September 25, 2013

Customer Service is a Two-Way Street

Customer Service is a Two-Way Street

The customer is always right.

It’s hard to argue with that sentiment.

After all, the most beloved businesses are those that love their customers back.

What we often forget, however, is that we as customers also shoulder some responsibility in the service that we receive. Customers themselves play a very important role in the customer service process, but this role often goes overlooked.

I’ve been thinking more and more about this sentiment since I came across this tweet from WooThemes founder Adii Pienaar:

The comment left by Daniel is just as revealing:

And it’s true, isn’t it? In many ways, this is why many people don’t see customer service as a 2-way street—when we don the title of The Customer, the feeling is that we shoulder no responsibility in the outcome of our experience with a company.

But is this what the interactive process of service is all about?

The Give and Take of Great Service

It is our job to ensure you have the best experience possible. It is hard to do that when you don’t communicate with us.”

That’s a quote from Reddit’s Tales From Your Server, an online forum dedicated to those working as waiters and waitresses.

It describes how we as the consumer often don’t hold up our end of the bargain—that we must be willing to communicate with the staff or the business if some part of the consumer experience has disappointed us.

It seems that review sites like Yelp are a common source of contempt for many local small business owners for this very reason.

Review sites offer, for the first time ever, a way to leave anonymous feedback based off of a single experience (and on a whim). The sentiment from many business owners is that this encourages some customers skip the give-and-take should some part of their experience be unsatisfactory.

Instead of first notifying someone from the staff who may be able to make it right, they scurry home to write a scathing “review.”

Consider an example like this one from Reddit:

Service was great. All the food was great. The cheesecake was square… it made me uncomfortable because it was not at all what I expected. It tasted great. But it was square. 2 stars.”

(And don’t get me started about the rectangular napkins…)

Obviously, this is one of the more ridiculous examples out there that I shared for a laugh, but believe me, it’s far from the only one of its kind. The tragedy here is that any restaurant worth its salt would have no problem rectifying the situation… even if it meant cutting the cheesecake however the customer wanted it.

Some folks take reviews like these in stride:

Come Try The Worst Meatball Sandwich That One Guy on Yelp Ever Had in His Life

…but you should understand that comments like these, where it’s apparent that the customer did little to communicate their problem, are a very real concern for business owners.

The sort of relationship between customer and business where zero communication happens about the quality of the service is not only bad for the business, it’s bad for future customers.

They won’t be hearing an honest take on the service quality, and that is perhaps the most concerning outcome of when this process is handled incorrectly.

But wait, why should the customer have any responsibility for any of this? Isn’t it the business’s job to make sure everything is perfect for paying customers?

It’s Not About Silent Consumerism

I’d like to make it clear that I’m not advocating that you become a doormat who is willing to accept bad service.

You are spending your money with these businesses, and they need to earn it.

I’m simply highlighting that we as a consumers are not passive observers without any control over our customer experience. Given the recent popularity of a post entitled Maybe You Get Bad Service Because You’re a Bad Customer, it seems this is a feeling shared by a large number of people—that sometimes the poor service you receive is a result of your own actions (or inaction).

Customer service is all about the interaction between the customer and those servicing them, and as a person—even with the vaunted title of The Customer—this interaction is your responsibility too.

Telling a business what they did wrong in a calm, collected manner (like an adult) is a win-win situation that can often easily turn a mishap around. Many companies are more than willing to make sure their customers walk out the door happy, going as far as to giving refunds, upgrades, speedy fixes, or the simple offering of a genuine apology.

In Reddit’s Small Business section, I thought this point was made abundantly clear by an owner of a local business who just couldn’t understand a recent negative review:

“I just wish people would know that this is my livelihood—your experience matters so much to me that I will do whatever I need to in order to make you happy, but that isn’t possible if you leave without saying a word.”

As critics, we all tend to suffer a little from the fundamental attribution error—the tendency to blame others on character for what we might normally blame on circumstance, e.g.:

  • Jack fell down the hill because he was careless.
  • I fell down the hill because it rained and the grass was slippery.

We have to recognize that even the best businesses are not infallible, and we shouldn’t expect them to be.

Great customer service isn’t about always being right. It’s about always being willing to make it right.

It’s very frustrating to be the customer on the receiving end of a slip-up, but without giving businesses at least that one opportunity to prove their worth and make things right, what sort of message are we sending?

Most of us do not hold ourselves to the same standard. Imagine if someone were to stop by your office when you were having a rough day, and then silently leave a 2-star review of your performance for the hour that they observed you (without telling you). Would you deem that as fair?

You needn’t pity small business owners though—it’s a tough deal, for sure—but they chose to go into business, and they should be willing to accept the responsibilities.

One of those responsibilities is realizing that first impressions matter, and that they must deliver on their far bigger role in the customer-to-business interaction, which is providing the best service possible, as often as possible. Even genuine apologies and hasty “fixes” don’t make up for a regularly shoddy experience.

But we do need to remember when we are playing the role of customer, we have some responsibility too, both in telling businesses where our experience is lacking and in voting with our dollars to make sure great service thrives.

In a recent Q&A about companies people would never use again (surprise, Comcast was mentioned the most), this comment stood out:

The common denominator [here] seems to be companies that don’t individually respond to your concerns. This actually highlights how one should behave: do reward companies that provide individual attention to their customers. Do consider their service a financial benefit.”

Your candid, constructive feedback directly to those providing you with service gives worthy businesses a chance to stay on top of what they are doing right, and come to terms with what they are getting wrong.

As the comment above mentions, it also allows you to weed out those businesses who truly do not care about their customers—if you handle your responsibilities as a customer and give them a genuine chance to make you happy, they need to seize the opportunity to do so.

Otherwise, they become deserving of whatever verbal smackdown you decide to later leave on their review page!

What Do You Think?

I’ve stated my case, but now I want to hear from you:

  • Do you think customer service is a two-way street?
  • How important is our role in the process?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thank you for reading!


Written by Gregory Ciotti Greg ciotti

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Emma Siemasko Sep 25

Thanks for this post. I've been thinking about this so much lately. It's become a trend in marketing to cater EVERYTHING to the customer-- from personalized/customized emails, to handwritten notes, to bending over backwards to make them happy, etc. When we give so much control to the customer, we have to think about what makes a good customer...and how to be a good customer.

It's really great to make customers feel special, but at what point does the customer become entitled? At what point are people being catered to so much that they EXPECT and DEMAND thing like promo codes, reduced fees, comp-ed plans, special treatment, etc. Part of being a good customer is respecting the company you buy from.

<3 this post. Thanks, Greg!

Gregory Ciotti Sep 25

Appreciate that Emma!

That's all I really sought to highlight here—when we do away with this belief that we should be a passive, coddled consumer, and instead realize that calm, constructive feedback and high expectations can go hand in hand, it's a win-win situation for both parties. :)

Emma Siemasko Sep 25

Totally agree. Keep up the great work. We love reading your posts over here. We get super excited about them :)

Susan Cottrell Sep 25

My friend worked at an exclusive, high-end resort hotel -- the kind that greets you by name, knows your preferences, etc -- and she observed that every year it became increasingly harder to "wow" customers. (Many of them were extremely entitled!) So, yeah, that's not fair either, to treat service providers as though you're the queen entitled to impeccable service with no reward. It is always a balance. Thanks for a great post!

Peter Crispin Sep 25

It's harder when the only form of communication is on the phone and it is nice to be able to advise Customers as to why they should tell of their experience too many times I hear the following 'I don't like to complain'

Debbie Sep 25

Thanks for a terrific and grounded article on customer service. <3 the quote -
"Great customer service isn’t about always being right.
It’s about always being willing to make it right."
The review aspect of the article makes me ponder the downside of review anonymity, and what a great sandwich board retort! It makes me want to be a better customer too, so is a good reminder for personal integrity, even for non-confrontational personalities :)

MD Sep 25

Your analysis is perfect, as is your opening comment that the key "needers" of this article would never read it.
Franklin Covey has long taught that the first habit of highly effective People is to expend their energy in an area they can influence, and that when this is well done, this area spreads and enlarges.
The only opportunity to influence a customer to act as an effective customer on a two way street, is while we have them face to face, - not afterwards. I think in the effort to "wow", perhaps we have lost this perception. I think we as service people need to carefully lay out the ground rules of interaction to our customers, and insist on running to those rules during the whole course of the interaction.
Take the Hotel experience of Susan's, why not greet the customer right up front "Sir/Madam, We don't want to turn you into a chronic complainer, and are confident that that is the last thing you would ever to be, but because we love to learn how to better serve you at every step, our staff will be frequently asking you, in small detail, about every feature of your experience while you are here. Is that all right with you" And then have the staff diligently carry through on it. When serving the cheesecake, take the time to ask when you observe the client finish " did you enjoy that desert, sir/madam, was the flavor right, were the side dressings appropriate, was the presentation what you expected
" then use the old sales practice - wait without moving until they answer - it forces a response. then... "thank you sir, we really value learning from you"
We are far to prone to just say "I hope you had a good time - see you again Mr Smith" as they leave, and then wonder why they use another venue for real feedback!

Terry Sep 25

One of the best articles on customer service I have read. Anybody prepared to go into business where building and maintaining strong positive customer relationships MUST accept the responsibility for providing exceptional service if they are to grow, develop and prosper. However regardless of how hard we try we all falter in our best endeavours from time to time. It is how prepared we are to provide immediate recovery and fix our mistakes that is the mark of a truly focussed customer service business. But it is impossible to make amends if we don't know we have slipped in our service
delivery. The article was "spot on" in assigning some responsibility to the customer for immediately letting the business know of its less than satisfactory service so that they have the opportunity for "immediate service recovery".
Well done.

Dmitri @ Relenta Sep 26

Right on. It takes two! You can bring customers to water but you can't make them drink. Especially If you're in a business like HelpScout or Relenta that require a certain minimum level of customer sophistication. I wrote about it a while back on our blog:

Fantastic work, Gregory – makes me think. Thanks very much!

Ali Haris Sep 26

Totally agree on what author has highlighted in the article. We as customers should know how to become a good customer, ultimately it's win-win for both.

Joseph Pingel Sep 26

It goes the other way too when business owners suddenly realize that their previous best customers are no longer calling on them. People don't tell you when they go to another vendor or stop using your service.

I've gotten a lot of good insight by calling up past customers and asking them why they've stopped coming in. They'll tell you and good or bad, it's worth your time to listen.

Nola Sep 27

Great post and sums up the situation perfectly. Customers need to participate in the experience by contributing to it. It does help if a business provides them with various avenues to do so because many people will not feel comfortable saying something at the time. We also need to encourage feedback by letting clients know that it is welcomed and following up regularly. If we have regular engagement with clients they start to see that we are approachable and want to hear from them.

Daryl Sep 28

I enjoyed reading this post. I've never considered Customer Service as a responsibility of the business and the consumer. It is an interesting angle to debate. I am, however, inclined to repectfully disagree. Although It's the right thing to do for a customer to engage business personnel/staff/employees in the right way, it is also optional in a realistic sense. Many customers know how powerful they are. They expect you to deliver exceptional customer service, regardless of their own disposition. If they don't receive that exceptional service, customers know that they can go somewhere else, to the detriment of the business owner.

Gregory Ciotti Oct 8

@Daryl — Hey Daryl, no problem, totally respect your opinion.

The problem I see in what you point out is that when you fail to communicate, are you really entitled to anything? Customers deserve great service without having to ask, but nobody is a mind reader, so if you don't speak up, in some ways you deserve the service you get.

Alleli Aspili Oct 10

Hi, Greg! I do think that customer service is a two-way street. First off, in my opinion, that is mainly the reason why we call it ‘service’ anyway. Who are we going to serve to if customers don’t even communicate with us, right? On the other hand, some will say that it’s the company’s job to know what their customers are saying – like using sentiment analysis and all that – but it’s actually ideal to really know it by directly saying it to the company. I hope I got that right. Thanks for this enlightening post, btw. :) I love it!

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