Vocalabs Newsletter: Quality Times


In This Issue

Two Stories

Every company makes mistakes, and what often drives a company's reputation for good or bad service is how it handles the mistakes and weird situations. Were employees empowered to fix the problem, maybe even bend the rules a bit? Or did they fall back on process and bureaucracy, frustrating the customer's attempts to find a way to fix the problem?

This month, we're sharing two stories of what happens when customer service processes break down.

Service Recovery Done Wrong

by Peter Leppik, CEO

"Service Recovery" is the fancy term for making things right when they go wrong. It's a powerful tool for improving brand loyalty when done right, but done wrong it can backfire.

I recently traveled to Las Vegas for a conference. I stayed at the conference hotel, the New York New York--not the swankest place in Vegas by any stretch, but certainbly a respectable hotel for a business traveler.

There was only one problem: by the time I arrived at midnight, the hotel was out of nonsmoking rooms in the room type I had reserved. I'm not a very demanding business traveler: I really only insist on two things. Basic cleanliness and a nonsmoking room. In the year 2012 in the United States, these are things every traveler should expect at any hotel.

Normally this is not a problem. I've had this happen to me dozens of times over the years, and the hotel upgrades me to whatever nonsmoking room is still available. But apparently this is not the policy at the New York New York: they made me pay for an upgrade to a fancy suite as the only way to have me and all my belongings not smell like smoke in the morning. The check-in agent offered no other options (or even much sympathy), so I grudgingly paid for the upgrade.

By this point in my customer experience the hotel had earned a black mark in my book. I don't care so much about the dollars, but I do care that they don't consider a nonsmoking room important for guests who want one. Since a nonsmoking room is very important to me, that's reason enough not to go back. But as a customer I'm still recoverable, if the hotel recognizes its mistake and makes amends.

So the next morning I related my story to one of the conference organizers and several other attendees. The conference organizer passed this along to the hotel management, and the next day I got a call from one of the guest relations people.

Now we are in the Service Recovery phase. The hotel knows they have an unhappy customer and they are reaching out to me to try to make it right. Research as shown that taking care of a customer's problem properly will actually make a more loyal customer, but not taking care of a problem will lead to a disloyal customer likely to spread negative word-of-mouth. So it's important to do this right, and convert that upset customer into a brand advocate.

The representative from the hotel was very polite, listened to my problem, agreed that I should not have had to pay extra just to get a nonsmoking room. And then she offered to refund one night of the two-night upgrade fee.

Wait, what?

If she agreed that this should not have happened, then why is the hotel only offering to fix half the mistake?

The issue in my mind was never the money so much as the fact that a nonsmoking room is, for me, a basic amenity like clean sheets. From the hotel's response, I can only conclude that my initial conclusion--that they don't think a nonsmoking room is all that important--was correct.

So rather than convince me to return, the hotel actually reinforced my initial negative impression. And like the good Detractor that I am, I am telling everyone--including you, my reader--the same thing: If you care about getting a nonsmoking room, don't stay at the New York New York. Because they don't care, and their actions speak very loudly.

And that is how you do service recovery the wrong way.

Silos vs. Service

by David Leppik, 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 I think my story illustrates what I think is going wrong.

I recently got an iPhone 5, but it took far more effort than it should have. 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. 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 Apple rep explained that since the problem might be something like a late payment, Apple wasn't getting involved.

So Sprint made a mistake, and mistakes 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 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, "we can only validate through a store."

The problem was eventually solved by an Apple rep calling an Apple Store employee, who called Sprint's Support Desk. 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, but I needed to wait 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 and then consulted with Apple on how to proceed. This should have taken just a few minutes.

I'm sure there's some good reason why that Desk is kept separate, but there should be some allowance for customer service emergencies. Yet 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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