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Penny Wise and Dollar Foolish

Customer Service Failure Exists in Both Big and Small Ways 

After moving from one town to another, I continued working with my long-time business accountant. Though most of our interactions occurred over the phone and through email, I persisted in making an hour-long trek to his office each tax season.

This was in part because of loyalty, but also my enjoyment in working with him. Another issue was inertia. Would searching for and finding a local replacement be an arduous task? Would the results be better or worse than my current situation?

Assets

On the plus side, my accountant was always available to answer my questions without charging me. I liked him as a person, identified with him as a business owner, and respected him as an accountant. Over the years, we had gotten to know each other, approaching a basic friendship.

Liabilities

The negative side of the ledger contained a few items as well. Besides handling my annual corporate and personal tax returns, one of my accountant’s associates also processed my payroll. Though my requirements were as simple as possible, my needs sometimes caused my assigned contact to stumble. 

I’d catch her errors. She’d apologize and correct them. But it’s worrisome when the untrained person who doesn’t do payroll uncovers a mistake made by the trained professional who does. These problems occurred each time a new person began working on my account, which happened every few years. Occasional issues popped up in between. If I changed firms, would my new selection be better or worse?

The second frustration, although trivial, caused more irritation. As companies migrated to emailing invoices and statements, my accounting firm persisted in mailing them. As the number of mailed invoices decreased, I ended up with only two folders in my accounts receivable file. One was for my accountant and the other for the United States Postal Service, which has an understandable interest in persisting to mail documents. 

If my accountant missed this simple business trend, were there other things he was out of touch with too? This question gnawed at me, reinforced by each quarter’s mailed invoice.

The third and most trivial issue shouldn’t be worthy of mention, but I couldn’t let it go. Each year, after completing my tax return, I’d receive a call from his office to come and pick up my forms and records. If I wanted them mailed, there was an additional charge—first six dollars and later ten. 

Though my accountant said he would mail it at no cost, this information never made it to his frontline people. Each year when I complained about the fee, they’d sigh and place me on hold to confer with him. They’d return to the phone sometime later to confirm they would waive the charge. This came forth as a resigned concession, as if I were taking money out of their own pocket. Never once was there an apology. Never did they show respect for me as their customer.

After a few years of this, I grew tired of asking and paid the fee, albeit with growing disdain. 

Since I was driving an hour to see them and an hour back home just to continue using their services, I felt the least they could do was mail my paperwork to me at no cost. They could have even padded my bill by ten dollars, and I wouldn’t have cared. But to announce the cost with a separate line item every year rumbled in my gut.

I paid them well over $1,000 each year. Charging me $10 to use their services was an insult. As I considered the rates I paid, I often wondered if they were competitive.

Restore the Balance

After six years of this long-distance accounting arrangement, it was time to change, to find a local provider, regardless of how difficult the transition might be. Turns out it was quite simple. My daughter-in-law recommended the firm she used for her business. Though her line of work is quite different from mine, our accounting needs are identical.

Based on her recommendation, I interviewed her CPA and hired him. Currently, he handles my taxes, and a junior CPA in his firm does my payroll. I’ve never questioned her work, and, as a bonus, she’s easier to work with and provides a higher level of service than my prior accountant’s associates.

The overall service level with my new accountant is higher, and the rates are lower. And there are no more mailing charges to irk me. Though my former accountant may have had a business reason to bill and track mailing fees as a separate line item, it served as an irritant that drove me away. 

Customer Service Success Tip

Search for business practices that might make sense from your standpoint but alienate customers. Eliminate those items to better keep their business. You’ll come out ahead in the end.

Read more in Peter’s new book, Sticky Customer Service, to uncover helpful customer service tips, encouraging you to do better and celebrating what you do best.