The “Secrets” of Customer Service

Secrets of Customer Service

My recent shenanigans with Comcast led me to conclude that they have the worst customer service program ever.  In turn, that led me to pondering the issue of who has the best customer service.

One of the advantages of my own web site is that I can write about anything I like, whether or not I have any actual experience with the topic. In this case, I do.

I spent fourteen years in the motorcycle business and two years (part-time) working for a car dealer in customer service.  My job title changed frequently, as we struggled to pin down exactly what it was I was doing, but almost all of my tasks involved customer service of one sort or another.

So where have I experienced the best examples of customer service?  I’d start with the United States Social Security Administration, and then add the Washington State Teachers Retirement System, AAA, Les Schwab… and me. Doesn’t that list raise your eyebrows?  What are the traits shared by each of these that led to positive experiences?

ACCESS. To provide customer service, you must first ensure that customers can reach you.  This means having an e-mail address and phone number for customer use. Most companies have this, but that is not enough.

The customer must be able to reach a live human being on the phone easily. In the case of Comcast, there are so many robotic menus to work through that you are frustrated and angry before you ever get to a human, if you do at all.  On several occasions, calls to Comcast were forwarded and then dropped, requiring the caller to start all over again.  With Social Security, AAA, and the teachers’ retirement system, I’ve reached a human easily who started with a return personal number if I needed to call again. When you visit Les Schwab, at times a crew member will jog to the car and open your door!  If not, there is usually a wait of no more than 15 seconds at the counter.

An e-mail address may seem obvious, until you learn that Comcast does not have one, or at least not one you can find with several minutes of searching on their web site. This is inexplicable, and seems to be a part of an intentional effort to make life as difficult as possible for customers. I cannot fathom what the value is in this approach.

Once an e-mail address is established and broadcast, you need to have someone who answers it quickly.  When I was at the dealership, I started my day by responding to all e-mails that had come in overnight or over the weekend before I did anything else.   Except for pouring myself a cup of coffee, of course.  During the work day I strove to respond to all e-mails within an hour or less, even if just to say “I’ll get back to you with an answer soon.”

It is also important to respond to all e-mails, even if the response was essentially “No.”  Many times a person would thank me even for a negative response, because everyone else they had sent their response to had ignored them completely.

It is my opinion, which I’ve failed to impress on anyone else despite years of effort, that e-mails FROM the company to the customer must come from an individual person with an actual name. Most companies now send out weekly or more often e-mails, but none of them are from a human. Corporate messages are usually written very carefully in corporate lingo, and always have a sales component. They are easily written off, correctly, as spam. If you want customers to actually read the e-mail, it must come from a person and if at all possible should contain information that is new, different, amusing, and/or not available anywhere else.  I once put out an e-mail featuring a rare Ducati that had just been traded in, and I sold it in 5 minutes, although I did not get any credit for used bike sales.  That was an example of the practice of including “this just in” details that will not be out on the “official” company web site or newsletter for days or weeks.

If the message comes from a real person and contains information of interest that is not available elsewhere – it will be read.

It seems to me that if you had a large company with more e-mails coming in than one person could handle, you could have multiple staff responding, as long as they all used the same name as a signature and as long as that person actually existed and was in the store to deal with customers in person if needed.

A little technology is a good thing. Too much is the kiss of death. I was once asked to make a presentation at a marketing convention on the topic of “maintaining a customer community.”  The convention staff who called to offer assistance were dumbfounded that I did not need technical help. They asked if I would need technology to make a Power Point presentation  (no), play a video (no), the printing of materials (no), a microphone (no), and several other technologies, some of which I had never heard of.  Finally, the person asked, and I could hear the frustration in her voice, “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to talk.”

A radical concept, evidently.

My presentation went very well. The room was packed, and the audience seemed to enjoy my talk and asked several questions.  The frustration came when I stressed the need to have all e-mails come from a single live human being, in that person’s “voice,” to include interesting tidbits and other information, and to not rely on fancy graphics and fonts and colors and other new-fangled capabilities, I could sense that the content was bouncing off their brains and falling to the floor.  Not interested.

These days every company has access to a large vat of tools to gussy up their messages. You can have colors and varying fonts and pie charts and little dancing squirrels and so much more.  What is not considered is that all other companies have the same resources, so the result is that all messages start to look the same and edge ever closer to spam.

An e-mail from a real person written in black and white sentences now stands out as something really different and unusual, and is therefore much more likely to be read.

PERSONNEL: Customer service works requires a person who gets a lift from helping other people.  Teachers and nurses and firemen have this gene, as do most police officers. They are not motivated by money or dreams of power or influence.  I don’t think you can train people to want to help others. You have to determine in the hiring process if the applicant is this sort of person.  They are easy to spot, as they really can’t help themselves. They are people who want to help.  An added bonus is that they are willing to work for a lower salary, just for the opportunity to be of service.

When I chose to retire, the Social Security Administration received my paperwork by e-mail.  In response I got a personal phone call, and the woman explained that I should have dated my application in March on my birthday, as that was when I reached my “maximum service years.”  As a result of her explanation and actual insistence, she back-dated my application, and the result was a gain of about $15,000 over what I had expected. She did not have to do that, but seemed determined to get me everything I was due, even if I was too ignorant to know it.  That story was trumped by a gentleman I had coffee with on a motorcycle ride yesterday. He had retired from Boeing at 67.  He had reached his maximum service age at 65, but was not aware of the implications. Another friendly SSA person (surely not the same one) would not rest until she had sent him a check for TWO YEARS of his benefits!

When I decided to increase the withholding from my retirement I sent an e-mail to the state teacher’s retirement system one afternoon. Early the next morning I received a phone call from a person who walked me through my account and corrected errors I had made.

I have called AAA twice due to battery issues with my car, both of them my own fault. A person answered immediately, asked about the nature of the problem, and told me about how long it would be. In each case I was to wait for about a half an hour. A friendly and competent man showed up in less time than that and resolved the issue. Both times.

It is crucial to hire a person for this work who is really enthused about the product, whether it be benefits or tires or motorcycles.  I did not realize when I entered the motorsports business what an attribute it was that I enjoy all cars and motorcycles. I was always happy to discuss with anyone their need or problem, and never had to pause because I did not share their choice of car or motorcycle.  This seemed to be unusual.

CUSTOMER SERVICE IS NOT SALES:  Customer service supports sales, and often leads to sales, but that is not the primary purpose. This is where most companies fall down, and I think the cause is simple greed. If you have an employee who is talking to customers by e-mail or phone every day, why not burden that employee with an obligation to “upsell” or add additional products and services?

Because it kills the effectiveness of customer support, that’s why.  All those things will happen, but they must be initiated by the customer, not the company.  Les Schwab is justifiably famous for fixing flat tires for free, no matter if they sold the tire to you in the first place or not.  I have never experienced an effort at upselling or a prod to purchase new tires. They merely repair yours, usually in less than 15 minutes, and send you on your way. Since discovering this about ten years ago I have purchased three or four complete sets of tires from them, and would not go anywhere else.  Their dedication to customer service feeds the sales, but does not require the sales.  That is how it is supposed to work.

Customer service is one aspect of marketing but not all of it, and is not directly tied to sales.

A problem for businesses today is an over-reliance on data. Almost everything in a modern enterprise is recorded and analyzed by computers, and a profit and loss profile can be established.  You can tell which departments are making money and which not, and compare them by day or week or month or year.  This can be very helpful in determining what products to order, and when, and what your staffing needs will be.  Managers can too easily over-focus on the reams of data available, and lose sight of the bigger picture.

Some things are not measurable by a computer, and customer support is one of them. What is the “feeling tone” in the dealership? Are people there because they enjoy visiting your store, or merely because they need something and you are the handiest (or only) place to go?  How do people in the larger community regard your business?  Do you have a foothold on charitable activities?  How many of your customers talk to their friends about your store?

It is very hard to measure any of these subjective topics with a computer. Some of the thousands of people I dealt with on dealership activities later purchased a motorcycle from the dealership, and some of them were kind enough to tell me that part of their decision was based on something I had done for them.   Nobody mentions such a thing during the purchase process and it never appears in a computer.

A common conclusion, after looking at the data, is that customer service is not worth it.

As a counter to that, both of the dealerships I worked for, neither of which were all that broken up to see me leave, later complained that many of the customers that had been coming in were not visiting any more.  “Door swings” can be measured, although it is difficult to do so with accuracy, and in both cases evidently crashed when the customer service role was reduced or eliminated.

To be fair, customer service costs money.  The customer service person is the only person in the dealership who is not (from the data) bringing in money while they work, so it is easy to conclude they are not needed.

Sometimes what is easy to conclude is not what is correct to conclude.

To review, an effective customer service program requires very little.

Easy access

Prompt response

An enthused and knowledgeable person who wants to help


It’s really that simple.


Copyright 2015                       David Preston




About david

I am a 74 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020), a 2020 Triumph Bonneville, and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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