Customer Service Is Either Great or Terrible

Is Anticipating Problems More Effective Than Responding to Them?

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
I traveled extensively a couple weeks ago and suffered the usual indignities and disappointments of uneven customer service. You know the drill so I won't bore you with details, except one: After a pleasant, issue-free stay at a hoity-toity London hotel, the guy behind the front desk wouldn't extend my checkout time by an hour. He shrugged apologetically. I will never stay there again.

I've realized that I'm about as loyal as a fruit fly is long-lived.

It's really unfair, if you think about it. The place did dozens of things just fine, if not exceeding my mostly unconscious expectations. But that one customer experience erased all of it and left me with the conclusion that the hotel isn't worth visiting again. When I complained about it to a friend, he said that I might get a discount if I tweeted my dissatisfaction. This got me thinking about our approach to customer service, and I wanted to throw some questions at the CMO community that I've been asking myself:

Is customer experience a relationship or simply a series of events?
I wonder if there's any collective loyalty beyond the last interaction. Sure there's residual effects of the last encounter, so you want it to be positive so the customer will be more likely to buy again. But they (i.e., we) don't remember nuances or use those 1-10 rankings that brand surveys rely upon. Service is either wonderful or terrible, and I don't think many customers keep accurate or compelling track of the last dozen events that comprise their interactions with brands (which may include product use, online FAQ lookups, IVR nightmares, etc.). The last interaction matters most.

Are we building loyalty by retroactively "fixing" problems?
Our collective wisdom states that satisfying disgruntled customers makes them far more loyal than those who buy from us happily and easily. Are they truly cheaper to sell next time, or more likely to endure more hardship in order to buy from us? Are customer relationships that have been "made right" by some extraordinary intervention actually more dependable purchasers? Do we make more money from them? A simple test would be to ask for a purchase commitment once a problem had been remedied: Here's your discount for a hotel room, so when will you stay with us again? Your airline voucher is good if you book now, so where would you like to go?

Do we really care?
I sometimes think we live in the apology economy, in which we know that there are shortcomings in our offerings and that a percentage of customers are going to encounter problems, whether our fault or that of fate. So we hire the staff and the systems necessary to apologize to the X percent of customers who are offended by our decisions. It seems that everyone is prepared to apologize for just about anything, and communications consultants will argue that apologies are the new entree to real dialogue. I worry that because we know the vast majority of consumers will tolerate shoddy or inconsistent service, offering an apology in lieu of real, operational behavior is a gift from on high. It's effectively free and we don't really mean it.

Is the loudest squeak just noise?
One phenomenon is becoming clearer as the "crowd" matures: Neutrality is the common denominator for most customer-experience ratings, unless they're talking about specific functionality issues (in that case, they're very useful). Micro-disappointments tend to get evened out by micro-happiness, and it's the phenomenon that has driven YouTube to tinker with its user ratings. Motivated comments trend to the extremes of "this sucks" and "it changed my life for the better," leaving the vast majority of us still in the middle by telling us nothing.

Shouldn't we focus on raising the perceived value of every event?
Back to my friend's advice that I should tweet my problem, which reminded me of all the brands that are investing in social media under the rubric of improving customer service. Service isn't a problem-management activity, is it? It involves everything the business does ... all of those unsung events that come off just fine, and which pass unnoticed, unvalued by customers and unrewarding to brands. Responding to the few squeaky wheels is really a small component of the service equation. Worse, we don't care for the happiness of these individuals, as they might not even be buyers again, at least not any time soon. We're instead scared of how they might influence other purchasers.

What if we found ways to highlight, promote and (gasp) monetize all of the good experiences for which our brands aren't appreciated? We could go further and continuously fix and improve the areas in which we know we are weak and most likely to disappoint customers. If customer service is a binary equation made up of discreet events that are either good or bad, improving it might be far more profitable than apologizing for its shortcomings.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author, and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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