When Your Service to Customers Fails, What Do You Do?


I have written before about customer service (see here and here). This post is written from the point of view of a customer, but is intended to make service providers think about their systems.

crying-on-the-phone-300x225For the past year, I have been responsible for managing the estates of a relative who died and his spouse. I have dealt with a number of banks, brokerage firms, real estate offices, benefit providers, government offices, and utilities. Some have been remarkably helpful and efficient. Others have been case studies in frustration.

On the good side, one real estate company canceled a contract and returned a large deposit the decedent had made shortly before his death. A cable company made it easy to cancel service without having to return equipment that was a long distance from my home. Another service provider readily reversed a pre-payment when the service was no longer needed. I had feared contacting these companies, thinking they would argue with me, but they were courteous and prompt in addressing my concerns.

On the bad side, a large national bank stymied me at getting access to the decedent’s funds at every step of the way for several weeks. The funds in one of the decedent’s accounts could not be transferred to the account I set up for the estate for over three weeks after the death. Another account did not get transferred to my name due to a clerical error. And a large deposit I made into the estate account was kept from me for an entire week, because the funds were from an out-of-state bank.

Now mind you, this is a bank where I have multiple personal accounts that were valued at well over the amount of funds I was trying to get into the decedent’s account. Any bank employee looking at the big picture would realize I was not a risk.

Young Man with His Hand on His ForeheadThe worst example of poor customer service I encountered involved the administrator of the decedent’s health reimbursement account. This firm is the subsidiary of a large international consulting firm. Yet their representatives made errors at every step of the claims process, including recording the wrong date of death, losing the documents that proved I was the executor of the estate, making reimbursements for premiums I never claimed, sending checks to a dead person at the wrong address, and sending overpayment notices despite assuring me that the account had been resolved and I would not see any overpayment notices despite their errors.

I have experience managing departments responsible for customer service. I know what good customer service looks like. What it looks like is getting the right result for the customer, regardless of what needs to happen internally.

For example, in the case of the bank, it meant looking beyond their policies to realize that I was not a credit risk nor likely to defraud the bank if they loosened their week-long delay on the deposit of out-of-state checks. (They could have called the check-writer to verify the payment.) It also meant permitting me to use funds in the account where their clerical mistake had delayed my access. As I pointed out in an earlier post, customer-facing employees need some discretion to resolve disputes expeditiously.

In the case of the health reimbursement account, it meant looking at the account holistically and determining the correct end result, rather than processing each set of premiums reimbursements separately (half of which they got wrong). It meant cutting through the red tape to get me a check quickly, even if the company’s internal accounts were wrong because of their errors in processing claims. It also meant putting a flag on the account so that routine notices would not be sent in the future, even after their representatives had acknowledged their errors.

I point out these examples so that all readers involved in customer service can think about what might go wrong within your systems and determine in advance what you could do about it.

Most customer service organizations want to make a good impression. But it takes vigilance to do so. It also takes periodic re-examination of systems designed to benefit your organization rather than the customer. You might need the protections of these systems, but someone in your company ought to be authorized to override the system when you have clearly erred. (The senior customer service specialist at the health reimbursement account administrator told me she was “the best they had” to help me, yet she had no authority to go around their system, nor did she ever involve anyone else at the firm who could.)

Your customer is not always right, but your company can be wrong. You need to acknowledge when you are wrong and react accordingly. And you need to change your systems to do better in the future. Don’t let your company become a case study in customer frustration, as the bank and health reimbursement account administrator were for me.

I hope I am preaching to the choir to my readers with this post, but I’m sure you have all experienced times when your systems got in the way of doing the right thing. Don’t let it happen again!

When have you experienced poor customer service? What did it teach you?

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2 Comments

Filed under Benefits, Human Resources, Leadership, Management

2 responses to “When Your Service to Customers Fails, What Do You Do?

  1. Pingback: When Your Service to Customers Fails, What Do You Do? | Executive Training Dubai

  2. Pingback: Favorite Firing: When a Customer Harasses an Employee | Sara Rickover, Behind the Corporate Veil

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