Empower The Front Lines (Or Don’t Put Them There)

July 19, 2011

“Sorry, I can’t help you.”

I’ve had two recent customer service experiences where my initial point of contact started very poorly, only to be followed by a senior representative working really hard to try to repair the damage. Why don’t companies do a better job empowering their front lines?

In the first instance, I called the alarm company that monitors my house after another vendor, who installed a system in a friend’s house, offered me a complete upgrade on my equipment and a cheaper monthly monitoring rate. When I called my current provider to make the switch, they asked me to give them a chance to try and match my new offer and asked me to call back with more specifics on the new system I was considering.

I thought it was only fair to give them a shot at keeping my business so I gathered the requested info and called the customer service line a few days later. The rep did her best to try and keep my business, but it quickly became clear that their “deal” didn’t come close to what I was being offered by this other vendor. I proceeded to move forward with terminating my existing account. In the days that followed, I received three more calls from senior company representatives. In the end, they offered me a very comparable package, but at that point, it was too late. I’d made my decision to move on and they lost a client and hundreds of dollars in future revenue. It’s too bad they didn’t put someone on the front lines who could have saved us all some time and kept me a happy customer.

My second recent encounter had a happier ending but again, had me questioning why in the world my initial point of contact didn’t have any power to correct the situation. After ordering some workout DVDs (and admittedly letting a couple of them sit in the box a bit too long before giving them a try), I discovered that one of my discs didn’t work. I knew my 30-day-money-back guarantee had expired, but I called the customer service line assuming they would happily send me a functioning disc. After all, I wasn’t trying to return the DVD, just to get one that actually worked.

After putting me on hold to check her options, the customer service rep returned and informed me that because I was past my 30 days, she couldn’t do anything to help me out. I emphatically stressed that I wasn’t trying to return anything, just get what I paid for. No luck! She stuck to her “Sorry, I can’t help you,” key messages, even after I gave her an earful before furiously hanging up.

Of course, I immediately hopped on my computer trying to decide whether to continue expressing my frustration with the company via a Tweet, Facebook post or product review site. As I dug around a bit, I came across an email address for the company (which wasn’t initially offered up in the main customer service section of the website) and thought I’d start by letting someone else at the company know how disappointed I was that they weren’t standing by their product. I sent my note into the digital abyss with the assumption that it probably wouldn’t get me a working DVD, but it felt good to continue my rant in writing.

To my surprise, within 12 hours, I received both a call and an email from someone in customer service apologizing and informing me that my new DVD was on its way. That’s all I wanted in the first place! Why in the world couldn’t the first person I talked to have the authorization to do that same thing?

Smart marketers invest a lot of time and energy fostering positive Word-of-Mouth Marketing (WOMM). I recognize that the customer service function, especially for call centers, often gets farmed out to kids fresh out of school or even to folks residing in another country but it baffles me that some brands don’t see it as a priority to empower those on the front lines.

In an era where disgruntled customers like myself quickly take to the Internet to express their frustrations, or perhaps just vent to the ladies at the next happy hour, it seems more important than ever to ensure every point of contact with a customer is a positive one.

Have any similar customer service experiences lately or is it just me?