Customer Service or Disservice

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Waiting for an appointment the other day, I used the time to make some travel plans. Temporarily without internet service, I made several phone calls. Including my bank, major credit card and three airlines, I placed calls to five companies with “US” or “America” in their name. Not one of the customer service representatives was located on this continent. I spoke with agents in India and the Philippines. While three of the people I spoke with had a strong command of the English language, I found it frustrating that I could not understand a fourth and the fifth mispronounced my destination. Actually, she butchered it. She pronounced “San Luis Obispo” as “Saint Louis Nabisco”. Would she try to book me into Missouri rather than California? The next call was to my bank card company to try to use awards miles for a flight. I had to ask the agent to please repeat the mileage required but even after a third attempt I could not distinguish “twenty-five” from “seventy-five. I decided to wait and do the reservation online where I could be assured of the correct city codes and mileage deductions.

This is not a slam on people who speak English as a second language. I have tremendous respect for immigrants and visitors who attempt to converse in the language of the country they are in. I am not someone who has a natural aptitude for learning other languages and I’d be in serious trouble if I had to speak anything but English in my work, but I would not go to work for El Al and expect Israeli customers to understand me.

When I experience or hear about an unpleasant customer service experience, it bothers me on a couple of levels. First, it is such an easy thing to get right. It’s not unpredictable like weather or even mechanical difficulties. From a consumer stand point, I find it annoying and will spend a bit more to deal with a company who makes it a practice of showing gratitude to their clientele.

As an American watching our economy weaken and jobs lost, I fail to understand why we are outsourcing jobs that could be filled here. We’ve already sent most of our manufacturing business overseas and while i understand the difference in labor costs,  I find it greatly disturbing. But these customer service and call center jobs could easily be brought back stateside now that we have a huge surplus of capable, articulate people looking for work.

So what can you as a small business owner do to change the face of customer service in your industry? An easy solution is to create work-at-home opportunities for young parents or seniors who can work as  independent contractors fielding your customer service calls. Treat them as you would a virtual assistant. Provide training manuals with FAQs, roll play with them over the phone and online, and let them know you will likely do “mystery shopping”  calls to keep them on their toes. If they are pleasant and efficient as a common, everyday practice, they should be completely comfortable with this. Teach them to smile when they answer your line, even if they are at home in their pajamas. The customer will hear that smile in their tone of voice and attitude. Really. You may have to pay a bit more than if you sent the work overseas but you will more than make up the difference in customer retention and good will.

Read more about what face you’re putting out there about your business read Barbara Winter’s post “Welcome or Not”   HERE:

How do you deal with customer service in your small business? As always, you’re invited to comment below. I’d love to hear how you’ve solved your customer service challenges.

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