Slick Customer Service Doesn’t Mean It Works

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    We all know bad customer service when we see it. It makes us frustrated and angry. It’s been known to ruin days, weeks, months, years, holidays–even Christmas. I’ve got a story to illustrate what I mean.

    This story is true. I won’t use any names in order to protect the individuals involved. I will, however, give “honorable mention” to the companies that deserve it–good or bad.

    A friend and his wife, Bob and Carol, were approached by the same company company that holds their current mortgage, Green Tree Servicing: Home Loan Services, Mortgage Modification. The original mortgage had been held by an online bank, USAA: United Services Automobile Association. The online bank has a huge exclusive membership for veterans, military members and dependants, and are the good guys in the story. I suspect the couple was approached by Green Tree as they were by many refinancing companies because the couple had never missed a mortgage payment, despite having tight resources, even after Bob retired from the government. Ironically, Green Tree owned the loan now.

    measure-quality-customer-experienceGreen Tree offered lower interest rates, which would have been more tempting had the couple’s taxes on their house not been so high. Bob and Carol filled out the paperwork post haste because they were getting ready to take the family on a long-awaited cruise–one that had been over a year in the planning.

    In filling out the paperwork, the couple spotted a red flag. One document stated that if the closing took place by such and such date, the couple were locked at particular interest rate, but the company would not be locked in at that rate after a later date. It sounded as if the couple, with no control of the closing date, were still bound to take the loan if Green Tree could manage the closing by a certain time that the company was not bound by the locked in rate the couple had agree. The company refused to budge or re-write the paper. Although it sounded fishy, but since no mortgage would take place without their signature on other documents signed at closing, the paperwork went forward.

    Green Tree, the refinancing arm, through its broker, did some other fishy things in asking Bob and Carol to find the original paperwork from USAA that sold the initial mortgage to Green Tree. But they already had the mortgage. Yes, the old mortgage was owned by the same company that wanted to refinance it. Bob called the bank. USAA as much as said, “That’s absurd. That information had been sent to Green Tree at the time of the previous and that Green Tree would have to pull it themselves. The customer could ask Green Tree for it. Okay, maybe lazy or slick, but not totally fishy. Just a bit much to ask.

    This, however was not the big problem. It was the beginning of an unhappy customer service relationship with Green Tree. Of course, what did the care care after the deal was done? Compartmentalization. The only person who had any face-to-face with the couple was the closer hired from out Green Tree. It seemed the company distanced itself as far as possible from the customer.

    cruise1Understanding their financial situation was tight, and needing cash for the cruise and bills automatically paid while they were gone, Bob and Carol asked the broker numerous and questions on the phone to ensure that there would be cash in their account in November. The mortgage broker said, “No problem, we’ll take care of you with no costs at closing, and no November mortgage payment. So you’ll be all set for your cruise.”

    Bob called his bank before they left on the cruise to ensure a mortgage payment wasn’t expected to be received by the bank and it wasn’t. As far as he and the bank were concerned he did not have an automatic payment through his bank on the old or the new as yet. And, this is all happening a day or two within closing and the trip.

    Papers all signed October 30 or 31st. November 1st: Day of the flight to Florida to catch the cruise, Carol goes to buy some necessities for the trip and get cash. Her card is turned down and account frozen. The mortgage payment came out, as well as all the extra expenses in preparation for the cruise that had been spent, thinking that money would be there, including the money for dog sitter.

    Thanks to Green Tree, Bob and Carol’s rest of the day before their vacation could only be characterized by two words: it sucked. Not only was there a mad scramble to get all the packing done, there were extra phone calls to be made, extra problems to be solved and a somewhat unrelated event, one of the dogs appeared to have seizures. Fortunately, the dog sitter, who had vet technician experience, was available to come early and see the dog was looked after and treated. The trip plan was to leave right after the kids came home from school. As it was, they barely made it to the airport on time. Bob and Carol found out after the cruise that the check for their dog sitter who came to their aid in an emergency bounced.

    Before they left Bob called the bank again and discussed the situation. The bank agreed to unfreeze the account, move savings and extend their debit card limit so they could have some cash. The bank even said, he could stop payment, which would allow time for an investigation, but was really a delaying measure. The damage had already been done. USAA noted the problem in the account and when it was all over would remove all bank charges for overdrawn checks, etc. The bank didn’t have to do that, or even believe the couple’s situation, but it did; USAA had a lifelong customer.

    Carol called Green Tree. No answer. No machine. She went to the web site and found a comment section for customer service and aired her concerns and displeasure with what had happened.

    Fortunately she had used other credit cards for ship costs, etc; she wanted to use cash for any excursions or souvenirs. The cash the family had left was quite limited, therefore, their activity off-ship was limited by the uncertainty of their account.

    Upon return from probably not the best vacation they had ever had, there was one call from Green Tree with a message saying the company would look into issue (this from the comment section and get back to the couple as soon as possible. The next day in the mail. They received a letter that stated that since there were no unusual circumstances (not defined) to warranted it the company would return the mortgage amount via check 30 days from the day of the erroneous withdrawal.

    kester_people-are-corporationsBob called Green Tree customer service after receiving the letter, since it was the company’s error, and was told it is policy to hold the checks. Customer service’s response: he was being rude, to be quiet and let them finish telling him the same “standard language” he had heard before. But he hadn’t called anyone names or threatened anyone so they didn’t hang up. He did hang up. Later that evening, customer service called again with a different voice but the same answer: It is policy. He hung up on that phone call, too. And, Bob’s not a hang up the phone kind of guy.

    It’ll be an interesting Christmas for Bob, Carol and family as they get their finances back in order. They’ll continue living, where not only taxes are high, but also mortgages. They’ll survive. They won’t have to go homeless. Others don’t have it so well. It’s still sad to think that this company because it was “responsive” however late, thinks that it’s customer service is great. I was a hands-on customer manager as well as a trainer; there are exceptions for policies. This might have been a good time for one. Bob told one of his ten, me, and I’m telling you.

    Responsive and slick doesn’t equate to good customer service. USAA is a big company, possibly bigger than Green Tree and a customer has to jump through many security hoops to get through to a person, but when you do, they’ll even call the customer back. The company gets great marks for being people-oriented. Personally, I still hate jumping through the hoops like anyone else, but banks like USAA are safeguarding my money, so it’s necessary; I’m still a person. By the way, I almost forgot something very important. No one in Bob and Carol’s customer service contacts said, “I apologize for the mistake,” or “I’m sorry that happened to you.” The latter even takes the blame off the company.

    Earlier before the trip, Carol had left a furious message for the broker, which he could have ignored; his job was done. He hadn’t received until the couple and family left. He called back and said, “I apologize for the mix-up. I don’t know how it happened. I am so sorry this happened to you. Are you going to be alright? I want to see if I can fix this.” And he promised to do what he could, but it was a big company, he admitted, and it was hard to get to the right people. Oh, so true.

    Bob and Carol, who had already been through corporate hell. Bob answered for the both of them and said: thank you for just say acknowledging us. I doubt the company will change their mind, but if the couple can get the check earlier that would help, but what’s done is done.

    Had Green Tree been a bank, they would have withdrawn all their funds and moved on. Another business would lose their business. The perceive fishy business in the beginning was forgotten all with a thank you. Recognizing the difficulty the situation caused so close to a vacation, where no one would be reachable, and followed by the holidays was survivable for Bob and Carol who had lived on the edge before. It would be unconscionable for someone with less means to juggle credit cards and recover financially.

    So, while we train world class customer service, let’s not forget the basics. It’s not about cost cutting. It’s about serving customers. We make products they told us they need. We develop and provide services they want. We refine all of the above based on their feedback. Do we want to throw it all away. Without customers, businesses die and without businesses, we die.

    Remember, policy is not a law. Policy can be bent or exceptions made. It’s not like a customer who needs an exemption is going to go tell everyone and make the company go broke; it’s one happy customer who’s going to say good things.

    Put people who care about people back in customer service.

    • Customer service reps are champions of the people.
    • A customer service representative is a company ambassador who always puts his or her best side forward.
    • Customer service reps are problem solvers, not policy wonks.
    • Customer service reps maintain your company’s good name and reputation.
    • Customer service reps are among your smartest, savvy initiators of change.
    • Good customer service people don’t need standard language and have good communication skills.
    • Good customer service reps speak the language of the country they serve fluently, and can easily be understood.
    • Good customer service reps are charismatic, are not judgmental, and do not put company or colleagues down.

    Be honest. Don’t you hate automated customer service phone lines or being referred to a company web page (some have chat groups now) when you have complicated real question to ask? Sometimes there is no way out of the automation prison, but to hang up. Round and round you go otherwise. Bottom line: a machine can’t change an answer you’ve already received, i.e., a billing issue. Not yet anyway. Read my last blog and you’ll see it can.

    Not only do customers define our products, they define how we conduct business, and sometimes whether we continue in business. The latter was more the case in terms of smaller companies. Not so much now, but they should. If only customers go viral…

    As luck would happen, or compartmentalization, Bob answered the phone less than a week later and someone from Green Tree was trying to sell insurance on Bob and Carol’s major household appliances and valuable items. You could say, Bob was less than receptive. He didn’t get angry. He simply said, “This would not be a good time to talk to us.” There was double meaning in what he said, but there was no point in taking his grief out on an innocent employee.

    *Carol received word at work from Green Tree customer service is indeed possible some twenty days after being told it wasn’t. So, in the end Green Tree came through. I’m not one to beat a company when it is down. There could be a number of reasons why it took so long to resolve the issue.

    Resolving the issue is only one aspect of great customer service. Response time can be great. Providing instant basic detain can be great. Solving the problem can be great. But without compassion and flexibility and people on the front end who can adjust policy accordingly, the customer service will only be coated with Teflon. Here it appears compartmentalization or “company gigantism” and diversification may have lead to the series of missteps and miscommunications with serious financial concerns. Again, we come back to: what looks good in the strategic plan and follows a great vision can be missing a critical element. In customer service, that element is the customer itself.

    Happy training.

    For more resources about training, see the Training library.

    For more on Jack Shaw, check his home site, where you can find access to other publications, including a fantastic young adult science fiction/dystopian novel called, In Makr’s Shadow.