Don’t Repeat the Seven Deadly Sins of Customer Service

By Roy Chitwood | May 18, 2009

Poor customer service is making headlines these days, and to some extent, it’s no wonder. Many companies facing economic pressures have been forced to layoff staff or reduce hours. And remaining employees are forced to pickup the slack, doing more with less. Recent surveys have highlighted the worst customer service offenders. And at least in the media, attention is being paid to the fact that customer satisfaction seems to have fallen to the bottom of the list of priorities for many companies today.

The question is are those companies that are being talked about paying attention to all the press? And is a poor economy a good excuse for bad customer service?

In a marketplace as competitive as ours, it’s a wonder so many companies choose to treat their customer like the enemy — during good and bad times. Can dropping of a few hundred “high maintenance” customers — as Sprint/Nextel did when it “fired” customers who complained too much via a severance letter —compensate for an ineffective customer service procedure? Is it the customers who are in need of improvement, or is it the companies?

In a recent statement, a well-known CEO of a Fortune 500 company said his job would be easy if he didn’t have to deal with customers. What if every business fired customers it didn’t want to deal with? Imagine if your mechanic dropped you because your car had too many problems. What if your local grocery store started locking the door when they saw you coming because you kept asking for items they didn’t have or had to special order?

It sounds absurd, but this is, in essence, the approach that some companies like Sprint/Nextel have taken. More and more, businesses are simply choosing not to put the time, money and effort into improving what isn’t working. They want a quick fix, and they want the difficult people and their problems to go away.

Unfortunately, when the customers go away, so do profits. No company can expect to be profitable when customers have been treated as expendable and bad press is all the press they seem to garner. No matter how much money is spent trying to help needy customers, it is insignificant compared to lost future business because of a poor customer service procedure.

This is especially true for publicly held companies. While public firms have an important financial responsibility to their stockholders, they cannot escape the fact that without a strong customer base, their stock is not going to be worth much. Without effective sales, marketing and customer-service procedures in place, new customers can’t be cultivated and the existing ones will be alienated.

When there is a breakdown of customer service effectiveness within a company, it usually is because the company is committing one or several of the “seven deadly sins” of customer service. They are:

  1. It is not company policy. The truth is, the customer does not care if it is company policy. The customer has a problem and it needs to be taken care of.
  2. That is not my department. Again, the customer does not care if the problem falls under your department or not. When you receive a complaint, you need to own it. The customer wants the problem solved and for someone to take responsibility. Following through is the only way to ensure the customer’s complete satisfaction.
  3. Not listening to understand. Many times, the customer feels that a service representative is not listening. Although the rep may be hearing the customer’s words, he or she fails to comprehend the customer’s feelings. How the customer feels is far more important than the facts.
  4. There’s nothing I can do. There is always something that can be done, even if it is only to effectively communicate to the customer that there really is nothing you can do. When that is communicated properly, however, the customer will know that someone cares and that person tried to offer solutions.
  5. That is not correct. The No. 1 rule in customer service is that the customer is always right. If you think the customer is wrong, refer again to the No. 1 rule.
  6. Tell me again. Customers resent having to explain their problems several times, to several people, in a long, drawn-out effort to get satisfaction. Many times the frustration caused by this becomes more of a problem than the original problem itself.
  7. Prove it. When an employee tells the customer to “prove it,” what he or she is saying is, “We don’t trust you and we assume you’re either incompetent or lying,” and yet companies ask customers to trust them to take care of the problem. If the customer has to be trustworthy and competent, so does the company.

Take the outcry in Chicago regarding the changeover in department store names from historic Marshall Field’s to Macy’s. Customers asked, among other things, for the name of the store to remain the same, to continue to carry some of the same brands and to, above all, retain the level of customer service that placed Marshall Field’s at No. 2 in customer service among department stores nationally.

What was Macy’s parent company’s response? An accommodation that included keeping the Marshall Field’s signature mints and bringing in a few celebrities for the Macy’s grand opening. Not surprisingly, according to The Wall Street Journal, polls of Midwest shoppers indicated that, based on the name change alone, nearly 20 percent of the existing Marshall Field’s customers didn’t plan to shop at the new store. If customers can’t trust that their requests will be met or that the company will be honest with them, why would customers be motivated to shop there?

Companies who continue to make the top 10 “worst” customer-service lists and who alienate customers have a limited shelf life. Just like the top 10 worst list, there is also a top 10 “best” customer-service list. Companies like Nordstrom, American Express and Marriott are known to be eager to help and serve customers their competitors have relinquished, because they understand that a happy customer is a repeat customer. Even during tough times, such companies know that word-of-mouth produces better advertising than any ad campaign ever could — and it’s far cheaper than trying to resurrect a positive public image once the damage has been done.

Customer Service Hall of Shame
A ranking of the companies whose service is most-often rated “poor” by consumers.

Company %
AOL 47%
Comcast 42%
Sprint 39%
Abercrombie & Fitch 38%
Qwest 34%
Capital One 32%
Bank of America 31%
Time Warner Cable 31%
HSBC Finance 30%
Cox Communications 29%

Ranked in 2008 by percentage of survey respondents who rated a company’s service “poor.”
Source: MSN Money-Zogby Poll

About Roy Chitwood

Chitwood is an author and consultant on sales and customer service. He is the former president and chairman of Sales & Marketing Executives International and is president of Max Sacks International based in Seattle. To subscribe to his free tip of the week, “You’re on Track,” e-mail: Phone: 800-488-4629. Web site:

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