Business Articles

The Trials and Triumphs of Telephone Support

Phone Interactions Can Save or Ruin Your Business

A lot of customer service occurs over the telephone. This growing trend leaves me concerned about some things and excited about others.

A Shortsighted Attitude

On the negative side, consider a large telecommunications company that provides cell phone, internet, and long distance. Or a large national banking institution. You’ve heard of them both. And they’re notorious for their abysmal record of poor customer service. 

If I shared their names, there’s a good chance you or someone you know has had an unpleasant experience with them. To call it unpleasant is kind. Uncaring, unconscionable, and unethical are more accurate characterizations.

With these companies, once a nontypical problem occurs, there’s a strong likelihood they’ll never resolve it. This isn’t an overstatement. People have only so much patience. Then they give up. Excessive runaround, time spent on hold, and limited energy to pursue a satisfactory resolution end up overwhelming frustrated customers. They accept the problem or switch providers.

Although some of these companies’ frontline staff care and try their best, too many do not. Regardless, there seems to be cumbersome bureaucracy thwarting every move and complex support systems that make no allowances for nonroutine problems.

A Solution for Success

There’s an opportunity awaiting these two companies—and others like them—if they can just provide effective telephone customer service. With best-in-class phone support, their cancellation rates would plummet, and customer satisfaction levels would skyrocket. They’d receive a lot less negative press.

Are these companies simply too big or do they offer too many services to be effective? Are their help desks mismanaged, bogged down by bureaucracy, or smothered with complexity? 

I suspect the underlying reason is that upper management treats support as an expense to minimize. But exemplary customer service is good business. Investing in customer support is an investment in your future.

A Positive Outcome

I experienced the trials and triumphs of phone support after my house took a minor lightning strike. The surge affected our phone, internet, and entertainment services. I called my satellite provider and spoke with Beth in the Oklahoma call center. This was the first time I encountered a call center agent telling me her location. It seemed hokey and an overreaction to the backlash against offshore call centers, but it helped me establish a personal connection with Beth from Oklahoma. 

While waiting for various diagnostics to run, we had time to chat, which I enjoyed and found preferable to sitting in silence on hold. She soon scheduled a service call for the next day. The technician fixed the problem fast and restored service.

I wish I could say the same for my phone and internet service providers. They both required multiple phone calls. Then there were the missed commitments, wrong instructions, and conflicting information. 

That’s no way to run a business.

Customer Service Success Tip

Listen to what customers say about your service. Then do one thing to improve it. Once complete, fix the next item on the list.

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.

Business Articles

Consistency Matters Most

Tell Your Customers What to Expect and Deliver it Every Time

Moving required finding a new place to service my car. A well-maintained auto repair business sat just down the street from our home, less than half a mile away. A neighbor, though he had never gone there, said they had a reputation for providing great service.

An Unexpected Twist

Before I could try them, however, another garage in the area mailed me a welcome-to-the-neighborhood coupon for a free oil change. This was a brilliant marketing move on their part. I figured I’d use the coupon and then try out the closer business, hopeful for them to become my provider of preference.

Though the second facility wasn’t as near, they were still only a couple miles away. They, too, had a nice facility—newer, larger, and more impressive than the one down the street.

I called for my free oil change, and everything proceeded as expected. New filter, fresh oil, and no bill. As a bonus, they performed a courtesy check of my car and offered a few suggestions for recommended maintenance. Their explanation of the additional work sounded reasonable. 

I later dropped my car off for part two. It cost me a couple hundred dollars this time, but I accepted it as normal for an aging car.

They impressed me with how they integrated technology into their operation, not only to service my car but also to interact with me. Despite having paid them over $200 for what I had planned to be a free oil change, I left pleased with their service and the outcome. In short, they delighted me.

Inconsistent Service

When our other car needed work, it was easy to return there—albeit not as convenient as going down the street. Again, they did their work as promised and met my expectations. Again, they had a list—this time longer—of additional work that they deemed urgent. This time the estimate was much higher. The explanation seemed less convincing. I walked away, not as happy, with the bill of several hundred dollars and only half the recommended work done.

Yet I returned the next time I had an auto-repair need.

They allowed me to schedule my appointments online, an option I appreciated given that I seldom remember to make my car repair appointments during business hours. Each time I booked my appointment, they asked for my preferred contact method: phone, text message, or email.

The first time I selected text message, but they called me instead. I figured it was an error on their part and overlooked it—mostly. From then on, I always selected email, but they persisted in calling. Once, when I didn’t answer, they followed up with a text. Never once did they email me as requested.

Another time I dropped my car off for repair and, not needing it back for at least a month (and causing me to wonder if my family really needed a second car), I told them there was no rush. “Just email me when you’re finished.”

A week went by and then two with no email (or phone call or text). Then a third week with no communication. Then a tersely worded letter arrived. If I didn’t pick up my car within 24 hours, they would charge me for storage. I went in, paid my bill, and retrieved my car. 

I asked why they never contacted me about the completed repair. Their aloof customer service person offered no explanation, only a shoulder shrug.

I grew tired of going there. My first concern was that they always found something else to do. Too often I questioned the validity of their recommendations. Though they delighted me at first, they never repeated that feat. Instead, they provided mediocre service. This produced disappointment, such as not calling me in the manner requested or threatening to charge me to store the car I didn’t know was ready for pickup.

Aside from aggressive recommendations for additional work on my cars, their actual repairs were good. But the inconsistent nature of our interactions led me to seek a different alternative. Not knowing what to expect each time I interacted with them led me to disappointment most of the time. I knew they could delight me because they did once. Why couldn’t they accomplish that every time?

I gave up on them and, after much too long, contacted the garage down the street for my next oil change.

Consistent Service

Upon arriving, the customer service manager greeted me with an engaging smile. She entered my information in the computer and made my appointment. I dropped the car off as planned, picked it up when promised, and paid the bill I expected. 

Though nothing was exceptional with our interaction, it was decidedly better than average. After my recent experiences with the other garage, above average excited me. I returned. Again and again. 

Every time I had an above average experience. Each time I looked forward to my next visit. They were that good. They provided me with consistently above average interactions. I appreciated knowing what to expect and receiving it every time.

Their predictable service pleased me. They didn’t delight me just once and then disappoint. They thrilled me on every visit.

I still take my vehicles there. I know that each time I take my car in I’ll receive quality work, a fair bill with no surprises, and reasonable recommendations for possible additional work. I rate my interaction with them as consistently above average—and that’s high praise. 

I don’t recall another auto repair facility ever being this predictable. With certainty, none were consistently above average. Even a garage consistently average would surpass most of my combined experiences at other service facilities, where they seldom followed one good encounter with a second. 

Too often my auto-repair experiences were like a roller coaster: up and down. I never knew what to expect. And unlike roller coasters where surprises thrill riders, being surprised doesn’t bode well for car repair.

Consistency is the key for ongoing success. This will earn you repeat business, time after time, year after year.

Customer Service Success Tip

Before you strive to improve your customer service, first aim to be consistent. This means uncovering the experiences that disappoint and eliminating them. Continue to address the low outliers to increase consistency in the remaining interactions.

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.

Business Articles

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?


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.


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.

Business Articles

Customer Rip-Offs

Make Sure Your Objectives Align with Your Practices

To avoid the huge depreciation loss that all new cars undergo, I buy used. However, there was a season when I bought new. This story is about one of those times. 

Although it wasn’t my practice to go to the dealer for maintenance, my new car changed that habit. There was warranty work and the enticement of coupons for low-cost oil changes.

Soon my default destination for auto service changed. It was smart marketing on their part. When the discounts stopped, I still returned to them for service. Too bad their later actions drove me away.

An Expensive Oil Change

It was time for my regular service, and I had a list of other things needing attention. Since I’m not a mechanic, I tried not to tell them what work to do. Instead, I informed them of symptoms. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t ask and pay for a tune-up when the problem may have been a loose vacuum hose. It only took one passive-aggressive mechanic to do what I suggested—while ignoring the real problem—to make me change my approach.

When I dropped off my car, I said, “It’s time for an oil change. Also, it pulls to the right, and it starts hard and runs rough.” I left expecting they would change the oil, do a front-end alignment, and give my car a tune-up. Based on their posted pricing, I estimated the cost would be $100.

When I picked up my car, they presented me with a $175 bill. As I read the paperwork, my mild surprise changed to anger. 

Change oil: Oil, lube, filter, labor: $24.95.

Car pulls to right: Test drove car; recommend front-end alignment: $19.95.

Hard to start: Instruct driver not to press gas pedal while starting vehicle: $56.00.

Runs rough: Perform engine analysis; checks okay; do tune-up in 3,000 miles: $75.00.

For $175, I had my oil changed and received some costly advice. My complaints to the service manager accomplished nothing, so I left and never returned. Once again, my local mechanic, whom I trust to do quality work and charge fair prices, is servicing my cars.

Like many businesses, car dealers measure the work their employees do. Garages monitor mechanics to make sure they’re productive throughout the day, document and bill for all their work, and complete repairs within the standard time allotment. Mechanics who meet expectations receive raises and promotions. Mechanics who don’t, even when it’s in the customer’s best interest, earn poor reviews and lower raises. Or they’re fired. 

Some garages pay their mechanics based on billable work. Therefore, the more they bill, the more they make. I’ve been to those places too. At one shop specializing in foreign car repair, it seemed every bill was always around $500—sometimes more. They weren’t in business long.

Other people also bill by time. Lawyers and accountants come to mind. A lawyer once told me to never use an attorney trying to make partner. To get the partners’ attention, they must log over 2,000 billable hours a year, and their clients pay the price.

A Costly Failure

I once called my CPA’s office to discuss converting my IRA to a Roth IRA. I talked with the junior member they’d assigned to me, asking if there were any other tax ramifications I should know about. She said there weren’t and offered to do an analysis for me. 

“That’s not necessary,” I replied. “You confirmed what I needed.” 

“But we just got this new program that I want to try out,” she begged. “Will you let me run an analysis?” Assuming I was doing her a favor, I consented. The call took less than a minute. A few days later, I received a one-page spreadsheet confirming I should switch to a Roth IRA, along with a bill for $100. 

The managing partner agreed the charge was unwarranted, but insisted I pay it anyway. He promised to make it up to me later. 

I found a different tax advisor.

An Inflated Bill

Though people don’t have their TVs repaired anymore, this wasn’t always the case. Long ago a friend landed a summer job repairing televisions. He earned 20 percent of whatever he billed. An enterprising guy, he analyzed the rate chart and determined how to add $35 to each bill—for which he’d earn $7—for only a minute and a half of additional work. 

He would take the back off the unit and hit it with a burst of compressed air, charging $8.00 to “clean chassis.” Next, he would squirt the tuner with cleaning spray, charging $10.50 to “lubricate tuner.” Then he would turn on the set. If the filaments of the vacuum tubes glowed, he would bill $16.50 to “check all vacuum tubes.” With $35 of basic tasks completed, he would then repair the problem, adding even more to the bill. 

He earned a lot of money that summer.

Measuring Business Success

There’s an old business saying (of disputed origin), that “What gets measured gets done.” Some have tacked on a follow-up adage that “What gets paid for gets done better.”

Consider what you measure in your business and how you compensate your staff. The goal is to improve your operation. This could be to pursue greater efficiency, increase production, decrease costs, or maximize revenue. 

Consider the consequences with care. 

Attempting to please you, maximize their rating, or earn a raise, employees may do things that drive away customers, lower quality, or hurt your business. This is the wrong outcome.

If you monitor productivity, do your staff members alter their work habits to appear more productive? Do staff assume they need to work faster, setting aside quality? If your customer service staff, programmers, or project managers track project time, is unnecessary work performed? Are time logs padded? Do they assume they need 2,000 hours of billable time a year to get a raise?

Might your commissioned sales reps sell customers what they don’t need or want just to meet their quota or earn a bonus? Do you have a policy of not giving credits, either stated or implied, that leaves staff with no viable solution for frustrated customers?

Last, consider billing. What message do your invoices send? Are they easy to understand? Can your staff explain every charge in a way that makes sense to customers? Are you billing surcharges and blaming it on outside forces?

Yes, there may be sound business reasons for each task that you measure. These practices can leave your business stronger and on a firmer financial footing, but there’s also a risk. Take care in measuring business success. Be astute and pragmatic—from the customer’s perspective—to produce the results you want.

Customer Service Success Tip

Make sure that what you measure and pay employees to do balances your business’s financial goals with what’s in your customers’ best interest. 

Even better, strive to keep customers happy. That’s the best way to maintain a viable business.

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.

Business Articles

Customer Service Matters

We hear much today about delighting our customers. This is an admirable goal, and every business should strive to do so. We must acknowledge, however, that this is not sustainable. We may delight customers upon occasion, but to expect we’ll succeed in every interaction will leave us falling short of their increasingly higher standards.

Each time we do something that excites our customers, we set the bar higher for next time. What delights them today and gets them to tell their friends about us will soon fade into the recesses of normalcy. Then, when we can’t meet their newly heightened expectations, we have much further to fall and their disappointment will be all that much greater.

Instead, we should set a more realistic goal. Though it’s not exciting or compelling, we should aim simply to meet customer expectations. Though this sounds boring, don’t dismiss the idea too fast. Many customer service interactions fall short—sometimes far short—of meeting customers’ expectations.

Meeting expectations is sustainable and is good business.

Constant Churn

Do you know someone who left one company because of service issues and then left the new company for the same reason? Once they have used and dismissed each company, their new goal is to pick the least objectionable one.

They no longer pursue the best option. Instead, they seek the one that is least bad, returning to a former unsatisfactory provider. This produces a revolving door of customer churn, whereas a better goal is to keep existing customers.

Does any company provide quality service anymore? The good news is yes, and I celebrate this whenever possible. Yet for each positive example, it’s usually not the company but one person who made the difference. They cared about me and had a genuine interest in the outcome. I was their priority, and they did what the situation required.

Every company claims they offer quality service, but is it real or fantasy? Is a personal connection provided to customers? Can you say, believe, and prove that your company delivers quality service? If you can’t, what changes do you need to make?

Throughout my career, from the jobs I’ve held, businesses I’ve managed, and companies I’ve owned, a consistent thread has been customer service in one form or another. Yet I’m not writing about my experiences in providing customer service, for we are our own worst judges of success. And I’ll admit to having fallen short too many times.

A Lifetime of Experience

Though sharing a lifetime of experience in providing customer service would offer useful input, it would only draw from the businesses I’ve owned and managed. Instead, in these posts I cover something I have much more experience with. Not in providing, but in receiving customer service—and in not receiving it.

We can glean a far better perspective by looking at a lifetime of receiving customer service. This provides a greater array of consideration, offering a more comprehensive approach that most customer service books miss.

I am a consumer. As someone who purchases products and services, I often need support after the sale. I need customer service. I’ll share the times that left me appalled or produced discouragement. Yet I’ll also share those times—albeit not as common—when I experienced customer satisfaction.

Customer service opportunities occur in three arenas. These are in person, over the telephone, and online. None functions in isolation. Each type of customer-focused communication informs our expectations in the other formats. Regardless of the communication channel, whether we’re speaking face to face, talking on the phone, or interacting over the internet, we deal with the same issues and desire the same outcomes. It’s my hope that these posts will provide you with helpful customer service insights that will encourage you to do better and celebrate what you do best. Let us meet our consumers’ expectations every chance we get.

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.