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How to Solve Customer Service Problems

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When a company fails you, it's frustrating. But get practical: Your complaint tactics should depend on what you want to accomplish, and these tips will get companies to listen.

Companies have taken all the pleasure out of complaining. In the old days, you could bring your problem to a manager, blow off a little steam and come away with a resolution and an apology. It’s not so easy anymore. Instead, you’re likely to discover that the teenage employee you wanted to complain about is the manager. Call the company’s toll-free number, and you’ll probably end up hopelessly lost in an automated phone system. Send an email, and you’ll receive a scripted response that has nothing to do with your issue.

Since companies keep getting better at avoiding complaints, maybe it’s time for consumers to start getting better at complaining. In this customer-service arms race, one key to success is to ask yourself from the start what you want to accomplish. Depending on the answer, you may wish to vary your tactics to gain an advantage. Here are four possible outcomes, each requiring a different approach.

1. Get the problem fixed

Your strategy: Some service problems need to be handled right away. You may be traveling, for instance, and find that your credit card has suddenly been cancelled. Or maybe you’ve received a bill for something you didn’t buy. In cases like this, you must talk to a real human being who has the ability and the authority to resolve the issue.

Your first contact will almost certainly be with someone who can’t help you. Shouting at this person, no matter how much pleasure it brings you, is of no use and may even have a counterproductive effect. You want allies, not enemies. A good way to elicit sympathy and get the representative working on your behalf is to ask, “If you were me, what would you do in this situation?”

Once you get hold of someone with the capacity to help, do not let them abandon you, particularly if you’re on the phone. Call agents are ruled by AHT (Average Handle Time), which means they are motivated to get you off the line quickly to avoid ruining their “quality” score. It is important to state at the beginning of the call that you will only accept warm transfers—that is, a handoff to a live person who has been made familiar with your situation. The agent will be itching to send you to some random employee’s voicemail or put you back in the phone queue. If you let that happen, all will be lost.

Customers sometimes think they’re being clever by taking down the names of everyone they speak with—a highly overrated activity. The only name that really matters belongs to the person who eventually promises to resolve your problem. Once you get that promise, make sure you have not only a name, but also a case number, a call-back phone number, an alternate phone number, a colleague’s number in case you can’t get through and an email address. Ask for an estimated time of resolution, as well as the best time to call if something goes wrong. Then thank that person profusely. You might even want to ask where you can send a note complimenting her on her excellent work. Remember, a little sucking up never hurts.

2. Tell the world about it.

Your strategy: In some cases it is too late to fix the problem, but as a good citizen you may feel compelled to share your pain with others. In the old days the options for doing this were limited. You could tell your friends about your dreadful experience (and they, in turn, would tell you about theirs), or, if you were particularly ambitious, you might write a letter to the editor.

Fortunately, you can now spread bad news with far greater ease and impact than before. Online rating and review sites, such as Yelp, Hotels.com, Angie’s List and Trip Advisor, are eagerly waiting to hear your story. No longer do you have to suffer alone—these days, you can instantly share your pain with the world.

Some pointers to keep in mind when you go to these sites:

  • If you want to be taken seriously, don’t rant. Avoid writing entire phrases in capital letters. Cut back on the use of exclamation points. Refrain from obvious sarcasm. And go easy on the ellipses.
  • When writing your comments, adopt a tone of resigned sorrow: How tragic, you might say, that a once reputable company has allowed its standards to lapse. It’s such a shame that its staff is no longer able to meet the most basic expectations of their customers. Sometime in the distant future, you may consider doing business with this company again, but as things stand now, you must withhold your endorsement. The trick is to appear rational and believable. This will help you stand out from the crowd.

3. Help the company avoid similar problems in the future.

Your strategy: Perhaps you consider yourself a loyal customer. You had a good relationship with the company in the past, and you really want to continue doing business there. In this case, the tone you want to take is that of the trusted friend who pulls you aside to offer you a breath mint.

Sending a helpful message to the president or CEO is a good first step. Make it clear that you’re the company’s number one fan, and you’re just bringing this issue to the attention of the powers-that-be so they can get ahead of it before other customers are impacted. Then describe the problem in agonizing detail. Close with a friendly tone (“Thanks for looking into this matter, and keep up the good work!”).

The likelihood of the president actually receiving and reading your message is slim, so you need to hedge your bets. Send a copy to the chairman of the board, the chief marketing officer, the COO and the comptroller—anyone whose title sounds important. You want at least one person to be concerned enough to forward your message to a subordinate. At that point, the complaint is likely to take on a life of its own in the organization: It will be passed around, printed out, pinned to bulletin boards. If your problem is sufficiently juicy, it will become the subject of lunchroom conversation. This will raise awareness in the organization and help it do better in the future.


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