The Curmudgeon’s Customer-Service Debacle

I may be the Email Curmudgeon, but today’s column doesn’t have much to do with email. I have to get this off my chest, though, so if you would, indulge me this…

The curmudgeon met his match in a customer-service debacle recently and wants to share his experiences with you. It seems that some large banking institutions are still in the 19th century when it comes to dealing with their customers.

It is imperative to have a reasonable customer service system that works, but even better is a system that helps customers get out of trouble when they put themselves in an awkward situation. It is especially important that when a customer attempts to fix his mistake, customer service is there to help out. That’s why it is called customer service, isn’t it?

The Sad Saga

Here’s the story. The curmudgeon wanted to open a retirement account for himself and his beloved curmudgeoness to squirrel away some funds during the 2000 tax year and get a decent tax break. Unlike in previous years, the account was opened early in 2000 rather than a few days before the tax deadline.

The curmudgeon decided to help his own cause and review the goodies that his bank made available online for opening investment and brokerage accounts. After reviewing the options, he decided to play it a bit risky (remember, it was 2000) and ordered application materials for an investment account that allowed him to invest in mutual funds and equities (common stocks). The forms had to be filled out and signed by hand, and there was a handy form to get these sent to him. The curmudgeon started typing furiously, and soon his package came in the mail. Oh joy! No more banks or waiting in line to see a representative. Power to the people!

The form was filled out neatly and sent away, and the account was opened. Money started flowing, shares were bought. Interestingly enough, receipts starting coming in for only one account, although it appeared to the curmudgeon that when the application was complete, he and his curmudgeoness were to each have an account. Two receipts were expected, not one. So comes the first interaction with Curmudgeon’s Bank by phone. The curmudgeon is assured that the account is properly set up for him and his curmudgeoness. Nothing to worry about. “Will I be getting the appropriate receipts at the end of the year?” asks the curmudgeon. “Of course,” comes the assurance. No name or date and time is recorded; maybe it’s late summertime.

Two more calls are made to inquire about the account, as the curmudgeon is afraid that the money has been accruing in one account, not two as he had been assured. As tax time arrives, lo and behold, the curmudgeon’s tax accountant informs him that there is only one account and it is not properly set up, but surely Curmudgeon’s Bank can fix this problem by issuing an amended receipt.

No such luck! Nothing works. Curmudgeon and tax accountant plead to senior supervisors. Teeth are gnashed, but nothing works. The curmudgeon has to take a tax penalty.

Oh, and what about the recorded conversations he had in late summer? “Do you have the date and time and who you talked with?” inquires the Bank. “No, I don’t remember, I thought everything was fine,” responds the curmudgeon. And he adds, “Don’t you have a record of me calling in? I gave you my account number each time. Don’t you have a system to record these things?” The reply is inadequate: “We only record conversations on buying or selling of shares, not on customer service calls.”

Woe unto the curmudgeon; technology has failed him again. He wails, “You guys misled me into believing everything was cool. I would have fixed my mistake much before the tax deadline, but I listened to your inexperienced, undertrained minions. I am taking my business elsewhere next year.”

The Lesson Learned

The lesson to take away from this week’s column is that even with all the 21st century technology that exists out there, companies must not take for granted customer service basics, such as training, the use of systems, and timely response. Whether marketing offline or online, the rules are the same, and online systems are not exempt from testing. You must carry over common tasks from the offline experience, transition them properly to an online experience, and test, test, test. Take nothing for granted. We aren’t talking brochureware anymore, are we?

Customer service is not just a cost of doing business. It should set your business apart. Listen to your customers, record their interactions, and make sure your systems are auditable and reviewed on a regular basis, so mistakes like the one described don’t happen. Your customers shouldn’t fall through the cracks just because they encountered some wrong information. Customer service extends to your Web presence and all your communications.

If I need to fill out two forms to order two accounts, tell me that I need one form for each account and let me select the number of forms I need. Don’t just take my name and phone and “get back to me on that.” Give me service, damn it.

OK, I feel much better now. Really I do. Do you?

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