The end of the year, and the holidays, are supposed to be times of peace on earth and goodwill toward men (and women, and children and small, furry animals, too). That must be why it’s the most anxiety-laden time of year. All that goodwill can be stressful.
It’s the time of year that people are most likely to do the majority of their annual interaction with customer service personnel… either on the floors of big box stores, at service counters, over the phone or over the Web.
I do understand that it’s a difficult time for customer service organizations. Tempers run high, temporary (and hastily trained) personnel must be hired, volume spikes, and the most demanding customers are the ones who make the most noise. A friend of mine is a regional manager for a large bookstore chain, and she has told me war stories galore of trying to strike a balance between short-tempered customers and employees who do not have a lot of enthusiasm invested in their short-lived stints as bookstore employees. During some holiday seasons, “striking a balance” means trying to keep the customers and employees from visiting bodily harm upon one another.
I get an extra special helping of stress at this time of year. Because I purchased my home in December, my taxes and insurances renew and expire with the calendar year. My mortgage company re-evaluates my escrow and sends me updates…notices that my taxes are going up or that my insurance premium is escalating. I received a notice a few days ago that next year, my escrow would escalate by nearly a thousand dollars. Unable to image a scenario in which this would be true, unless my upstate Connecticut town had secret intelligence that the intervening 21 miles of land between itself and the Fairfield County coastline was about to collapse and create premium beach-front property for me, I decided to call the mortgage company. While I waited, I examined my account online. By the time I connected to an agent who was pre-armed with an attitude that communicated loud and clear that she didn’t want to hear about anyone’s problems, I had diagnosed the error.
After we finished with greetings, I informed her that my insurance premium would soon be due, at which time the mortgage company would pay it out of my escrow. “Yes, I know,” she said, rather smugly.
“I have just one question,” I said. “Why are you planning to pay my insurance company a thousand dollars more than they’re billing for? I’m sure they’d be pleased and all, but I’d honestly rather you didn’t. There’s only so far I’m willing to take the holiday spirit when it comes to my spare cash.”
The agent, whose smug tone disappeared as quickly as a plate of Christmas pastries left out on the counter in TMC’s kitchen, put me on hold for a few moments. “That must have been a mistake,” she informed me helpfully when she returned. “Yes,” I agreed, equally helpfully. “Did you notice that the amount you’re planning to pay is exactly three times what’s owed?” I asked.
“You know,” she said in a chatty tone. “I DID notice that. Funny. Huh. How about this...I change the info, and we send you a re-re-evaluation of your next year’s projected escrow.” “Yes,” I agreed. “That WOULD be convenient.” “Peace on earth,” she said. “Goodwill toward men, women, children and small, furry animals,” I offered back.
This incident, combined with countless others I have personally experienced, or readers write to me about, leaves me wondering if many companies no longer bother with quality control processes. They leave their customers to be the quality control agents. After all, we’re the ones with the most at stake. Errors can leave us minus cash, late fees and even damage to our credit scores. What does Ms. Nine Dollars An Hour have to lose? A job, maybe...at which time she’ll be free to seek Nine Fifty at the organization down the street? It didn’t escape my notice that this is a mortgage company. Mortgage companies are very cumbersome to change…as are cable companies, wireless companies and utility companies. Let’s face it: with most of these hard-to-switch organizations, there’s not much in for them to strive for good service for existing customers. (Witness the breathtaking deals wireless companies offer to new customers; try getting one of those deals as an existing customer. You’ll be lucky if you get an amused snort from the other end of the phone line before the agent hangs up on you.)
Contrast that with, for example, L.L. Bean and Land’s End, both of which send me their catalogs every holiday season. If I were to communicate to both companies that I’m thinking about doing all my shopping from one or the other of the catalogs, but haven’t decided which yet, both companies would probably have personnel dispatched within the hour to do my dishes and rake my leaves. With companies such as this, there’s no “existing customer” relationship. They can lose my business at any time, and must continually work for it.
Companies do as much customer service as they think they have to. The good news for consumers is that they’re frequently wrong. Ten years ago, the cable companies thought they had natural monopolies on customers who wanted entertainment choices. Enter the satellite dish companies...the cable companies are still trying to figure out where that pan of cold water that has hit them in the face came from. Ditto on the providers of land-line phone services. They have learned a lesson that will go into the classic annals of business history.
It’s short-term thinking. I can’t switch my mortgage company tomorrow...not without a lot of effort. But ultimately, I can change it. I can drop cable and get a satellite dish. When my contract expires with my wireless provider, I can take my number and go elsewhere. My electric company is about the only bunch that has me in a total stranglehold. Ironically, of all my monopolized or semi-monopolized utility providers, they give me the most trouble-free service. Granted, their product doesn’t have a lot of moving parts, and paying the bill on time does wonders for keeping the electricity flowing in a trouble-free manner.
Forcing customers to become your unwilling quality control agents may save a bit of money for the short term. Witness award-winning customer service provider L.L. Bean, which I referenced earlier in this column. Does anyone for a minute imagine that this company has been thriving since 1912 by shaving customer service quality assurance practices away for short-term gain?
Peace on Earth. Even to my mortgage company.
The author may be contacted at email@example.com.