Saturday, February 21, 2009

Apple of my eye

Regular readers of this blog definitely know two things about me: I'm a stickler when it comes to customer service and I really, really do not adapt well to change. Those two things have successfully kept me from buying a desperately needed new computer for writing for over a year now. Every time I walked into a store, I was slammed by the reality that once I bought something new I'd actually have to learn how to use it. Add in the sales clerks who didn't seem capable of speaking plain "computer for dummies," and I was right back out the door.

However, last weekend both my email computer and my work computer -- don't even ask --started doing enough weird stuff that I decided I really needed to bite the bullet and go shopping. And since I already more or less knew what was out there in the Windows world, I decided to try an Apple Store for comparison. Oh, my!!!! To the astonishment of the brave friend who went with me, I actually left with a new system...and in a cheerful frame of mind...all in about an hour.

Now keep in mind that I haven't actually turned the computer on yet. I could be screaming my head off by this time next week, but I have survived the intimidation and annoyance phase of the process thanks to a store that actually knows how to treat its customers. Hallelujah!

From the moment I walked into the spacious, bright Apple Store at Aventura Mall in Miami, I knew I was in a new computer world. Greeted by what they referred to as a concierge, I was quickly introduced to a sales person who wanted to know exactly what I needed, then walked me through the process of using an Apple to accomplish that. Danny -- a saint in my book -- talked in plain English and never once implied that I wasn't the brightest bulb on the planet because I didn't have a clue about much of anything technical. Sure, he showed me applications I'll never in a million years need or use, but they were very cool. And for a minute there I honestly thought I could figure out how to use them.

He also pointed out their Genius Desk, which can problem-solve on-site. He told me the Apple tech consultants on the phone are here in the U.S. Both were very reassuring things for someone like me who may need a lot of help when I actually turn this new computer on.

And once I'd made my laptop selection, added in the wireless mouse and keyboard, one of the store managers -- Liz -- brought out the computer, introduced herself and told me to please call if there was anything at all I needed.

The entire experience was amazing, and a bit surreal compared to prior experiences in other stores. As a testament to the fact that this kind of customer service works, the store was packed on a weekday afternoon despite the state of the economy.

Sometime in the next week or so I will actually turn on the computer and install the word processing program and attempt to write something. I have high hopes. But even if something goes awry and I can't figure out what I'm doing, not only do I have other staunch Apple converts among my friends, but Apple geniuses besides! Oh happy day!

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Customer service? What's that?

Remember way back when the philosophy of any business -- at least any that wanted to stay in business -- was that the customer is always right? Boy oh boy, are those days gone! And sadly, these are exactly the times that call for improved customer service, when every single customer really counts and can potentially make the difference between keeping the doors open and bankruptcy. Wouldn't you think someone would have mentioned that to store managers? Apparently not.

Yesterday I made a trek to a store, which shall remain nameless mainly because this could have happened in any store, and all stores should take note. I had a list, which is rare enough for me. After accumulating all but two things on my list, I headed for check out. There were maybe four lines open, so I got behind a young couple in one of them and waited to begin putting my items on the conveyor.

As the clerk finished up with the couple, I started unloading my cart. The clerk turned off her register and announced she was leaving. For about ten seconds I just stared at her, then announced that I was leaving, too, and walked out leaving probably $50-75 worth of merchandise sitting there...some on the conveyor belt, some in the cart.

Now that's not a huge sale. It may not hurt their bottom line. But it also will cost employee time to restock all those items. And, the part the manager may never know about is that I am now planning to sell my stock in that particular company, because I have had one too many similar experiences in that exact same store. Ironically just the day before I had told my broker not to sell, despite their recommendation. Today, I've changed my mind. That's why customer service to each and every person who walks through the door is critical. The clerk and manager can't possibly know the ripple effect that one careless action may have.

It's not that I'll sell my stock and the next person might not own stock. That next customer may have friends who shop there and will spread the word about how they were treated. Pretty soon not just one, but dozens of people stop coming. And management at the national level will start wondering why same store sales are declining in that location. In these tough economic times, there's not a store of any kind that can afford to lose even one customer, especially one who spends as much as I do there over the course of a year.

So, take heed. As a customer, don't just grin and bear it when service is rude or non-existent. Take your business elsewhere. There are plenty of other places to buy almost everything, places where the managers and clerks know that without you their jobs are on the line, places where you will be treated with courtesy and respect.

Managers, you need to take heed as well. Corporate culture starts with you. If you insist on good customer service, that message will filter down and be carried out. Jobs these days are too scarce and good people who need them too plentiful to tolerate anything less than outstanding treatment of every customer who walks in the door.

My very favorite customer service story happened years ago to a friend of mine who was shopping for shoes at Nordstrom. I'd been waiting for her in the mall and decided to wander inside, where I found her walking around in the shoe department while frantic employees hunted for her shoe. She'd taken it off to try on a sample shoe and some zealous employee had dutifully picked it up and taken it . . . somewhere. It couldn't be found. The manager arrived in the midst of the hunt, was told the situation, and said without hesitation, "Give her a pair of shoes." Now that is good customer service. Nordstrom is known for it. Every other store should be as well. As a postscript to that story, my friend's shoe was finally found later that night and returned the next day. She got to keep the new shoes!

Sherryl Woods

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Handling frustration with a smile

Years ago my southern mother tried diligently to drill into my head that I could catch more flies with honey than I could with vinegar. At the time I never quite understood why anyone would want to catch flies in the first place, but eventually I figured out this had to do with an overall approach to life. Basically, you get more when you're nice.

However, it is not always easy to be sweet in the midst of a frustrating battle with some anonymous bureaucrat who's being guided by a rulebook and lacks any semblance of common sense or the ability to actually resolve your problem. You know those people. You've probably talked to them on the phone more times than you can count. Maybe even yelled at them, despite the fact that deep down you know perfectly well that they didn't actually cause the problem.

Because this kind of thing happens way too often, I mentioned it to a friend recently, someone whose career specialty has been conflict resolution. I figured she'd know exactly how to handle these frustrating conversations. Alas, Sara had her own tale to tell, though she did ultimately offer a few tips. Here's what she wrote for me:

One day last week, I caught myself yelling over the phone. Not speaking loudly, or emphatically--yelling! I was talking to a representative from the insurance company that sells the policy I buy to supplement Medicare. I'm sure that the person I was talking to must have been thinking, I'm not paid enough to put up with this----stuff.

I was trying to deal with a recurring problem: I got a bill from my doctor for a certain test which she ordered for me. Both she and I thought that the treatment was covered. I checked my insurance booklet: it stated very clearly that this procedure is covered by my insurance.

When this sort of thing occurs, the payments in question are not chicken feed: this time I was being billed for $97, an amount I won't pay without a fight. But the phone representative continued to tell me that I was liable for that bill, eventually saying that my insurance coverage was not in effect at the time I had the test.

I'm not very proud of myself for yelling at the phone representative of the insurance company. I realize that it is likely that he did not make the rules, and doesn't have much discretion about how to enforce the rules. But he was on the other end of the line, I was very upset, and so I yelled at him.

This is a fairly frequent occurrence, and you'd think that I would know by now, my yelling does not solve the problem. And then, I have a Ph.D. in Communication and I specialized in communication and conflict for many many years. No excuse for my behavior! But knowing, in theory, how to best solve conflicts does not assure acting appropriately when I am confronted with a bill which I don't think is fair.

Once I had calmed down, and the insurance rep calmed down, he looked at my records and said the my coverage was in effect at the time of the test, and that I was not responsible for the bill of $97.

After hanging up, I did what communication scholars call retrospective sense making. I started to analyze why that phone call was so upsetting to me. And while the insurance company's error was annoying, some of the problem was of my own making. I spoke to the insurance representative as if he was the problem, and of course, that is not the case. The billing error was the problem. I might have avoided some aggravation by getting him to help me solve the problem, instead of acting like he was the adversary.

Secondly, by raising my voice to a very loud level, I was communicating anger and disrespect toward the insurance representative. No surprise that he responded in a defensive manner that seemed to be focused on protecting himself rather than solving my problem. I should have taken a deep breath and paused for a moment -- listening to my internal voice that tells me I am getting angry and therefore less thoughtful.

In a calmer frame of mind, I would have used language less likely to provoke hostility. Instead, my words had been accusing, controlling and certain of the rightness of my position and the superiority of my viewpoint.

I know better than to act this way! I know that describing a problem in a way that suggests that we are on equal footing and that it's possible that I might be in the wrong will convey my desire to solve the problem rather than to attack the person.

This scenario will be repeated. The incredible intricacies of dealing with healthcare make misunderstanding and errors inevitable. But perhaps next time I get billed in error, I can at least avoid escalating the problem by treating it as a problem, and not the fault of the person at the other end of the phone line. I can calm my anger and monitor my language so that I show as much respect for the insurance phone representative as I want him to show me. And if I achieve nothing else, I will at least preserve my own health by not letting a billing error give me high blood pressure!

I have to say after reading Sara's story and knowing her level of expertise I felt a whole lot better about my own lapses. On more than one occasion I've heard the outrage in my voice and taken a moment to calm down, take a deep breath, and then say something like, "I know this is not your fault, but I am so frustrated." It acknowledges that I'm angry, justifiably or not, and makes the person on the other end of the line more likely to want to help solve the problem. It's amazing how well this tactic has worked...when I manage to calm down enough to try it. One catalog company representative gave me a nice discount on my next purchase after acknowledging how irritating their particular customer service system was.

So, it looks as if Sara and my mother might be right...honey just may catch more flies than vinegar.

If you've bumped up against these frustrating walls with insurance companies, customer service reps or anyone else, let us know what's worked for you.

Sherryl Woods

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