The push and pull of customer care

23 Jun 2006

Why are so many of us astounded when we receive timely, competent and professional customer service support‾ Little doubt it's a reflection of the modest level of service we've grown to expect.

The argument as always been that with greater choice, consumers would become more demanding and brands would have to work harder to attract and keep customers. Great in theory, but somewhere along the way the message hasn't tricked down to the support staff at many retail outlets and call centers.

A recent positively painless and quick customer-care experience dealing with a handset malfunction highlights the huge gap between good service and what's too often the norm.

A couple of months back, my Treo 650 headset jack went wonky and played mostly in mono. After a couple of weeks of jiggling the connection to restore stereo, I shot off an email to Palm. Within 15 minutes of my initial email asking where to get repairs, I had not only received a reply from the Palm PR assistant who had helped me purchase the device nearly a year early, but had also received an email from the Palm technical support manager on how to log the problem via the hotline. Shortly after calling the hotline reporting the problem, I received email instructions on where to drop off my unit and pick up a replacement. A few days later I stopped by the drop zone, conveniently located at a DHL kiosk in an MTR station, and walked out with a new model after turning in the defective unit. One email, one call and a short detour on the way to work and I was back in stereo. Wow!

On the flip side, it so often all goes wrong. An ex-colleague has vowed to never buy from a certain top-tier handset vendor after a protracted exchange with the retailer and vendor's online support desk, which resulted a flat refusal to exchange a nine-day-old mobile phone he claimed had an extremely short battery life and frequently dropped calls. The unit was turned in twice for testing, but the mysterious defect was never found.

Tied to the service

He ended up defecting to another top-brand handset maker and getting 30 cents on the dollar for a trade-in. He switched not because the product was giving him trouble, but the overall customer dis-service offered and the hassle of dealing with it all.

Products break down. That's not the issue - how a company's customer service deals with a problem is how we judge a company's products in the long run.

A J.D. Power Asia Pacific survey of some 3,000 users in Japan last year found that a staggering 30% of users experienced problems with their handsets. More surprising, only about half of these said they followed up for repair. That means the rest (50% of those with problems) continue to use their products without repair.

Seems the average consumer, at least in Japan, would rather put up with a faulty device than deal with customer support. That speaks volumes. This reluctance obviously reveals that something is lacking in the customer support they've experienced.

Many times good service comes down to an attitude of respect for the customer - taking a complaint seriously (instead of thinking the customer made up a problem simply because she doesn't like the model) and showing respect for the individual's time, thus having the procedures in place to resolve a complaint quickly.

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