Customer Service: Digital Path or Otherwise, It’s a Two-Way Street

March 29, 2011 in It is what it is - opinion column | Comments (2)


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I have to start with a mea culpa. I intended to write this post in August. That’s when I encountered not one, not two, but three remarkable customer service experiences – two of which began with my firing a salvo across Twitter, and finding near immediate response and a third that happened the old-fashioned way, by phone. As things happen, my good intentions to commit my thoughts to keyboard were thwarted by project deadlines, then holiday season and then … well … I forgot. Along came March and a fresh pair of scenarios landed in my lap. So I figured it was time.

Before I sing the praises of the organizations from these experiences, however, some context…

For anyone who has worked in any business at any time, customer service has always been critical. Don’t treat your customer well, and they’ll go somewhere else. Today, however, thanks to the social web, if you don’t treat your customer well it can mean public evisceration and a splatter of damaging information that lives on across the Internet.

Foreboding news such as this might lead some folks to say they’ll just stay away from social media. I think at this point we can all agree – doing so just isn’t an option any more. If you have a business, chances are somewhere around 150% likely that somewhere at some point someone is talking about you online. If they’re not, well, as Bette Davis used to say, if they’re not talking about you, perhaps you’re not doing anything important enough for people to care, and that poses a different problem altogether.

For the sake of argument (and this blog post) assume I’m talking about businesses that get it. They know people are talking about them across the social web and they know that it’s critical to be included in that conversation.

I think the social web is a damn fine way for consumers to connect with brands, voice concerns (and compliments) and express thoughts that brands can then leverage to better their businesses. There are two issues.

First, these platforms are not an excuse for ill-mannered, emotionally stunted complainers to spout unconstructive bullshit just because they don’t feel heard. Your parents didn’t give you enough attention as a child? Not my problem. Nor is it the problem of businesses, most of which are trying desperately to play catch up and learn how they can truly utilize these technologies to better their businesses. Smart businesses are utilizing the social web to forge deeper and more substantive relationships with their customers. This should not be confused with babysitting. Besides, folks, have you ever heard that old adage about catching flies? You may be pissed, and sometimes that self-righteous anger is justified, but that’s no reason not to be civil. The person on the other end probably has little to nothing to do with the problem you’re having. Even if they do, take a deep breath and step away from the issue for just a minute, aw heck try 30 seconds if a minute is too hard. You’ll be surprised at how much more productive a conversation can be if you’re not being an asshole.

Furthermore, technology may be great, but it is not – I repeat it is not – a replacement for actual, person-to-person contact. Full stop. So take to the Interwebs if you must, especially if that’s the most expedient method by which to get a business’ attention. In many cases you may be able to sort your issue that way, but the more complex an issue, the more margin for error if relegated to 140 characters or any of the other digital parameters.

With that I’ll share a couple of stories:

Sorting Satellite: Connecting On-Line for an In-Person Solution
When it comes to satellite TV I’m a relatively early adopter. I hooked up my first dish in 1999 after starting work at TechTV. It was the only way I could watch our programming in San Francisco since the network wasn’t carried on local cable yet.

Early on, service was fantastic. Most of the time signal issues could be sorted by a phone call, but if a service visit was required they were responsive, came on time and always got things fixed. At some point, that changed. I think it’s about the time DirecTV began farming out service to local vendors. So you’d get a great experience on the phone with DirecTV and then when it came time to have the technician come to the house if they showed up at all, they were rarely on time. Thankfully I didn’t have to call them often, but after having to make a few calls over a few years and watch service slowly degrade my patience was pretty threadbare.

Then my patience ripped clear through.

One day my signal was borked and none of the usual troubleshooting worked. So I picked up the phone and called customer service. The fellow who answered the phone was snarky from moment one. I told him about the problems I’d been having and began to walk him through the long list of troubleshooting steps I’d already taken. He cut me off, and in no uncertain terms told me that I had to listen. Now, I know he has a script to follow. I get it. I’d been through it a million times and so acknowledged that to him and suggested perhaps I could detail everything I’d done, as I knew it matched his script, so that we could move forward to fresh troubleshooting and resolution.

He didn’t take that very well. He told me that I had no idea what I was doing and that the script was for my own good.

That one I didn’t take well.

Taking a deep breath, I tried being reasonable with him, but clearly he was in a mood and taking it out on me. Perhaps he was having a bad hair day – either way, not my problem. I hung up the phone and decided it was time to ditch DirecTV and head back to (shudder) Comcast.

I opted instead for one final salvo – a Tweet to @DirecTV. Within about 30 minutes I had a reply telling me to DM my account number and they would help sort me out.

Problem is, DirecTV wasn’t following me so I couldn’t. I sent a Tweet to that effect, and moments later I got a notification DirecTV was following me; but before I could send the DM, my phone rang. It was DirecTV customer service. I’m not entirely sure how they sorted out it was me, but I’m guessing they noted my Twitter profile info and cross referenced with their customer database for San Francisco. In any case the rapid sleuthing impressed me. The fact they chose to escalate the conversation by taking it offline and voice-to-voice impressed me more.

The woman on the line began to take me through the troubleshooting script. I politely interrupted her, acknowledged she had a script and offered to expedite things by running down all the things I’d done. She said that would be great and listened as I detailed every step I’d taken. Turned out I had already done all the steps on the script, and next step was a technician coming to my house. I readied myself for a scheduled date two weeks away. She gave me an appointment time for 2 days later. She also offered to discount my month’s fee for the days that I didn’t have service. Two days later the technician showed up and within about 15 minutes had fixed my service (turned out it was a rusted connector on the roof). An hour later, my phone rang. It was DirecTV making sure the service call had happened and that my issue was resolved.

From the moment of the interaction on Twitter, my relationship with DirecTV shifted. Besides the fact that my problem got resolved, I felt like more than just another number, I felt like a valued customer. DirecTV cemented the relationship and strengthened my loyalty.

Harried Hotel Stay Soothed by Great Service
It was the first week of March and I was in New York to host Dot429’s Straight Talk conference. The event was being held at the Tribeca Grand, so many of us were staying there. If you’ve never been, it’s a pretty hipster spot with a fabulous lobby bar and restaurant. I sent out a Tweet on my first afternoon in New York as I was heading back to the hotel after a meeting to work with some Dot429 colleagues.

Soon after, I got a reply from the hotel welcoming me to their lobby bar and making some suggestions on the menu for me to try.

We began a little conversation and I shared that I was staying in the hotel (not just crashing in the lobby to work), they said to let them know if I needed anything. Then I got an alert that @TribecaGrandNYC was following me on Twitter.

And so the day went. Finally it was around midnight and time to head for bed. No sooner had I laid my head on the pillow than the noise began. It started as a relatively loud conversation and escalated quickly into what was clearly a decent sized group of people partying in the lobby. Each room at the Tribeca Grand has a white noise system designed to mask echoing sounds from their atrium. It didn’t help. I put in earplugs. No luck. Finally as the hour passed midnight and drew closer to 12:30am I rang downstairs. I’ll skip the lengthy details, but long story short I wasn’t the only one disturbed by the noise. The hotel escorted the rowdy crowd out, apologized for the noise and wished me a good night’s rest.

Next day was Straight Talk – a long and exhausting day capped by a late dinner. I returned to the hotel around midnight and found a massive crowd by the front door. That wasn’t as bad as the several hundred people who filled the lobby. Turns out the hotel had a last minute booking for a party in their lobby bar – a party slated to go until 2:00am.

Now I get it. Hotels are businesses and the food & beverage that come along with such events are a substantial cash cow for the operation. In any economy, let alone one such as this, if someone wants to book a party for several hundred people on a weeknight, the hotel would be stupid to turn it away.

That said, the insult to guests already booked in the hotel – a hotel with a cavernous atrium – well, let’s just say it was slightly less than pleasing. I called downstairs and said as much.

Okay, I’ll ‘fess up. It was late. I was exhausted. And while I don’t remember precisely what I said, I was a bit cranky. In slightly terse tones I ranted that good customer service would have informed the already booked guests of this addition some time in the afternoon and provided alternatives for accommodations. It was right about then I realized I sounded like a complete bitch. Taking a deep breath, I apologized to her for my tone and acknowledged that this obviously wasn’t of her doing.

To her credit, the woman at the front desk listened quietly to my rant. When she spoke she was deeply apologetic and agreed that informing the guests would have been a good idea. She promised to take that suggestion to management and asked if there was anything she could send me as an apology. Short of booting the offending noisemakers of course there wasn’t anything she could do, but I told her I appreciated her listening and making the offer. Then I did my best to get some sleep.

The next morning I awoke to a note slipped under my door. It was a thoughtful note from the woman with whom I’d spoken and included an offer for a free night’s stay to come back and get a more “true” experience of the hotel. Opening my computer I found an email from the fellow who handles the hotel’s Twitter account also voicing an apology and letting me know that if there was anything I needed to let him know. Then the trifecta – my phone rang and it was the daytime manager. He had heard about my experience and called to reiterate the apology and then he upped the game – they covered the incidentals from my bills.

This last item was utterly unnecessary and totally above and beyond. In fact, even the offer for a free night’s stay was totally above and beyond as far as I was concerned. In my eyes, the fact they listened to my concerns and showed a willingness to address the issue was enough. By stepping up and rising above, they showed an attention to customer service that just floored me. I’d never stayed at the Tribeca Grand before. It’s pretty likely that on my future trips to Gotham I won’t stay anywhere else.


2 responses to “Customer Service: Digital Path or Otherwise, It’s a Two-Way Street”

  1. Cathy, thank you for the mention in your blog post it was a great read. We look forward to seeing you again.

  2. Cathy,

    Thank you for acknowledging the resourcefulness of my team in responding to and resolving your technical issues and sharing your experience on the follow-on visit by one of our installers.

    As you suggest, online intervention should complement and inform how a company delivers in all channels, which is why responding to you was just the beginning for my team.

    We also reached out to coach the agent on how he could have done a better job serving you and in doing so, your feedback will improve the experience for many other customers.

    Thank you again for bringing this to my team’s attention and taking the time to write your story here.

    Charles Miller
    Director, Digital Care