vincent
KEN is a 46 year veteran hotelier and entrepreneur. Formerly owned two hotels, an advertising agency, a wholesale tour company, a POS company, a leasing company, and a hotel management company. The hotels included chain owned, franchises, and independents. They ranged in type from small luxury inns, to limited service properties, to large convention hotels and resorts. After retiring he authored a book, “So Many Hotels, So Little Time” in which he relates what life is like behind the scenes for a hotel manager. Ken operated more that 100 hotels and resorts in the US and Caribbean and formed eight companies. He is a firm believer that senior management should share their knowledge and experience with the next generation of management.

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  1. I could not agree more about the form letter. I am passionate about excellent customer service. My initial business after walking away from Corporate America was forming a corporation as a sub-contractor to certain Fortune 500 companies. My responsibility? Provide one-time resolution to their customers.

    However, my company had to use each company’s script. One of my biggest annoyances (and there were several) was the ‘form letters’ which did nothing to solve the customer’s problems. I felt it was a total waste of my time and the customer’s time, and did nothing to engender goodwill between the original company and the customer. In most cases they were too generic to solve a specific problem.

    Customer service will only change when those at the top understand the negative impact on the bottom line. I appreciate your point about empowering the front-line staff/customer service personnel through adequate training to provide ‘real customer service.’

  2. A well-functioning customer service has the best people in an organization. They do not necessarily have to be technicians, indeed, the main quality they must have is the ability to relate. It’s the how that makes the difference. How you relate to the client, how you listen to him, how you talk to him. Ask questions, open to solutions that the client offers (which are often the best), and above all do not look down on him, strong of our own knowledge, avoiding unnecessary tensions. The Customer Service staff must get a personal idea of the customer experience with the various interlocutors of the company, put ourselves in his shoes and see the company as he saw it. What must really interest is knowing and understanding. Make it feel heard.
    From experience, I do not think the customer is always right; indeed, he is often wrong and behaves rudely and uncooperative. At the same time, let’s remember it, the responsibility of the relationship is in our hands.

    • The customer is not always right. But, pointing that out to him/her does little to retain him as a customer or to enrich the company reputation. The trick is to show compassion and understanding and make the person feel like he has been heard and has made a difference.