The Customer Service Survey

Silos vs. Service

by David Leppik on Wed, 2012-10-24 17:42

This is David here, Vocalabs' VP of Software Development. Customer service isn't something you can master and then forget:  it takes constant vigilance. In our research, we've found that Sprint went from being the worst cell phone company in customer service to being the best—only to drop back down to the worst position again. And this is a case in point.
 
I recently got an iPhone 5, but it took far more effort than it should have. Long story short, my order was blocked by Sprint right before it was going to ship, I spent an hour and a half on the phone with Apple and Sprint customer service, and nobody knew what had gone wrong.
 
Here's what I think happened.  Apple's computers were doing a final, pre-shipment confirmation of my order with Sprint.  Something went wrong;  perhaps a computer was overloaded and timed out. Regardless, Sprint blocked my order without any indication of why.  A person from Apple called me to let me know what had happened (they didn't want me to get the bad news via email) and that I should call Sprint.  The person explained that since the problem might be something like a late payment, Apple wasn't getting involved.
 
That was bad, and bad things like this happen.  But what really made it bad is how Sprint handled it.
 
Sprint's front-end customer service staff were friendly and even enthusiastic about helping me. But because I bought my phone through a third party channel (Apple), my support requests are required to go through Sprint's National Sales Support Desk—and only their channel partners are allowed to speak to that Desk. Or as the Desk rep told the Apple rep later on, "we can only validate through a store."
 
Ultimately the problem was solved by an Apple rep talking to an Apple Store employee, who called the Support Desk. At this point Apple had canceled my order, since they have no procedure for un-cancelling a blocked order. The Support Desk verified that there was no reason for my order to be blocked, and assured me (over a muffled, echoey chain of phone lines) that the next order would not be blocked.  Apple offered to expedite my next order, which I needed to place online—after waiting 24 hours for the cancelation to go through, so that Sprint wouldn't block the new order as a duplicate.
 
What should have happened is this:  the first rep I talked to—or her manager—should have been allowed to talk to the National Sales Support Desk. They would have confirmed that my order block was a mistake (total elapsed time: under 5 minutes) and then consulted with Apple on how to proceed.
 
I'm sure there's some good reason why that Desk is kept separate, but there should be some allowance for customer service emergencies. (They made it sound like it would take at least a civil defense emergency to get them talking to each other.)  The fundamental issue is that, even when everyone involved was able to verify that a loyal customer was being treated wrong, corporate procedure took precedence over doing the right thing.
 
Every system breaks down from time to time. Courts convict the wrong person. Wars and natural disasters break normal channels of communication. So every bureaucracy tolerates broken rules sometimes. The National Sales Support Desk wouldn't have needed to go through proper channels to respond to their building burning down. And my guess is, when Sprint was at their best at customer service, they would have found a way to do the right thing.
 
That's what makes great customer service hard. Sometimes you need to bend the rules in the service of the customer. Especially when the rules don't make sense under the circumstances. In the absence of a top-down customer service mandate, bureaucracy takes over. And it can happen incredibly fast.
 
At Vocalabs, we know from empirical evidence that what matters in customer service is actually serving the customer. Not by being friendly or following etiquette procedures, but by finding a way to help. Apple didn't have a procedure for re-enabling my order, so I had to place a new order. But I didn't mind (much) because they made it clear that they would do whatever it took to fix my problem. Sprint made it equally clear that my problem wasn't their problem.

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