Want happy customers? Don't tick them off

Want happy customers? Don't tick them off

My auto repair shop once set my car on fire. Recently, my long-distance carrier, a company that prides itself on customer service, called me about 44 cents I owed it. Guess which experience still burns me up? The answer says a lot about the state of computing and customer service.

When your number's up, it's up. And around 8:15 on a recent morning, a computer decided it was time. A phone company representative called while I was rushing to get ready for work to say my account was 60 days overdue and asked if I'd like to pay the balance by credit card.

Now everyone knows not to give out a credit-card number when a stranger calls. Even little kids know you just don't do that. So I hung up, then tried to call the 1800 number on the back of my dialling card.

I couldn't get through. I tried again that night, and after five attempts over three-quarters of an hour, I finally reached the phone company. I was overdue 60 days all right - but only by 44 cents, not the much larger amount I was told that morning.

That didn't exactly put me in a good mood. But what bugged me more was what I was hearing from the service reps. Why did I have trouble getting through? Monday's always a busy day, said one. A new computer system, said another. Why was I called, and at the worst possible time in the morning? The computer triggered it. And why was I asked to pay by credit card? As a customer convenience, I was told.

Convenience? The rep read her script so fast it sounded like a hustle. The rep made a note that I don't like to receive phone calls. The matter was over. Or is it?

Today, I still go to the repair shop that set my car on fire. They ripped up my bill, but that's not all. They do honest work, provide great service and don't rip me off.

This phone company? They treated the com-puter as some uncontrollable force. Their 1800 number was a nightmare. And their reps thought it was OK to quickly ask for credit cards.

The fact is businesses still don't understand how to make computers and people work together effectively in providing customer service. Lack of reliability as well as incompetence and the inability to share information are part of the problem. But I suspect something else is at work: companies don't understand what drives customers nuts.

Companies work hard to figure out how to please customers. They collect data on customer preferences, stuff it into databases and look for correlations. That's helpful, of course. But shouldn't they also collect data on what their customers detest and build systems that use this information? These sophisticated billing systems should be programmed to avoid actions that damage relationships.

I'm all in favour of using IT to provide customer service. But frankly, I'd rather see companies use IT to prevent poor service.

I'd like to see someone build a customer-relationship anti-mismanagement system. The system shouldn't let reps call me during the morning rush hour, ask me for credit-card information or pester me about 44 cents overdue.

I don't know if this company is using a customer relationship management system. But I'll say this: if you want to build a relationship with customers, figure out what will tick them off.

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