Customer Service or Customer Engagement?

My electronic fax suddenly stopped working last week.  No DIY remedy could get it to start working again.  I had to admit defeat and resign myself to calling customer service. No big deal, I thought. It was a service the company prided itself in. The technician on the phone put me through the routine diagnostics she was taught to use in troubleshooting. Then she went through a list of remedies for the most common problems they encountered: reboot my laptop; download free software; fax by using my e-mail rather than their website. Nothing worked. Nada.   And this is when the technician’s thin patina of friendliness dissolved into impatience. She was done. “I went through the entire process I was taught so something must be wrong with your laptop,” she concluded.

I pointed out that the scanner, that was part of their software package, had also stopped working, while every other program in my computerg was working perfectly. This couldn’t be a coincidence. Surely there was a relationship between the two.  What might that be? “Your fax checks out ma’am,” she responded without a trace of human emotion in her voice. “I checked all the boxes on my check list. Anything beyond this is not within my purview. Something must be wrong with your computer.”   

--Like what? This is the only problem I am having. 

--I don’t know ma’am. Your fax doesn’t respond to my corrections so it must be your computer

--But how can I fix it?  I don’t understand what I am supposed to do and to whom I can go for help. I mean I am paying a monthly subscription fee and none of your programs in my package works. Could you give me some direction or explore some additional possibilities. 

--My checklist is complete ma’am. I don't know what else I can do for you?

--Is there someone in your company who could help? He may have different suggestions.

---There is nothing else I can do about your problem with sending out faxes, sorry. Is there any other problem I can help you with? I hope you were satisfied with my service and will fill out the evaluation form that will be e-mailed to you shortly.

Click!  That was it. We had come to a dead end. I was no better-off having made that phone call than I would have been had I not made it. Yet chances were that my technician met the elaborate criteria for her performance in “customer service,” such as: making sure she asked me if I needed anything else at the end of the call, and whether I was satisfied; logging the call in correctly; introducing herself in the beginning and giving me her badge number, etc.

It’s a gloomy, rainy day today so my mind is unhappily wandering over all the dead ends past: trying to change a grocery delivery; troubleshooting complications in my phone line, Cox cable and an electronic dog collar I bought a while ago; adapting a service to new needs or circumstances etc.  Once the scripted instructions or troubleshooting checklists are exhausted, so many of them end up at the same place: nowhere.

--Your problem is beyond the script and options I was given. There is nothing else I can do, sorry.

I don't know about you but to me it seems that I am increasingly encountering these dead ends, when the service provider in essence gives up on the customer. No further suggestions or attempts to identify someone else who can help! No effort or ability to analyze and investigate an issue beyond the limited list of options or diagnostics given! You end such conversations almost feeling inadequate and apologetic. Geeez! Why can’t I have normal problems like the rest of the world?

Yet this is no surprise if you follow the logic of bureaucratic, product- (vs. people-) centered organizations in which “customer service” is defined more in terms of tactics and processes than on the basis of solving a customer’s problem and forging a relationship with him/her.  To me, it is the same absurd logic that equates customer/member engagements with number: e.g. numbers of volunteer activities and events a member participates in. Never mind that a member may participate in a number of your events but turn to a different provider or resource to address the "real" problems that keep him/her awake at night. In a crunch, will this member keep the service that is merely enriching and interesting or the one that is indispensable?   This is why, as I argue in my book (coming out in a few months), product-centered businesses are losing ground to relationship and customer-focused businesses today. They lack the relationship and connection competencies that are required to stay on top of one’s market.  

 Authors Wayland and Cole believe that what it takes to compete today is your ability to “connect” with your customers. According to them customer connection is the ability to run together with your clients rather than after them. This means, understanding where they want to run to and facilitating it.  Connection—the ability to be in sync with your customers’ rhythms, pace, thinking, motivations and direction—is the face of “engagement” today.  It contrasts with engagement as one-way delivery of activities from provider to customer in that is a partnership with a purpose. It involves “the creation and exchange of value as a dynamic, interactive process that takes place among buyers and sellers.”  

“Customer service” that counts is not a “technique” or the result of special training. Yesterday an old-fashioned, seventy-something-year old handyman was working on the bricks of my porch when the water pipe broke. My emergency, that had nothing to do with what he was hired to do, suddenly became his sole focus. He pulled out a deck of well-used, worn business cards he had clearly accumulated and made use of over the years. He went through them carefully and selected a plumber he thought would be able to help me out immediately. He then called this plumber, described the situation, gave him directions to the house and persuaded him to come right away. He was by far the best and least expensive plumber we had ever used.

What I have valued the most in a service is when the sales clerk in the aisle or technician on the phone is committed to getting me the solution I need—not simply perform his/her assigned task. The providers I remember and connect with are the ones who go beyond the question I ask—thinking through an issue with me; anticipating a need; pointing out things I had not considered; and thinking beyond the obvious to help me identify a solution; someone invested in my success rather than their performance evaluations and goes out of her way and beyond standard options to help me get results.

If you want a true customer-focused orientation, invest in relationships rather than products and processes; build relationship-centered cultures and make your customers’ success the sole objective of your business.   But meanwhile, I am still stuck in no man’s land with my online fax-scanner problem

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