Sometimes I think the common wisdom on customer service is too common and not all that wise. We oversimplify and we leave the dark side out of the story. Extreme customer service isn’t always good for a business. There’s a dark side to it.
You’ve probably heard this story; I certainly have. It comes up a lot in customer service lore. Some swanky department store’s customer service is so good that they even take back clothes that weren’t purchased there. No receipt required. Even if the store never carried that line.
It may or may not be true. That’s not the point. It might as well be true because it’s customer service bible now, chapter and verse. I read some great stories along these lines in the Heath Brothers’ Made to Stick book (which I reviewed and recommended here, by the way). And I noticed another well-written post by Seth Godin as Win the fight, lose the customer last week too. That’s what brings this to mind. Seth wrote:
Given the choice between acknowledging that your customer is upset or proving to her that she is wrong, which will you choose? You can be right or you can have empathy. You can’t do both.
However, I say it’s not nearly that simple. Extreme customer service has its dark side. Let’s go back to the fable of the swanky department store and look at two problems:
1. It Burns Out Good Employees
Nobody tells the real story of the guy with the jacket in the swanky department store. Just for sake of illustration, assume he’s rude and mean and insulting. He’s berating the poor salesperson and annoying the other customers. He’s talking about the stupid store and the stupid jacket maker and so on (probably using a word stronger than stupid).
The salesperson, meanwhile, notes that the brand is one the store has never carried. She’s dying to say, loud enough for the sympathetic customers around to hear her, “I’m sorry sir, but I know you didn’t buy this jacket here because this store has never carried that brand.” And, after saying that, to send him on his way. “Now please let me attend to customers waiting for my help.” The other customers want that too.
However, because of the lore of extreme customer service, she has to swallow hard, apologize, and process a return. This is bad for her morale, bad for her health, bad for her spirit, and didn’t do much for the store either.
We forget that good employees in good companies come to care about the company and its policies and they don’t like rude people complaining unfairly. When the policy is to swallow hard and comply with any outrageous request, those employees resent it.
And don’t they matter too?
2. Not Everybody is a Customer
Here’s the other thing that bugs me about that story: that mean guy with the jacket isn’t a customer. He didn’t buy it at that store. And after he gets his ego rush with the screaming customer game, is he going to become a customer? No, probably not.
Somewhere in the oversimplified lore of extreme customer service we forget that there is a market segment focus in the extreme customer service. It depends on good customers. It doesn’t work when you take bad customers, who won’t ever be good customers (is the jacket guy going to be shopping at Swanky Department Store in the future? No, lets just say he isn’t. So the extreme customer service annoys customers, stresses employees, and does no long-term good.
Don’t you think that as humans we have a built-in instinct that wants fairness? That resents unfair demands and having to give into them? I do.
Do you think this kind of extreme customer service trains people to be mean, by giving mean people what they ask for, unfair or not? Should we worry that reasonable people pay more and get less than mean people do, because of our business lore of extreme customer service? I’m just asking.