A Professional Complainer Tells All

I am a professional complainer. I complain for other people about products, services and companies that don’t perform as promised. In short, I am Rent-A-Kvetch literally.

You name it, I have been paid to complain about it. And therefore, I am intimately acquainted with the customer service policies of companies large, small and multi-national. And let me tell you .do they need work!

What I do for a living is web site development and marketing. But my hobby, for the past 20 years, has been running a quirky but successful consumer complaint handling service. I have helped consumers resolve complaints about everything: from tootsie-free tootsie roll pops to major appliances, from surly landlords to lemon automobiles.

So I know, up close and first-hand, what is wrong with customer service today. In a word plenty!

If you make customer service the absolute core of your online business, you will never have to worry about losing business to bricks-and-mortar stores. In fact, the Internet offers businesses a real advantage over the bricks-and-mortar brethren, from a customer service perspective. Since so much of an online business can be automated, online shopkeepers can concentrate on what is really important — making customers happy so they will come back.

Of course, that’s only true when it’s done right.

And as Rent-A-Kvetch, I see it all. I am a cross between a shrink and a lawyer. The first thing I do is listen. Then I tell you how sorry I am that this has happened to you. Then (and this is the truly fun part), I try to fix it. It’s not a magic formula but nevertheless, it’s the three keys to customer service. In the process of complaining for so many consumers, it has become abundantly clear to me what customers really want.

At the point when consumers approach me with a problem, they have usually tried to solve the issue on their own. And in return, they have encountered poorly trained, unhelpful or customer non-service representatives. They’ve been put on hold forever or caught in voice mail hell, never given the option of speaking to a human being.

They’ve been treated rudely, even yelled at, subjected to indignities that no paying customer should ever endure. And they look to me as someone who will help them. (Gee, wasn’t that what customer service was supposed to be for?)

In my experience with thousands of consumers and hundreds of companies, I find that what people want most is to hear: “I’m sorry that happened to you. Now let’s see what we can do to resolve the problem.”

A recent article on the front of the New York Times business section underscored the sad fact that customer service is increasingly the victim of budget cuts and consolidation. It talked up clerks in stores who don’t know the difference between one model of a product and the next. And it told of customers becoming so frustrated with clerks and customer service reps that they stormed out of stores vowing never to darken the door again.

The Times pointed up a truly customer-focused business: One where the customer really is king, where all employees who deal with the public receive over 150 hours of training a year, where all employees are empowered to handle customer requests, questions and problems themselves. No need to get a manager and 43 supervisors involved while a customer steams.

Let me give you an example from Rent-A-Kvetch’s recent cases. Last August, a woman from New Jersey called to complain about a Maytag refrigerator that had failed three times in less than a year. Apparently the Maytag repairman in her area isn’t lonely, because he couldn’t make the time to fix the problem.

Exasperated, she called Maytag customer service. After demanding to speak to the supervisor of three completely indifferent people, she reached a woman named Barbara who refused to give her last name. Now I ask you why would someone refuse to offer a last name to a customer? Barbara told my client, who was now demanding to speak to the president of Maytag, that Maytag does not give out the president’s name. In fact, Barbara was “as high up in this company as you can go.”

That’s when I got the call. I went online, discovered the name and address of the president, and FedExed him a complaint letter. Within 24 hours, an apologetic assistant to the president was calling my client to arrange to replace the lemon refrigerator.

If someone at a much lower level had been even courteous, none of this would have been necessary. But the lower-level individual never had any real training in how to handle an irate customer.

Fundamentally, a company that hears a customer complaint is lucky. Because one unhappy customer will tell 10 of his or her friends, who will tell 10 of their friends, and so on until the problem with one unhappy customer has increased exponentially.

And more often than not, the customer is so disgusted and so sure nobody will help solve his or her problem, that he never tells the company about it. Those companies that go out of their way to help a customer resolve a complaint will find that a good result will multiply exponentially just as fast.

The point is that the Internet offers companies the opportunity never to have unhappy customers. With much of the selling operation automated, you have plenty of time to concentrate on what really will give you an edge. Now, more than ever, that edge is customer service.

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