Customer Dis-Service

Posted by jlubans on April 11, 2017

“If Franz Kafka were alive today he'd be writing about customer service” was a quote I was going to use in a workshop in Berlin.*
Why link Kafka with customer service, with dis-service? Merriam-Webster tells us that Kafka’s fiction “vividly expressed the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the individual”.
In Prague, I recall a subterranean shop near the famous bridge (and the pay toilets) selling Kafka t-shirts juxtapositioned alongside variations of a leering, bent over Homer Simpson pointing at his backside.
“Das gute, das schlechte und das hässliche”
Travel, according to the wise, not only cures boredom it allows one to observe how agencies treat people and how we treat it each other.
From porters to custom agents, to migration officers to information desk staff, to waiters and sales clerks, we run into “Das gute, das schlechte und das hässliche”. We experience exceptional customer service and dis-service.
Indeed this essay took shape while dozing fitfully on a transatlantic flight, somewhere over Iceland, with 200 other thirsty, cramped, hungry and ignored souls shoehorned into Economy and Economy Plus. All of us were metapmorphosizing, à la Kafka, into insects. Not really; we were contorting into weird shapes, wrapped cocoon-like in airline blankets.
Awake, I thought, maybe there are shared concepts behind many examples of dis-service.
Surely, those episodes can’t all be spontaneous? What did they have in common? Is there, then, a shared, if tacit, philosophy among dispensers of dis-satisfaction? More interestingly, how do some firms consistently alienate the customer and yet avoid bankruptcy? Is there a grand conspiracy to make the little guy suffer, and then some?
As we know, when there’s nary a hitch, things should go swimmingly. But, when things go awry, when something breaks or goes off the rails, how is the customer treated? What are the real observable organizational ethics or values (if any)?
So, I came up with this brief mental list of principles which I suggest, only a bit facetiously, are shared by all practitioners of dis-service:
Waste the time of the customer. (It’s free!) Queuing is what customers do and were born to do, whether digital or literal. Take a number!
Or, D-I-Y, wander retail mazes hoping in vain to find someone to help.
Give nothing away. Cling to every dollar. Out-of-warranty is out-of-warranty, regardless if the failure is due to a design mistake or inferior materials. To assuage the unhappy customer, offer to send her a replacement at the full retail price plus shipping and receiving.
Seek the “bitter spot”. That’s not the “sweet spot”, that happy intersection of profitability and excellent customer service. Rather, the bitter spot is the “price point” and intersection at which a disgruntled customer is dissatisfied but not enough to go to a competitor. The underlying rationale being that a “low” price goes hand in hand with minimal or bad service. Good service is something to be bought.
Close doors. Literally wall off decision-makers. Post no phone numbers, hierarchies, or e-mails, making it impossible for an aggrieved customer to reach the CEO or the Head of a governmental service agency.
Block decision-making by those on the front line, those most likely to mitigate dis-service. Pay them a competitive wage but give them zero discretion to make changes, to make things right.
Collude (copycat) with your competition in providing minimal service; if, an industry agrees to an industry "standard" to cram 50 passengers into a space meant for 30 then there’s no difference in service among competitors – misery is equally distributed.
Never make eye contact – avoid embarrassment. Making contact might mean you have to explain (and fix!) a problem in your agency.
Budget for complaints. Pay off the complaints that make it to the CEO, but do not address the fundamental causes of those complaints.

And there you have it. There may be more. Let me know.

*Zentral-und Landesbibliothek Berlin. "To Save the Time of the User: Customer Service in Libraries" 21. März 2011
While eternalized in Google-land, my ill-fated workshop never took place. I was all packed and ready to go but we never lifted off due to a lack of registrants.
That this was in Germany is highly apropos; it’s where I have had some of the most splendid customer service and some of the most miserable.

N.B. My new book, Fables for Leaders, Ezis Press, comes out in June 2017 as an e-book ($15.00) and a soft cover print-on-demand book, ($25.00). The print book will feature original illustrations by the renowned Béatrice Coron.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017
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