A new way to reverse the customer-service slide

By | September 23rd, 2016

Adria Gross’ problem looked unsolvable.

She’d paid more than $500 for a Kenmore Elite vacuum cleaner at Sears. But when she turned it on, it sucked — not just literally, but also figuratively.

“It burned the carpet in my hallway,” remembers Gross, an insurance industry consultant in Monroe, New York. “There were dark brown streaks across the floor and it smelled like burnt plastic.”

Gross estimated the damage to her carpet at around $1,000. She asked Sears to replace the household appliance and the rug, and while the company quickly agreed to swap out the defective vacuum cleaner for a new one, it balked at fixing the floor.

Ever been there? Sure you have. Customer service is fast becoming a lost art, not just for some companies, but entire industries. The problem-solving resources you used to count on seem to have vanished. But there’s hope for disappointed customers, including new tactics and one brand-new resource. You’re reading it right now.

More than a third of customers in one survey admit they’ve lost their temper with a customer service professional. Of those, 7 in 10 asked for a supervisor, and 40 percent threatened to switch to a competitor. Three in ten customers hung up. But most never tried. For every customer who bothers to complain, 26 remain silent.

For Gross, the “nos” came from everywhere. A Sears customer service representative denied the company was responsible for the scorched floor. The executive office also turned her down. Even Gross’ husband said the carpet was a lost cause. “He told me, ‘Good luck,'” she remembers.

But should it really take luck to get a company to do the right thing?

A reliable barometer of customer service expectations that shows a bothersome, year-over-year decline in customer satisfaction doesn’t exist. But there’s plenty of evidence that service levels are plummeting for key businesses.

Telephone companies are hovering near all-time low service scores, notching up a weak 70 out of 100 on the authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index. Food manufacturers, with an industry average of 76, are at an all-time low. Also on customers’ blacklists: subscription TV (65) and airlines (72). (By the way, that’s the highest score ever for airlines.)

“Companies are promising to deliver great service,” explains customer service expert Shep Hyken. “They tout their awards and bombard us with images of happy customers. The result is an expectation that many companies can’t live up to.”

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“We’re not happy until you’re not happy”

Do you really need the statistics to know what’s happening? Probably not. “The customer is always right” has become “We’re not happy until you’re not happy.”

Question is, what do you do about it? You used to be able to complain to a store manager or contact one of several independent consumer advocates, who could take up your claim. But today, that same supervisor is likely to offer a scripted nonresponse. And the journalists who used to help are almost all gone. Their “on your side” newspaper columns were canceled a long time ago, replaced with more advertiser-friendly features.

Gross decided to ignore the “nos” and put on her advocate hat, pressing her case with Sears. It wasn’t easy. Even after denials by the customer service department and the executive office, she didn’t give up. Following several more rounds of spirited back-and-forth, Sears relented and replaced Gross’ carpet.

“They paid for all of it,” she says. “I never saw a bill.”

Brian Hanover, a Sears spokesman, said the company was happy to help.

“Our priority has always been to make sure our members and customers are satisfied with their purchases,” he says. “We evaluate all member concerns on an individual basis with the goal of reaching a solution that will satisfy that member’s situation. Sears understands the importance of building relationships with its members, not just transactions. We’re pleased our associates handled Ms. Gross’ situation to her satisfaction and look forward to welcoming her as a valued Sears member for years to come.”

How to navigate the system

In the 21st century world of customer disservice, you don’t have to be a consumer advocate to get the service you deserve. But you will need to become your own advocate.

Simply put, the system is rigged to turn away as many unhappy customers as possible while still following the law. It’s a calculated corporate decision that weighs the business a company will lose against the employee time and resources necessary to make you happy again. Under this system, the customer is almost never right.

Getting good service is more of a paint-by-number proposition today. Whether it’s a broken household appliance or a lost hotel reservation, you’re likely to run up against the first line of defense — and intransigent, script-reading employee. Bear in mind that most consumers don’t get that far. They simply accept poor service and move on. Statistically, you are the one who dared speak up among 26 who stayed quiet.

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If the rehearsed “no” doesn’t put you off, maybe a halfhearted offer of points or a gift certificate that quickly expires will end your mission. But you should know this: The company values those points at a fraction of a penny each for internal accounting purposes, and less than 10 percent of the vouchers are ever redeemed.

In other words, it’s an empty apology.

If you stay the course, you’ll probably do better. The secret is something I call the three “Ps” of advocacy: be patient, polite and persistent.

Appealing to a manager, as Gross did, is a first step. But VPs and C-level executives go to great lengths to hide their direct phone numbers and email addresses from their own customers. And who has the time to go on a fact-finding mission to research these concealed contacts? That’s why one of the first things I did when I started advocating for consumers was to post that information on my consumer advocacy site.

Taking matters into your own hands

Looping in an executive works. But you have to also know what to say. That’s where self-advocacy becomes so important. You have to know what your rights are under the law, under your warranty, and perhaps most importantly, under the implied promises made by a business.

For example, Gross could have invoked Sears’ own mission statement, to “provide quality products and services at great value” and to build “positive, lasting relationships with our customers.” Certainly, burning a carpet and then sticking her with the bill is not a way to build a positive or lasting relationship.

If the carrot doesn’t work, you have to try a little stick.

“I may have also mentioned that my next stop was the the New York Attorney General,” she says. Gross had a small advantage; her consulting practice focuses on helping patients process insurance claims when they’re unfairly denied, so she had a basic knowledge of the appeals process.

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What if that hadn’t worked? She could have taken Sears to small claims court in New York, but there’s a $15 to $20 filing fee, plus it’s time-consuming. A victory was by no means assured. After that, she would have been out of options.

And that’s wrong.

A helping hand

Four years ago, when I wrote my book “Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles and Shady Deals” (Wiley), I decided to do something about that. I’d already been helping resolve consumer complaints as the reader advocate for a travel magazine, but I felt I should do more than document the sad decline of customer service and the hopelessness that consumers like Gross feel.

So I started taking cases from readers, fielding questions about everything from broken laptop computers to busted water heaters. Instead of simply offering advice on how to avoid a problem, I offered consumers ammunition: names, email addresses and direct phone numbers of executives; and strategies for resolving a case before it became a court case. And true to its name, Problem Solved, the feature helped secure an apology, a refund or facilitated a fix.

Of course, the weekly column met with immediate resistance from corporations. They were just beginning to breathe easier now that most of the advocate journalists had been cleared away in the latest wave of media belt-tightening.

Companies demanded I delete their executives’ names and numbers from my advocacy site (fortunately, we have a little thing called the First Amendment that gives me the right to publish that information). Newspapers rejected Problem Solved, probably because a column that helps people work the system is bad for ad sales from those companies.

But this story has a happy ending. This month, Money Magazine took a principled and contrarian stand for its readers. It agreed to pick up Problem Solved and asked me to join its staff as Money’s new reader advocate.

My job is simple: I’ll tell you how to navigate the customer service maze and win. And I’ll show you how to beat the system legally — no tricks, no hacks — by holding a company to its promises.

The cases I cover are enlightening and sometimes entertaining, but they will always make you a better consumer. That’s not just an implied promise. It’s a guarantee.

  • Jeff W.

    The issues that you articulate are quite true, but what you fail to mention is that some of this is the fault of us, the consumer. We chase for the cheapest deal and will go out of our way to buy a product that is a few dollars cheaper. Which is understandable, of course. But customer service is an expense. The costs to support that have to come from somewhere.

    An excellent example is Apple. I am not a big fan of the iPhone. I think it is overpriced and I prefer to be able to customize. But their customer service model is superb. And that is baked into the cost of the product.

    If Sears sells a vacuum cleaner for $100 and Target sells it for $80, Sears is not going to be selling vacuums for much longer. (I know Kenmore is a Sears brand, but they do not actually manufacture them — someone else does and slaps a Kenmore label on it.)

    We have to be willing to pay for customer service. That might mean the local hardware store instead of Home Depot. The corner grocery store instead of WalMart. The local pharmacy (if you can find them) instead of CVS.

  • MF

    Jeff, and you fail to mention the worst of customers – the liars & fraudsters who try to scam companies. Ordinarily I’m all about decent customer service, but companies need to sort out the honest from the dishonest or risk going broke.

  • MF

    Congratulations Chris, a wider forum to help more people. ‘More work is your reward for a job well done.

  • jmj

    How sears is still in business is a wonder to me. So much fail at every turn.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    The reality is that good ‘customer service’ doesn’t pay off for most companies; therefore they don’t invest in it; provide goodwill; etc. Most of transactions have become commoditized…the consumers wants the lowest price.

    If an airline bends it rules and give a refund for a non-refundable fare do you think that consumer will come back or will they use several fare search engine sites to find the cheapest tickets for their next flight? The facts show that it is the latter.

    The cold hard facts are wages are stagnant for most Americans.

    1) College graduates up to the 70th percentile have had stagnant or falling wages since 2000, and wages have failed to improve for college graduates in nearly every occupation, including business occupations.

    2) Both high school– and college-educated workers have seen no growth in their hourly compensation in the last 10 years, starting in 2002.

    Again, the reality is that most Americans buy things on price not the lowest cost of ownership; quality; customer service; etc.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    As a consultant to businesses, I see the scammers, lairs, etc. every day.

  • Tricia K

    Sears has been on the decline since they want to paying their sales people commissions and turned them into vultures. Then the KMart, LandsEnd, Sears deal came along and has detritus another good company, LandsEnd.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    As a Money subscriber, I’m delighted to hear you’ll be writing for them.

  • Dutchess

    Sears is circling the drain and this level of customer service is just one more example. I bought my new kitchen appliances from Sears a few months ago and the entire encounter was a fiasco. FOUR delivery attempts, 2 cancellations because they didn’t have my appliances (which was a lie, they had the appliances they just didn’t log them in to inventory so they just cancel delivery the night before, I had to change installation dates TWICE), THREE defective refrigerators (all three had the same defect and they SWORE up and down they would check it in the warehouse before scheduling another delivery and didn’t). Finally when I just accepted the last refrigerator they promised $300 cash for the difference. I never received it, had to make 5 or 6 phone calls over 4 weeks to get a gift card in the mail. In the end it was only $200.
    I got a screaming deal on the appliances, I saved several thousand due to stacking promotions etc so I didn’t want to cancel my order but man was it tempting. Not sure the aggravation was worth it in the long run.

  • Mel LeCompte Jr.

    I tend to disagree. If Wal-Mart didn’t implement a ‘return anything, anytime’ policy mission in the 80’s, they would be nothing today. Same with Sears and the legendary lifetime guarantee on Craftsman tools. Good customer service makes for good business.

    It’s the second (and subsequent)-generation bean-counters and CEO’s than damn a company’s reputation by thinking customers will still be loyal after a company like Wal-Mart or Sears change their culture, their procedure, and their policies. They’d rather risk alienating their entire customer base and destroy all the good will reputation so that someone’s stock can go up a dime.

    TL:DR — This is what happens when you try to fix what ain’t broke.

  • jmj

    It’s everything, it’s almost as if they’re trying to drive themselves into the ground. for example, their formerly great guaranteed for life tools are no longer so, and are cheaply made.

  • Jeff W.

    Indeed, there are customers who also cheat. Use the item once and then return it once they have “finished” with it. Plenty of examples and another reason why companies don’t bother.

  • joycexyz

    You hit the nail on the head! I’m also thinking of all the people who book cheap flights, etc., and then have issues and no recourse. But as long as consumers vote with their wallets this will continue.

  • joycexyz

    I guess we need truth-meters.

  • joycexyz

    How do you spot them?

  • joycexyz

    I’ll admit I was appalled when Sears acquired (or partnered with) Lands End, which I have liked for a long time. The good part is that it’s so easy to return Lands End merchandise by taking it to any Sears store.

  • joycexyz

    Which is why I use a locally-owned appliance store. I know I’m not paying rock-bottom prices, but the peace of mind is priceless.

  • Dutchess

    Yeah, when Sears didn’t sell the top of the line dishwasher that matched my appliances I went to my locally owned appliance store. Great salesman, knowledgeable, got me what I wanted in 2 days, price matched a Home Depot Sales price, and even had a weekend delivery/install available. Paid them to install (I know how BUT for $100 let it be on them). They sent their installer who promptly threw away half the insulation, the drip pan with the water leak sensor (!!!!!) and all the trim pieces. Thank goodness I was paying attention. When I told the installer he was throwing away important parts, he shrugged his shoulder and said “Ooops, guess I missed that” I told him to leave and they sent out a second installer the next week to fix the mess the first installer made. That installer messed up the install too and had to come out TWO MORE TIMES. For a simple freaking dishwasher install! This is a store that has 2 GIANT showrooms and sells thousands of appliances a year, been in business for decades. I made them give me a refund of my installation cost. So, even with your “local guy” you can get horrible service. I would probably order through Sears again before I would go through the local company. Sears’ outside installers were professional, FAST, and did a great job compared to the “local guy’s” in-house people.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I work with companies with their ‘excess’ merchandise such as overstock, shelf pulls, close-outs, customer returns, etc. In regards to customer returns, there are legitmate warranty issues (i.e. item not working, item is defective, etc.) but there are lot of ‘fraudulent’ returns. Here are some examples:

    1. Customers that returnsend back the old, used broken item in the new item packaging. Example: people will send back old shoes in the shoe box expecting the company not to open the box.

    2. Customers that use an item for a job (a day, a week, etc.) then returning it to the store stating that it doesn’t work, it is too large or small, etc. Example: trades people will go to Home Depot to buy a tool for a specific job and return it to Home Depot after they are done with it stating that it doesn’t work.

    3. Customers purchase an item with multiple items (i.e. 12 batteries)…use one (or whatever they need) and return the package stating that the item doesn’t workdoesn’t do the jobetc.

  • joycexyz

    Wow! That certainly was a horrible experience. So far, mine have been good when dealing with a local dealer. But I guess anything can happen.

  • Dutchess

    Yeah, it sucked! I guess my point was the “local guy” ins’t the magic fix-all they used to be AND even if you’re having a professional do your install, read over the instructions and make sure they’re doing it correctly!!

  • Michael__K

    This customer paid more than $500 for their vacuum, and they probably could have purchased it for less elsewhere.

    Which helps illustrate that, in many cases, spending more does not buy any more customer service.

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