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Six questions to diagnose customer service issues at your company

It seems as if it was only yesterday when marketing analysts were declaring 2018 as “The Year of the Customer.”

Trends in technology, along with competitive pressures, had finally shifted the balance of transactional power into the hands of the consumer.

On that notion, let me share with you a story about someone I know.

It’s a story that, in fact, you may have experienced personally. This individual had a wallet filled with credit cards and held multiple bank accounts with a large financial services company.

Then one day, for no apparent reason, they suddenly stopped working.

Suddenly, he couldn’t access balances, at all! This person – hopeful that a reasonable explanation defined this issue, and eager to get a quick resolution – called the bank. Three days and six hours later, and after talking with no less than 12 people, his accounts were finally active. The original glitch, it turns out, was entirely the fault of the financial services provider.

Some of the things this person experienced during this all-too-long journey to exoneration:

• The “pass around”: Because each of his accounts resided in a different part of the financial services company, he was passed around more than the turkey platter at Thanksgiving. The checking people said they had to talk with the credit card people; the credit card people said they had to talk with the money market people; and so on. No one had a singular ability to see across the organization.

• The “requalification”: Since it’s a financial institution, this person had to verify his identity initially, for security purposes. No problem right? Yes, a problem. Every single person he talked with had to verify his identity, with the same exact script and questions. Frustrating would not begin to describe the experience of having to do this 12 times in three days.

• The “ticket number”: Ah yes, the time-honored process of having someone take a number, and wait in line. In this case, our hero was told that the institution had a backlog of issues, and was taking, on average, three to five days to resolve these kinds of problems.
In thinking about this experience, from a CEO’s perspective, it may seem like an unfortunate, isolated incident. In reality, these types of customer service glitches happen with regularity. Can you say with certainty that your company would not allow this to happen?
Here are six questions for a CEO to ask and to understand when trying to understand whether a customer service issue is percolating at his or her company:

1. Are your customer-facing employees empowered to “resolve” problems – really fix them – and not just run the caller through a gamut of procedures that builds frustration with each step? United Airlines had an elaborate customer service manual with detailed steps and procedures – but ultimately discovered that the manual was simply compounding existing customer frustration. The airline circular-filed the manual, in its place implementing a policy that empowered front-line employees with broad flexibility and significant on-the-spot discretion.

2. Do your systems provide the right information to resolve problems? Do your customer-facing employees know when the out-of-stock item will be back in stock, based on what they can pull up on the screen in front of them? Do they know seating availability on the next flight? They can’t solve the problem if they don’t have the information needed to solve it.

3. Do you have “department-it-is”? You may be organized by departments for good reason, but as with the financial institution example above, is there someone who can see across departments, and act in the customer’s best interest (as well as yours) to resolve issues? Do you have a process whereby someone who has been “passed around” can immediately get escalated to a problem solver?

4. Do you have a process in place to learn and adapt from customer experience failures? If the same problem tends to recur, it needs to be addressed systematically. Does your culture allow a systematic issue to be raised and dealt with, even if the solution is difficult, and costs time and money?

5. Do you listen to your front-line employees? Another service company rolled out new uniforms that had major wearability problems. These issues were continually ignored, despite complaints being voiced from Day One by those who were forced to wear them. The inaction turned what could have been a minor adjustment into a huge employee grievance, ultimately hurting the company’s brand reputation with its customers. One of the competitors, hearing of the complaints at Company A – avoided issues at rollout by sending its uniform designers and suppliers to key operating units up front, then phasing its roll out slowly, all the while listening carefully to employee feedback.

6. Do you listen to your customers? An executive at a major company used to spend the first Monday of each month at one of the company call centers with a headset on, listening and even interacting with customers calling in, and could see first-hand, on the ground how routine interactions with the company and its customers were being handled.

As the CEO, you are responsible for your customer experience. Ask the six questions above, and look closely at your own operating practices and company culture. Are you and your team enablers of an amazing customer experience that builds incredible affinity with your customers? Or, do you assume that things will simply take care of themselves because that’s the way it’s always been done? It’s not hard to find out.

Gary Fassak is a partner and CMO at Chief Outsiders LLC. He can be reached at