Customer Service, Turning a Necessary Evil into a Pleasure

posted Dec 12, 2012, 11:24 AM by Michael R Hoffman
Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, customers, like me, are trapped in an unavoidable maze of customer service nightmares: power company, cell phone company, cable company, FEMA, credit card, mortgage, town government - all the calls, emails, chats, web self serve, letters (yes, there are still lots of letters) oh, and colleges, SATs and the rest of ordinary life that has overlapped the path back to normality.

Navigating customer service is a full time job - FOR CUSTOMERS. (read story here about suburban town in shambles - yes, Verizon and AT&T are in Basking Ridge too).

Of course there was no to little cell phone service during the power outage - but calls to utilities and most companies in area received the same message "we are experiencing unusually large call volume..." -duh.

Some companies proactively sent messages to customers acknowledging the disruption to "life as usual," notably American Express, Capital One, Bank of America, Comcast, Cablevision - some of these and other companies caught on late - and most follow-through was, well... weak. "call this number (see wait time message above"). 

And then there was JCP&L, First Energy, who sent out electric bills while power was out - and if people paid attention, the average bill - non-meter reading calculation - may not have been that accurate, adding insult to injury in the dark and cold.

The local Starbucks shined brightly for many displaced, powerless workers - the trains to the big city stopped working too. Internet, power & Joe - and to Starbucks credit - they didn't throw people out - better yet, they made people comfortable, including adding surge protectors by day 6. 

Wegmans also became a hub for the displaced, offering charging stations (phones had no way to charge at home) and wi-fi and bathrooms and good lighting around lots of tables. And food and service was good all around.

The local YMCA opened their doors to non-members for showers and the rest of their facilities and have followed up with invitations to use the facilities through year end - so again a pleasure - especially when all of us with well water and no generators needed to freshen up.

And little things, like the firewood bundles in front of Christmas Tree Shoppes (sorry if you clicked link - yes, that may be the worst website you've seen in a long time - but the stores are a local adventure worth taking) and texts from local restaurants that they were open infused some pleasure amid the painful loss of ordinary.

But now the customer clean-up - the dreaded calls to all the services (note: Verizon shipped a replacement phone during storm - Yeah - but the returned phone never showed up? But then it did in California at a completely unrelated place? How long should I allow for that call?)

So why is everybody in town so grumpy? Because we all have to make the same phone calls, to the same places (remember geography in the CxC Matrix? Here's a good use case) and we all have to allocate time wait on hold, gather our documents, our ID's and passwords, our bills and our discrepancies to tell our story - to reconcile and to vent - while uncomfortably extending the service wait time for everyone behind us in the queue? 

What is the trick to turning the nightmare recovery into a pleasure? How do you anticipate the needs of thousands in order to get them back to "normal" or even mark the tragedy and discomfort a long lasting memory, a moment of customer bonding - of community building and relationship extending? 

Is there an opportunity for word of mouth solutions? An opportunity for   micro-site extensions? "We Survived Sandy at/with (fill in the blank" T-shirts? A note on a bill, the outside of an envelope, a PSA, a website, a package - a postcard an event?

Or do you just pretend the event never happened - Does Home Depot record the significance of the generator bought on day 4 after the storm as well as the customer records in their memory the heat and light the generator created? 

Do the banks mark the customers that received cash advances through extraordinary means (there were no ATM's or open branches) as significantly as the people who paid cash to remove trees from their homes, driveways and cars so that they could leave their property?

Do the call centers receiving calls have a special prompt and script to identify Sandy likely affected customers? 

How do you empower every customer interaction to create "pleasure"? Even in, or especially in the most challenging times?