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Pardon my little rip-off and twist of James Carville’s famous quote during the 1992 presidential race. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that the so-called customer service revolution is one big fat splat.

Item: With great fanfare, in 2000 JetBlue introduces itself to the world with the promise of “customer service like you’ve never seen before.” They were right. Those passengers on multiple flights stranded (abandoned?) on taxiways for up to nine hours had certainly never seen customer service like that before.

Item: After flying cross-country and arriving at my the Residence Inn in Orlando at 1:15 am, I’m unceremoniously “walked” because there’s no room left in the inn. Apparently, “guaranteed reservation” has a different definition for hotels than for we customers. When I complained to the general manager the next day, her response was, “But we found you a room, right?”

Item: After losing my luggage for two days, Alaska Airlines happily offered $25 to offset the $800 I spent on purchasing new clothes for work. My wife, Kay, worked them over until they relented and gave us $150. (That was EIGHT weeks ago and I still haven’t seen the check, though.)

Item: Kay called Alaska Airlines yesterday to make a simple change in one of my reservations, only to be put on hold to the cheerful message, “Your call is very important us, so please stay on the line and the next agent will be with you in 23 minutes.”

The blogosphere is inundated with similar stories:

Seth Godin’s Shutting Down Interest

The Viral Garden

HeeHaw Marketing’s Hurricane Kohls

I could go on and on, and the fact is so could you. We all have stupid customer service stories ranging from the small (“I’m sorry, this isn’t my table.”) to the hair-pulling unbelievable (“No, you can’t plug your own lights in during setup at this trade show. You have to hire two union workers to do that.”). 

For many years there’s been an assumption there are three areas of product and service competition – quality, price, and service. It was more or less a given that it wasn’t possible to be the best at all three. You could only be the best at two. For example, if you wanted to have high quality, you could probably have a high level of service, but not low prices. Think Ritz-Carlton and Tiffany.

Technology and history has changed that to a certain extent. Technology has enabled companies to produce higher quality products at much more affordable prices. Even the lowest price cars have a much higher expectation of quality than they did just a few years ago. Technology is making everything a commodity.

In addition, companies (in particular, retailers) have taught us to wait for sales. Only idiots pay full retail! So now we wait the inevitable sale to get that cool HDTV flat-screen at Best Buy or new towels at Macy’s. Just wait for the half-yearly sale…and the Presidents Day sale…and the holiday sale…and the Columbus Day sale…

But, despite a lot of lip service and only a few notable exceptions (see my blog posts Mosquitos & Butterflies and What Makes a Great Hotel?), customer service isn’t living up to its name. Frequent flyer programs are more like frequent prisoner programs. The airline owns you, because you know you have to focus on one to pile up the miles. But when you try to use those miles? Ha! And do they give you a great experience? Double HA!

Newspapers and magazines have field days doing stories about how we can no longer talk with a human being when we call for customer support. Stories abound with us getting trapped in “Press 1 if you want to order a product. Press 2 is you want to order another product. Press 3 if you’d like to give us more money. Press 4 if you plan to include us in your will. Press 5 if you want to start over.” Or if we do get a human, it’s a given they’re somewhere in New Delhi. My 85-year-old mother tried to resolve a billing glitch with Macy’s department store and was connected to a woman in India. Mom couldn’t understand her, so she asked if I would do the talking. I explained that Mom couldn’t understand her and the “customer service” agent became extremely offended and angry, and hung up on me.

We ALL talk about this. We ALL share stories of incredible customer service stupidity. But of course, none of US are guilty of any transgressions. It’s like the news story I saw recently where people were asked about driving habits. When asked what percentage of OTHER people are bad drivers, the survey respondents said 78%. But when asked if THEY were bad drivers only 26% said they were. It’s always the other guy. 

That’s why I call my marketing blog, Two Hat Marketing. We wear one type of hat when we’re doing the marketing and another when we’re the customer.

For example, at the office we decide to do a direct mail campaign. We think, “Let’s rent a list of 5000 names and get mailing labels. We’ll design a self-mailer, slap those labels on, and send them via bulk mail. That’s really smart because we’re hitting 5000 people and doing it as cheaply as possible.”
Then we leave the office, go home and grab our own mail. We stand over the trashcan flipping through each piece. What’s this? Hmmm, some kind of self-mailer. It’s got my name and address on a label that’s been stuck on and there’s a bulk mail stamp in the corner. JUNK MAIL!

I digress a bit. I was talking about customer service, wasn’t I? Of course, customer service IS marketing and every contact with the customer is marketing. If we’re going to be successful and stay successful, we need to take off our corporate hat and wear the customer hat.

I’ve got a great new idea for how to wear that customer hat and take really good care of those people who are truly responsible for our paychecks. How about this:

Let’s do what we promised them we were going to do AND
don’t promise any more than we can do!

Think about it. This goes against everything we’ve learned from a lot of best-selling consultants. For years we’ve heard “Promise them a lot and then deliver more!”

Well, guess what? It ain’t working! Companies keep promising more and more, and delivering less and less. Does this make sense? Customers hate that! YOU hate that when you wear the customer hat!

Like I said, stupid customer stories abound. Not “stupid customer” stories, “stupid” customer stories. One of my own favorite stories didn’t happen to me, but I witnessed it. Several years ago I stood in line at the O’Hare Hertz rental car counter. The women in front of me was obviously exasperated with the counter agent. The customer kept showing her reservation printout. The agent kept insisting there was no such reservation and had no intention of helping this woman get a car. After several minutes of back-and-forth, the customer lowered her voice, looked at the agent and said, “Let’s make sure we understand each other. YOU are overhead. I am profit!” Classic.

Promise them less, and then deliver more. It’s in my Unfinished Manifesto Part 2, but I had to expand. That’s easier, isn’t it? And then you don’t have PO’ed customers. How hard would it have been for the Hertz agent to just get the woman a car?

I think we could start a new movement.