Customer Service

This morning as I was biking in, I was reflecting on the financial and political situations that we are in, and I realized that I knew one important part of how we got here.

Several years ago, in my previous job, I was “asked” to go to a customer support class. Over time, several people had complained about my lack of “people skills”, and my manager felt that I could benefit from learning some customer support skills. And boy did I learn! I learned lessons in that class that have stuck with me for years. It was probably the most eye-opening class I’ve ever attended. Let me tell you about it.

First off, let me tell you why I was asked to go. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an engineer at heart. I like working on problems, and I dislike wasting time. My job was a system administrator, so most of my time was spent keepking computers up and running (and I feel that we did a very good job of it), but some of the time was spent in customer support or help desk type situations. People came to me and the other system administrators with questions. I was working in a computer science department, so the people who came with questions were people in the computer field (students, faculty, etc.), so I felt (and still feel) that it was reasonable to expect a certain level of competence from them. When people came to me with questions that demonstrated that they had spent time trying to figure something out, but were missing something important, or that depended on some other information that they didn’t have, I was always happy to respond, and I don’t believe that any of the complaints ever came from this group of customers. But when someone would come to me with a question of the type: I have a problem, and I didn’t bother to research it, can you just tell me the answer; in that case, I was much less helpful. I’d resist answering the question and instead try to teach them something about finding the answer for themselves. I know that this was not always taken well (sometimes it was taken very badly), and I wasn’t always the most patient about it either, which compounded the problem, but when someone who’s career is based on computers will not spend the time to learn about computers, it really bothers me.

Anyway, after a certain number of complaints, it was off to customer support school. This was a day-long class to teach you customer support skills.

Early on, we broke into groups of about 8 to do some basic exercises. The first thing we had to do was think back to some “good customer experiences” we had had (as the customer) and tell some of the qualities that the customer support person had that provided us with the good experience. We came up with around a dozen qualities including things like good body language; professional appearance; competant; able to answer our questions; friendly; etc.

We were then asked to privately choose the 2 or 3 qualities most important of these and write them down. Then we went around and read them. I chose something like “competant” and “able to answer my questions”. Without exception, everyone else in the group chose qualities related to the person being nice to them (friendly, smiled a lot, good body language). As this was happening, I was thinking to myself “what planet are these people from???”.

Not to criticize them, but they were responding only to their feelings. They may have associated the “good experience” with a friendly support person, but would they have had a good experience if the person wasn’t first and foremost able to help them?

So I learned several things. First off, customers just want to feel good. Competence is perceived as being of secondary importance. Smile at them and they’ll overlook many other “real” problems (i.e. not being able to give them the help they need). Second, customers (people) are REALLY REALLY REALLY in need of a little stiffening of their back bone. I realize that there is absolutely no reason to be rude to people, but everyone has a bad day occasionally. If I’m at a bank teller and he/she is having the worst day of his/her life, and as a result, isn’t the most polite to me, am I supposed to let that ruin MY day too? As long as they are able to help me, I have had a POSITIVE customer support experience. A smile may make it better… but in all honesty, that’s secondary.

I’m sure that many people reading this are probably thinking “my he’s cynical”, and I would probably agree with you to a point, but in this day where we’re told that being a couple of pounds overweight makes us as attractive as Quasimodo (and we believe it), and God forbid if we ever say something politically incorrect because it might offend someone (and as a whole, we embrace that), and by the way, if your breasts are a bit too small, or you have just hair just a little too sparse, no problem, we can fix that because you don’t deserve to have that major hardship in your life (and we buy into it 100%).

Anyway, I DID learn from my customer support class. I actually did make a conscious effort to be more polite, more patient, and friendly to people, and as far as I know, it worked. At least, I never had any more complaints (that were brought to my attention). But even though I changed some of the outward stuff, I kept my style of answer the same. When people came to me with questions that they had not done their homework, I would still resist answering it… just more politely.

Anyway, I was thinking about all that this morning, and realized that this explained at least part of the problems going on now. Political leaders are NOT helping the country. Leaders of coorporations are bankrupting the companies. Financial leaders have led us into a recession. And how did they get to be where they are?

Probably because they had “good body language” and were “polite”. They got people to support them, vote for them, hire them, because too many people are willing and able to overlook less-than-competent behaviors provided you’re well groomed. And I’m sure that those leaders learned the same lesson… put on a good smile, and make people feel comfortable, and then you can do what you want, and they’ll leave happy.

It’s time to start evaluating people based on their abilities and competency, rather than how they look. Would you rather be in the grocery checkout line of the cashier who is ringing up groceries in a quiet, but very competent (and fast) manner, or the line where the cashier is smiling and happy, engaging everyone in friendly conversation… and taking three times as long. Would you rather have someone in a political office who is flawlessly groomed, impeccably tailored, and a master orator, or one who has run a small business and kept it in the black financially for years.

And on the other side of the coin, collectively as a society, we need to grow a spine! There was a time when men (and women) got out there and overcame problems, who took a country and turned it into the world leader in technology, education, and production. Now, we’re so concerned about how much the razor will hurt our tender skin, or the unsightly psoriasis on our arm, that we are willing to spend our time and resource battling these life-threatening problems, and we’re unwilling to face the discomforts that changing the current situation would entail. In short… we’ve become a bunch of sheep, led by anyone who will tell us “my what a nice wool coat you’ve got there”.

Oh well… that’s my rant for the day (week? month?).