Brief encounters with bad customer service

Bad customer service experiences are often caused by disconnected channels and conflicting information. Whether it’s an airline, bank or digital service provider, every customer service channel needs to be seamlessly integrated so that the customer feels they are dealing with one company, not a bunch of disparate people and databases. In short, an organization needs to be an organization.
Are disconnected channels and information leading to bad customer experiences?

The following is a recounting of an all-too-true customer service experience that I had last year. What began as a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting ended more like something Hieronymus Bosch refused to commit to canvas because it was too unpleasant. And, unfortunately, I am not the first – or the last – customer who has experienced a bad customer service experience like this.

It was a Saturday and I was camping with my son. We were having such a great time I did not want to rush the experience. Knowing I had a flight for work the next afternoon, I found a place in the woods with a signal, called the airline (let’s call them Generic Air), and informed them I would not make the scheduled flight time. Would it be possible, I asked, to take a later flight?

The person on the phone was really nice and assured me it was indeed possible. “Oh and good news,” he added. “Because of the flights you’re exchanging, there will not be the customary charge of fifty dollars.” Awesome. It looked like my son and I could enjoy some quality time and I could casually make my way back to civilization.

Cut to the airport about 24 hours later. I sidled up to the kiosk to check in and print out my ticket. No dice. The screen told me to speak with a person at the ticket counter. “The kiosk told me to talk to you” I explained to the Generic Air employee, a serious man with glasses, no facial expression to read and clearly no time for chit chat. After several taps on his keyboard, he said “It looks like you changed flights so there’s a charge of fifty dollars.”

It is at that point that my eyes bugged out a little and my voice got a bit more terse. “Wait,” I replied. “The person on the phone told me there would be no charge.”

The man at the counter said – and this is almost a direct quote: “I don’t know what the person told you on the phone, but there’s a standard charge of fifty dollars for changing your flight.” Please remember that quote.

I could not get this gentleman to understand what had transpired the day before and he was not willing to contact the call center to get clarification. Our conversation quickly became a waltz, with us spinning in pointless circles saying the same things over and over. The frustration I felt in my gut was almost painful. This is embarrassing to admit, but I honestly heard myself singing – internally, of course – “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen to keep myself from snapping. That is a sure sign of stress.

With nothing else to do, I called the airline’s call center. Once I was on the phone with a very nice representative, they apologized for the confusion and refunded me the fifty dollars. This refund happened not forty feet from the ticket counter where I was charged. It was at that point I realized that this airline was not a company. It was a hydra, a multi-headed entity with each head operating from a separate brain. How could the different customer service channels of Generic Air be so distinct, with no apparent consistency or communication with each other at all?

The purpose of this article is not to bash Generic Air. The challenges they face are the challenges many companies face. Just last week, I was on the phone with another airline that could not find any record of a credit I received and told me to go on their website to find the information. Again we see one channel of a company pointing me to another channel due to a lack of visibility.

It deserves repeating that the problem here isn’t Generic Air, it’s the disconnected channels of customer service and information. Whether it’s an airline, bank or digital service provider, every customer service channel needs to be seamlessly integrated so that the customer feels they are dealing with one company, not a bunch of disparate people and databases. In short, an organization needs to be an organization.

There are, of course, exceptions to this guideline. If a customer is talking with an IVR or a call center agent and some kind of visuals would support the discussion, then pointing the customer to a webpage or mobile app makes sense. However, even in these cases, communication with the original channel should not be terminated. The IVR or agent should stay on the line with the customer while they are looking at the graphical information. Another obvious exception is transferring someone on any channel to someone with more expertise to resolve a more complex task.

The key to success here is designing and building customer service applications that are aware of other channels. It could be an IVR that takes into account the customer’s recent web behavior; or an IVR that stays on the phone with you and walks you through graphical information on a mobile application; or a discussion with an agent that is informed by information passed on from a web form or online chat.

So take a lesson from Generic Air and many, many other organizations out there. Speak to your customers like you are a single entity, not a collection of disparate parts. Your customers will appreciate it and that appreciation will translate into loyalty.

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Jonathan Bloom

About Jonathan Bloom

Jonathan Bloom is a senior user interface manager for Nuance’s Enterprise Division. He joined Nuance's team in 1999 as part of Dragon Systems where he was the company's first usability engineer. He has designed both graphic and speech interfaces for IVR’s, dictation software, automotive, and mobile applications. Jon took a detour for some time to work for a startup called SpeechCycle (now part of Synchronoss) where he contributed to the creation of an infrastructure for generating completely data-driven user interfaces. He lives in New Jersey and works out of Nuance's New York office. In addition to managing a team of senior designers, Jon also sits on Nuance’s Innovation Steering Committee and continues to design on his own projects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the New School Graduate Faculty. Jon is also a husband, father of two, self-published fiction author with a black belt in Isshinryu karate.