Customer Service Pitfalls Part 1

March 14, 2012

The Official Merchant Services Blog returns to one of its favorite topics today — Customer Service. We can’t stress enough how important customer service is to every aspect of this industry. So we’re going to do a multi-part epic underscoring the value customer service has to your business. This is drawn on the foundation of Host Merchant Services — Superior Customer Service. In addition to the savings on processing fees that the company guarantees, its motto is “You stay with us because you’re happy.”

The HMS Guarantee

Part of this is reflected in the transparency that HMS offers. The company works against the grain in the Payment Processing Industry, shining light on hidden fees and showing customers where they can save money in their statement through the free statement analysis offer. The company backs that up with 24x7x365 customer and technical support. HMS makes sure there is someone available to handle any problems or issues its merchants have. Host Merchant Services states “If you have a problem we will make it right, guaranteed.”

Working in this environment, I’ve come to accept these standards of customer service as the norm. I recently got involved in a discussion online revolving around customer service and it shocked me how willingly some customers not only accept terrible service but defend the practices. I work under the idea that quality customer service is something to be valued. And that delivering a high level of service is something a business places priority on because service has an impact on the success of that business. So it was very surprising to find myself involved in a discussion that spent a lot of time defending bad service.

Internet Drama

The discussion began, as most internet discussions begin, with something tangential: The story of Jennifer Hepler found on The Mary Sue. Hepler, a developer for the video game company Bioware — known for the popular Mass Effect series and Star Wars: The Old Republic game — was interviewed about her job in 2006. Some of the answers she gave in that interview garnered the attention of  video game players and Bioware customers in 2012. Those customers became very irate and then launched a scathing internet assault chock full of personal attacks against Hepler and the company. I’m not going to go into the details of the internet attack. It’s really tangential and fits everything you might think would happen in an internet environment where anonymous people have no inhibitions in what they say.

The topic did lead me into a discussion about customer service from video game companies — or more to the point, how video game players are so willing to accept terrible customer service from video game companies. This came up because many people felt that the customers, who were upset with Bioware, were crossing the line and becoming a detriment to the entire video game industry.

To me I saw the attack as pretty standard for the internet and easy to clean up. All it really told me is that Bioware attracted some difficult customers — some very negative and difficult to deal with customers. And that got me thinking about the way the story evolved. How Bioware became the victim and the villainous customers were to blame for their over the top anger. I felt the core issue of customer service got lost in the telling of this story.

The Bigger Picture

Businesses in every industry have difficult customers. And businesses recognized for excellent customer service have standards and protocols for dealing with these difficult customers. These practices help the business move past the difficulty and get to the core issue — assisting a customer who is unhappy with something in an effort to retain that customer in a long-term business relationship.

And this is what I have noticed is getting lost in some instances these days. Businesses seem to be cutting down on customer service as if the customer simply isn’t valuable enough to go the extra mile for.

That makes no sense to me. Customers and quality customer service are extremely valuable to long-term business.

So I did some research, looking for some data and stats on the value of customer service. I also looked for any information I could find on the impact customer service has on the bottom line. And I looked for tips on how to deal effectively with difficult customers. A lot of the information I found was anecdotal. That type of data has its good side and its bad side. The best part about anecdotal evidence is it shares experience with the person reading it. You’re getting a story and you’re getting the benefit of learning from their story without having to go through the same situation yourself.  The downside of anecdotal evidence is that it’s a single instance. You can’t chart, analyze or track trends from one story. It only goes so far in trying to define the impact that bad customer service, or conversely difficult customers, can have on your bottom line.

Host Merchant Services Payment Network Provider, image by Ashley Salada,

Anecdotal Evidence

One of the more fascinating anecdotes I’ve found in my research was presented by Electrical Wholesaling in their “guide” to dealing with difficult customers from April, 2006. The story they present is: “The customer leaned across the counter. “You mean I spend thousands of dollars in here, and I can’t return a defective tool?” he said.

Penton Media - Electrical Wholesaling, Click Here!

“Well, the tool isn’t really defective,” replied the counter salesperson.

“So you’re calling me a liar?”

The customer now had everyone’s attention. His loud voice and aggressive manner caused some of the other customers to look at one another and roll their eyes as if to convey the silent message, Oh, one of those difficult people.

It was my first week at the counter, and I was leaning toward the customer’s point of view.

My colleague continued the fight. “No, I’m not calling you a liar. This is simply normal wear of the tool. It’s against the manufacturer’s policy to refund for normal wear and tear.”

I was now completely on the customer’s side.

The customer didn’t reply immediately, and a silence fell across the room. He straightened up, slowly scanned the other customers, and said in a clear voice said, “People only come here as a last resort.”

He turned on the heels of his work boots and marched out of the store. As soon as the door closed, you could feel the air come back into the room. People chuckled rather nervously. Someone said, “Guess it takes all kinds.”

“That guy’s always a pain,” said my co-worker.

And that was the real issue. A different customer would have received a new tool, no questions asked, but because this particular customer wore the “difficult” label, it became his self-fulfilling prophecy to get bad customer service.”

The guide went on to point out the value a business can gain from a difficult customer. It suggested the experience can teach a business how to deliver the quality customer service it promises. A business can learn more from the difficult customer than it could ever learn from your most loyal customers. Difficult customers tell a business where it hurts. Listen closely and these customers will tell you what is missing from your business. They might even suggest what can be done about the problem areas. Their feedback can be the most brutal and the most honest gauge of your success.

The guide then goes on to give tips on interacting with difficult customers — ideas such as listening to the customer, refraining from arguing with the customer, and telling the customer what you can do for them instead of focusing on what you can’t do for them. These are all really basic tips and accentuate how to deal positively with angry customers.

A lot of the tips I found on dealing with difficult customers revolved around that basic advice. Multiple sites suggest the same things over and over again. Don’t argue. Stay calm. Listen. Let the customer vent. And then find a solution for them. If you’re calm, and you don’t antagonize the customer while showing them what you can do for them you increase the chance to resolve the issue where the customer is happy. And those customers are the ones that rave about your customer service. They remember that you helped them even when they were angry. They remember your company was able to work out a solution for their problem.

In our next installment of this series, we are going to look at some of the statistics and data I found — hopefully demonstrating that going the extra mile even with difficult customers helps increase the value of your business.

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